Hair and Identity (what is good hair?)

Hair and appearance matter in everyone’s lives, but especially in women’s lives. According to theorists, hair has always been an important factor in defining one’s identity (Brownmiller 1984; White 2005; Byrd and Tharps 2001; Patton 2006). Ask most black women what they believe good hair is, and most would answer: Good hair is long, straight hair that looks more like hair you’d see on white women, and not the very kinky hair that many black women are born with. A big issue with hair is that it is beyond physical.  Hair is so personal that it has a psychological aspect to it and a sense of identity.

This explains how 80% of hair products, and 70% of wigs and hair extensions are sold to black women although they only make 8% of the population. During the 1800’s hair was an indicator of slave status. During the 1900’s slave laborers were forced to hide their hair, while slaves who worked inside the home were forced to wear wigs similar to those worn by their owners.

“Good hair” was not a beauty term; it was a survival term that came out of slavery. Those with good hair where connected to the white man, the master, and were more likely to have a chance to be freed, have access to education, food and clothing. This started the stigma “If I have good hair, I’ll have a better life” even a better chance of survival. Those with lighter skin colors and with better hair were seen more as part of the family. The black woman has held on to these terms, the history of the hair and the pain that comes from it.

According to James A. Rawley and Stephen D. Behrendt, during the transatlantic slave trade (17th century), the time when black people were imported from the “Dark Continent” (Africa) into America and the Caribbean; black women were dehumanized and made to feel inferior as and their hair was viewed as wild and animalistic (2005).

In addition, slave masters and mistresses often told slave children to refer to their hair as wool and encouraged young slaves not to like their own hair; in the 1850s a scientist, Peter A. Browne, claimed that African Americans and White men must be from two differing species because White men have hair while African Americans have wool and not hair on their heads (Sieber and Herreman 2000)

Even ads such as ‘Curl-I-Cure’, a hair relaxer from 1920s, read, “You owe it to yourself, as well as others who are interested in you, to make yourself as attractive as possible. Attractiveness will contribute much to your success – both socially and commercially. Positively nothing destructs so much from your appearance as short, matted unattractive curls hair.”(Rooks, 1996).

Today the standards of beauty acceptance and success are still predominantly European, and hair is still seen as a marker of beauty, economical status, power and beliefs. Women have been brainwashed to change their hair texture from its natural, nappy, and kinkiness to the European straight long hair, which is considered ideal by society. Thus conforming to mainstream society. Today, some African Americans still find the necessity of straightening their hair for the purpose of getting hired or keeping their jobs. “The choice many black women make to alter their hair’s natural texture has undeniable historical and psychological underpinnings” (Para 4).

The good hair/ bad hair phenomenon main issue is the attribution of value to hair texture. This is a problem that heavily affects the black culture; yet many outside of the culture, like myself, have no knowledge about it. My findings showed that many Black women in America invest more time, energy and resources to their hair than to education, self-development and life planning.

This starts with children who are praised because of their straight hair and shunned because of their coarse hair. Some families’ preference towards the child with the “better hair.” Another great issue is that to those outside of the culture the issue is unknown. The outsiders are usually perplexed and surprised.

Black women still manipulate their hair into extreme styles and use chemical relaxers. According to the FDA “Strong hair chemicals may cause skin irritation, discolored hair, chemical burns and exacerbation of existing skin problems.”  Not to mention lack of growth, breakage, brittle fragile hair and hair loss. “Even the gentle relaxers can dry out the hair and cause damage that makes the hair break. You’re altering the structure of the hair and the hair is designed to protect itself and when you straighten it out you change the cuticle” Says Dr. Strachan a dermatologist whose patients consist of mostly African American women.

Some of these treatments include but are not limited to:  Blow dry, Wash and set, Marcel Hot iron, Relaxers (perm), Keratin, Glued on extensions, Sewn on extensions, tracks, wigs, micro links, hydrating masks and multiple other products.

According to dermatological researcher Amy McMichael (2003), chemical relaxers cause hair shaft dryness, and increased fragility of the hair cuticle, which is why users are required to treat their hair with oils and other products – in most part to lessen the potentially damaging effects of the chemicals on the hair.

Recently there have been many efforts to spread awareness about this issue. Comedian, Chris Rock, decided to investigate this matter further after his four year old daughter asked him why she didn’t have “Good Hair”. Tyra banks also had a special show discussing this topic.

In the first part of the show, Tyra speaks to Tayheedah, a young black woman who has been using relaxers and weaves for 12 years and is now considering going natural. Tayheedah reveals that she has spent over $20,000 on her hair only for Tyra to say she’s spent more than that.

The pressure to have ‘good hair’ begins in childhood for many African American women. On Tyra’s show, Kiana, who is just 8 years old and already has her hair relaxed, says that it burns when it’s relaxed but she likes it because its straight and “it’s like my friends at school”. Shaniyah, 6, says white people have better hair than black people. Tyra even speaks to one mother who relaxes her 3 year-old daughter’s hair.

Every culture has issues that are not understood by those outside of the culture, that is why it is important for universal awareness of cultural issues. Something that might seem so simple such as hair can hold a history of oppression, and pain.

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3 responses to “Hair and Identity (what is good hair?)

  1. Whoopi Goldberg used to do a bit in her one woman show about a little black girl who wanted long, straight, blond hair. I remember it to this day. (As a balding man, I only wish I had hair.) Great piece.

  2. Reblogged this on Ms. Marie's Writing Block and commented:
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