Sunday, April 4, 2010

Good Hair and Other Beauty Standards

This post was inspired by my viewing of the Chris Rock documentary "Good Hair" (yes, I'm catching up on my movie watching) and my experience in speaking with black women students about white-inspired beauty standards.

Now, "Good Hair" is a funny, alarming, and eye-opening discussion of the lengths that black women (and men, but women seem to bear more cultural weight in this arena) go to to alter their natural hair into a longer, smoother, shinier, more white looking* style. Eye-opening, that is, if you aren't black. If you are, none of this is news to you. I was aware of some aspects of this cultural practice, but had no idea how painful and dangerous relaxers are, or how expensive a nice weave is. Yes - clueless white person, freely admitted.

Hearing black women from every socioeconomic category talk about how they have always been aware - even from a very young age - that there was both "good" and "bad" hair, and that their worth depended in part on where their hair falls, clearly illuminates the extent to which a beauty standard dominated by whiteness has taken over our cultural landscape. We don't even think about why we think of some traits as desirable and some as ugly because we have internalized the categories.

To demonstrate this, let's take a look at the second definition of "good hair" from Urban Dictionary, one that does not mention Euro-centric beauty standards in the definition:
A word used to describe somebody's hair. This is a term used for black people's hair, and it is "good hair" if it is long, soft, and smooth. This type of hair is considered attractive because soft and smooth hair is the healthiest, or at least looks that way.
Notice that the author of this definition relates this type of hair to health and attractiveness - the hair is good because it is healthy, not because it looks white. Of course, adding chemicals to your hair makes it (and your scalp) less, not more healthy. The chemicals in hair relaxer (which black women with "nappy" hair must use to get the long, soft, smooth, shiny variety) will burn your skin and make your hair fall out.

Very healthy.

Furthermore, natural black hair is called "unmanageable" and "wild". Teenagers in the "Good Hair" documentary discuss how a woman with natural hair will be unable to find a good job because no matter how polished the rest of her look is, her hair looks "messy".

In comparison, look at an example of altered discourse where black women are imagined as holders of the beauty standard.
Straight, blond hair would be considered “wild and unruly” because when the wind blew, it did not stay in place. Women with naturally straight hair would hide their “unruly” and “wild” stick-straight hair in public. The desire for “lightweight hair” that defied gravity would permanently end the use of blow dryers. Keeping one's natural blond hair wild and straight would become indicative of a political statement.
From What if Black Women Were White Women, a fantastic essay on the wide variety of ways that white traits are identified as beautiful and black traits are characterized as undesirable. Again, eye-opening (for white people - again, black women already know this shit).

Notice how easily the rationalization changes! It is just as easy to apply the word "wild" to curly black hair as it is to apply it to smooth white hair. Natural black hair may stick up, but natural white hair flies all over the place and, under different definitions, is also "unmanageable".

So black women (and men) are fed the line that hair straighteners or weaves are required to make their hair manageable, healthy, and attractive, and it takes determination to resist this pressure.

The degree to which this was internalized by at least some members of the black community wasn't clear to me until I explored this idea in a class lecture. I talked about the concept of good hair, along with skin lightening creams (video understandable even though it is not in English - cute light-skinned Indian guy is introduced to dark-skinned Indian girl and is not interested, concerned light-skinned friend gives dark-skinned girl skin cream, dark-skinned girl becomes light-skinned girl and hey! suddenly light-skinned guy is attracted to now-light-skinned girl!) and eyelid glue (where Asians use glue to tuck their eyelids up under the bottom of their orbital bones, creating a western-looking folded eyelid).

My students were skeptical - particularly the black women. It's difficult to frame a discussion of the society at large without calling attention to specific individuals in a small class, and I think the two or three black women with straightened hair felt that they had to defend their choices - perhaps in a way that they were unfamiliar with. I think that black women and men who choose to keep their hair natural are more accustomed to defending their decision to do so, while black people who straighten their hair are bolstered by the culture's viewpoint that it is desirable - some might say required - to do so.

My black students informed me very earnestly that straighteners moisturized hair, that weaves protected fragile natural hair from falling out, and that hot irons prevented lice. Good hair, they told me, was beautiful because it was healthier and cleaner than natural hair (particularly dreadlocked hair). Two black girls even stayed after class to tell me all about the benefits of relaxers.

This leaves me in an awkward position. Clearly I don't have black hair (my hair won't even hold a curl) and we have ventured onto a topic that my black students have much more experience and authority in. As they should! However, they have also clearly bought into the dominant view on black hair that has nothing to do with its similarities to white hair. Although some students said that white hair was just "naturally" healthier than black hair, none would conclude that the beauty standards were inherently Euro-centric.

So do I impress my authority on my black students and override their perspective and experience? Because no white people ever do that! In the end, I have to accept their opinions even if I disagree with them, and I hope that I have planted a little seed.

Each time they go to the salon, I hope they think of this, and I hope that little seed wriggles in deeper. You can't force anyone to accept these issues until they are ready, and these students are just not ready.

*I realize that some white people also have very curly hair, for the purposes of making this post more readable, I'm not going to specify "some white people's hair", I'm going to use the over-generalization "white hair". White people with curly hair also face social pressure to make their hair less curly, but I would argue that they don't face the same types of consequences - i.e., job discrimination. If anyone has evidence to the contrary, that would be a fascinating addition to this discussion.


  1. Totally adding this to the Netflix queue. I admit, everything I know about weaves I learned from America's Next Top Model, so I'm interested to find out more.

  2. What a tough spot to be in! I think that White people (in general) tend to be surprised when minorities disagree with others in their group, and the tendency can be to "align" with the person who supports their previously-held viewpoints, i.e., "I told you Affirmative Action was bad, because my Black friend said so!" I think you did the right thing by saying nothing--there's already enough tension when Black women talk to each other about natural vs. relaxed, trust me, you don't want to jump into that fire! :-)

  3. I hated "Good Hair" it skipped out on many things and missed a lot of points. It didn't feature any history of slaves and how black people were conditioned in that way of thinking. It didn't even mention Madam CJ Walker. I suggest watching the documentary "My Nappy Roots" by Regina Kimbell, Chris Rock stole her idea and set up. The films look very similar but Kimbell's has more historic reference and a focus onf natural hair.