Definition- Good Hair
Nappy, kinky, or curly; they are all descriptions of Black hair. Natural Black or African hair can range from a soft, ‘S’ shaped curl pattern to tightly curled hair and even to the tight, ‘Z’ shape cross-section of a kinky afro. Originating in Africa, kinky hair evolved for the dry heat by pushing away heat and moisture from the scalp. The relatively sparse density of Afro textured hair in combination with its spring-like coils results in a light, airy, almost sponge-like form. Jablonski states in her writing that it likely facilitates an increase in the circulation of cool air onto the scalp. This hair type should be appreciated as a biological advantage and not considered “bad hair”. A strong majority of Black people believe their natural hair is considered unprofessional or unattractive. The negative connotations of natural Black hair seem to be ingrained in our minds from a young age. With this, I believe that Black people do not wear their hair naturally because they have been taught for centuries to assimilate into White society.
Generations of Black people, specifically women, in America have dealt with the social struggle of meeting the ideal beauty standard in this country when it comes to their hair. The battle between not being White, but trying to look as though they fit in socially with the Eurocentric beauty standards of this country has impacted the hairstyle of Black people for decades. To understand the social struggles of Black Americas, one must look at the history of hair during the times of slavery. “The devaluation of African physical features, including hair, came as a result of being thrust into a cultural context where Blackness exists as the antithesis of beauty” (Donaldson, 2012). To look similar to the White people, African Americans developed a hierarchy imposed on themselves where those with lighter skin and straighter hair over those that reflected more African features were regarded as more attractive and appealing (Donaldson, 2018). This idea was internalized by African Americans and thus considered the beginning of the idea of “good hair” and colorism among Black people as slave owners would compare Black hair “wool” and considered it inappropriate (Bryrd and Tharps, 2001, p. 26). To softer kinky hair texture, butter, bacon grease, and even kerosene were used in their hair (Vissa Studios, 2012). As damaging as this could be to the skin and hair, they were willing to do it to meet the expectations of the time.
Post emancipation, the idea of “good hair” grew stronger as African Americans wanted to be of a higher social status, as Eurocentric features were still considered ideal. It was hard enough to prosper in a society while being considered second class, it was even harder without trying to have straighter hair and “to gain access to the American Dream one of the first things Black had to do was make White people more comfortable with their very presence (Bryd and Tharps, 2001, p.26). Black Americans continued to follow the double duty of investing in two things to “fix” their differences between them and the White side of society: Skin bleaching and hair straightening. These were the two remedies to fix their differences. This was when Black women, and some men, used hot combs and a harsh, alkaline chemical with lye known as relaxer to tame their hair. Relaxers are known to be damaging for the hair and scalp and causes breathing problems, but people still used them. At the time, Black women were seeking long straight hair that is flat, sleek, and shiny, which they consider “good hair”. As time went on, skin bleaching dramatically reduced as a practice, but still occurs, since it is has been seen as a ritual of self-hatred for their skin. Even though self-hatred is recognized, permanently altering hair texture continued to be a flourishing practice in Black communities and determine social status. Black people had to put effort into minimizing the difference between themselves and White people.
Even with that, permanently altering hair texture continued to be a flourishing practice in Black communities and determine social status.
During the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and 1970s, there was a new sense of identity among the Black communities. They started to appreciate the beauty of being Black and embodied the “Black is Beautiful” trend and as a reflection of Black pride (Davies, 2008). At the same time of this movement, it was more common for hair to be worn in its natural state as an untreated afro. Black Americans were rejecting the idea that they had to permanently alter themselves to assimilate and integrate into White America (Davies, 2008). Simultaneously, men and women were both realizing the afro style was easier to maintain without being costly or physically harmful.
On the other side, there were Black people that did not want to engage in the movement nor wanted to wear their hair in its natural state and “[c]onsequently, some African Americans begin to perceive some of their group members as not being “black enough” or not wanting to be identified as African American, which can lead to negative impacts on one’s self-esteem, and if persistent, may cause one to engage in self-hate” (Maurice, 2016). This caused another element of self-hate as these outsiders of the time were considered to not be Black enough or going against their people.
Towards the end of the 1970s, the afro because less of an empowering statement as the afro hairstyle started to become popular with people that were not Black. Instead, Black people started to style their hair with braids, cornrows, and straight weaves; all of which are still prevalent styles. The idea that having good hair is the same as having straight hair became a mainstream belief again. Donaldson states: “The example of altering kinky hair to emulate a celebrity role model can make it seem that hair straightening is always a free choice. However, in many cases the process is a social and economic necessity. Black women also use hair alteration techniques as an assimilation mechanism based on a belief that on some level their daily lives could be affected in negative ways unless they straighten their hair” (Donaldson, 2012). She explains that Black people feel as though they need to change their hair for the fear of being inferior socially and economically.
Byrd, A., & Tharps, L. (2001). Hair story: Untangling the roots of Black hair in America. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
Davies, Carole Boyce. Encyclopedia of the African Diaspora: Origins, Experiences, and Culture. Vol. 1, ABC-CLIO, 2008.
Donaldson, Chanel. “Hair Alteration Practices Amongst Black Women and the Assumption of Self-Hatred.” NYU Steinhardt, Department of Applied Psychology, 2018, steinhardt.nyu.edu/appsych/opus/issues/2012/fall/hairalteration
Halder, Richard. “Structure and Function of Ethnic Skin and Hair.” Academia.edu, Dermatologic Clinic, 2003, http://www.academia.edu/6741767/Structure_and_function_of_ethnic_skin_and_hair.
Jablonski, Nina G. Skin: A Natural History. 1st ed., University of California Press, 2006. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/j.ctt1pn8zt..