“I hate my hair,” my 11 year-old daughter says, frowning at her reflection in the mirror. “I wish my hair were longer/straighter/lighter/less frizzy.” I am stunned whenever she complains. My daughter’s hair is a shiny, chestnut-brown mass of bouncy, shoulder-length curls. A little water and a squirt of styling mousse, and her hair is absolutely gorgeous. I am crazy about her hair. How in the world can she not like it? She has such good hair.
“I hate my hair,” I have always said, frowning at my own reflection in the mirror. “I wish it were longer/less curly/thicker/prettier.”
My mother and sisters were always stunned when I said this. “But you have such pretty natural curls,” they told me. “You have good hair.”
Good hair. It is perhaps the most emotionally charged and difficult issue for many African Americans; especially girls and women. What is “Good Hair?” It means tresses that are long, straight, light, shiny, bouncy, or wavy. It means hair that you can wash and go without spending much time and energy styling it to look nice. It means hair that swings from side to side when you walk, hair that you can flip over your shoulder, hair that you can slide your fingers through. It means not short, not kinky, not nappy or frizzy or poofy. Good hair means not African hair.
From an outsider’s perspective, it may be difficult to fully understand the depth of the struggles Black people have with hair. The pressure to conform to a particular standard of beauty has existed within the Black community since the days of slavery. There are external pressures to conform in order to obtain employment, to find a mate, or to fit in socially. There are internal pressures to conform in order to please or represent one’s family in an acceptable manner.
Many Black women spend hundreds of dollars each year in order to obtain what they consider to be good hair, although it often involves harsh chemical relaxers or costly hair weaves. Many feel that it is worth it, in order to have hair that is socially accepted, easy to manage, and makes them feel beautiful.
I have never turned to chemical straighteners to style my hair (unless you count one unfortunate Jheri Curl in the fall of 1988, which was a complete waste of money, since my own natural curls already resemble that once-popular hairstyle). However, at the age of 37, I still do not know how to style my own hair well. Since I prefer to be natural, I usually switch back and forth between wearing it curly and straightening it with a flat iron. Black women say that I have “Good hair.” But compared to other Black women, who usually choose the more expensive, non-natural methods, my hair usually looks messy, thin, and boring. Last summer, I nearly did not attend my 20-yr. high school reunion, because I could not figure out what to do with my hair and was in desperate tears before the mirror. When I finally gave up, shoved my so-called good hair into a messy ponytail, and attended the event, all of the other black women had intricate, fancy, beautiful hairstyles which I could never hope to do with my natural hair.
Good hair. Is it good because of the texture, the length, the color? Is it good because of how closely it resembles the current beauty trends of the mainstream culture? Is it good because it helps us to get the right job, or the right mate, or the right friends? Is it good because our families or communities tell us that it is good? Is it bad for the same reasons? How do we keep our children from internalizing the same sense of self-hatred for their natural beauty? How do I teach my own daughter to love her beautiful hair when I myself carry such negative feelings toward my own hair? It is such a tangled issue (pardon the pun), with such a web of deep emotions for many women of African heritage.
I leave you with this video clip from an episode of the Tyra Banks Show, in which she interviews mothers and their young daughters about their hair and issues they face. The responses from the little girls made me cry. The harmful self-images and which are so deeply set by the time we are adults begin so early in our lives. Will there ever come a day when the beauty of Black women will be as accepted and embraced as the beauty of women from other parts of the globe? For the sake of my daughter, and many other little girls who worry that their hair is not “good,” I certainly hope so.