Raising a Woman of Color, Part II: Hair

Like many Black American women, I have had quite the love-hate relationship with my hair. I have “good hair,” a term that I hate because of its implication that there is such a thing as “bad” black hair. My hair is soft, loosely curled, grows quickly, and is easily “tamed” by a perm*. By contrast, “bad hair” is kinky, highly textured, tightly curled, and doesn’t take too well to straightening.

For as long as I can remember, my hair has been a hot topic among the black folks in my life. I wore my hair long for my entire youth, and it was fawned over by many, from my aunts and cousins to complete and utter strangers in the street. I was complimented time and again for having good hair, and was also frequently admonished (even by total strangers!) not to even think about cutting my hair. Among family, I was so proud of my hair. And now, even though the long straight tresses of my youth have been gone for nearly a decade, I STILL have women lamenting the loss of my good hair. Every time my mother looks at my high school senior photo, in which my smiling face is framed by long black hair, she sighs as if I’ve taken something from her.

This policing of hair doesn’t just happen among women. Black men have been just as quick to pass judgement on me for not wearing my hair long, especially if they’d seen pictures of me as a child. On one occasion my mother’s neighbor, a pastor, told me right to my face, “You could be beautiful like your mom if you would just let your hair grow.”

At my predominantly white school, it was a different story. The hair that I took such pride in at home never seemed good enough when I was surrounded by white kids. I was very jealous of the white girls and their hair. I couldn’t understand for the life of me why I couldn’t get my hair to do the things that my schoolmates’ hair did naturally. The other girls had ponytails and all I could ever manage were ponypuffs. I remember slathering tons of moisturizer and blow-drying my hair to death every morning because I wanted it to look like theirs and it just. Wouldn’t. Work.

Every time that my mom permed my hair (which was a painful and time-consuming process, but I always looked forward to it anyway), I thought that my hair would move ever closer to that perfect and beautiful ideal…and of course, it never did. I was doomed to have black hair for all of my life, though I took comfort in the fact that I didn’t have the really “bad” kind of black hair. Never mind the fact that my “good hair” was dry, breaking off, and coming out in tufts due to all the harsh treatment. Never mind the fact that every time I got a perm, I spent a week or two picking the scabs off of my scalp where I had been burned.

When I finally decided to go natural, it was just because I wanted to try something different. The day my hair was cut, even though I was nervous, I wasn’t thinking about all of the social implications of the action. I knew that there were plenty of people who didn’t WANT me to do it, but for God’s sake, I had no idea that they would still be buggin over it a decade later!

Shortly after the Big Chop, I made a new acquaintance: my own hair, in exactly the form that it grew out of my head. Black women are pretty much the only demographic who frequently spend their entire lives not having any idea what their hair really looks or feels like, so this was a big deal and a huge discovery for me. I had no more problems with breakage and the dryness was a lot less of an issue. I decided pretty quickly that I would not be relaxing my hair ever again.

Let it be known that I have no problem with women who choose to straighten their hair. I do, however, have a BIG problem with the characterization of straight or easily-straightened hair as “good” and nappy or natural black hair as “bad” (or unprofessional, or wild, or what have you). For many people it’s internalized racism at its very finest, and the policing of black hair is something that, while I bought into for a long while, now leaves me with a very bad taste in my mouth.

Eve’s hair was the very first part of her body that I ever touched. She hadn’t even been born yet; she was crowning, and in between contractions I took a moment to put my hand between my legs and gently touch the top of her head. I felt her hair first, before I ever saw her eyes or heard her cry or kissed her mouth. First I felt her hair.

I love that hair. It’s grown significantly in the past month, and while it’s difficult to tell what its texture is going to be like later, right now it looks like she’s going to take mostly after me. It’s soft and gently curled, like mine. It’s good hair, but not because of its texture or behavior; it’s good hair because it’s her hair.

I won’t be perming my daughter’s hair, ever. I want her to grow up with the hair she was born with, with the hair that my fingers gently brushed in those moments before her birth. I want her to learn how to respect that hair as well as how to style it. If she ever chooses to get it relaxed (which I won’t allow until she is at least sixteen), she will make that decision with years of experience caring for her natural hair. My mother is already pushing back; she rolls her eyes and laments at how much of a burden I’m going to be saddling Eve with, as if natural black hair were something to dread or suffer.

It’s going to be an uphill struggle, battling white folks and black folks alike about what is appropriate or attractive for black hair (hint: many of them think that natural black hair is, by its very nature, neither) and how that relates to Eve. But I am determined in this. She will know that black hair is good hair. Period.

*Some black women refer to straighteners strictly as relaxers rather than perms. I grew up with perm and relaxer being interchangeable terms, which so far as I can tell is mostly a regional thing.

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6 Responses to “Raising a Woman of Color, Part II: Hair”

  1. makeitplainonline Says:

    Thank you for this post. I am often astonished at the degree to which we avoid really talking about these issues.

    I am invited to a movie night where “Good Hair” Chris Rock’s doc. will be shown and discussed. I personally thought the movie was useless because he never answered the question his daughters were asking: “What is good hair?” He just goes on talking about the business of it.

    It seems that many women are declining to attend the movie and discussion. Maybe they have valid excuses, but it seems to me that there is a lot of pain related to this issue for many Black women so there may be some avoidance.

    Avoiding it will not help, however. We must confront this issue and take control of it so that we can truly be comfortable in our bodies and truly feel beautiful.

    • August Says:

      I haven’t seen the movie yet although I probably will. I personally lost interest in it as soon as someone let me know that Chris Rock never even mentions Madame CJ Walker’s name. How can you have a nuanced discussion about “good hair” and the history thereof without even mentioning her?

      I agree that it’s an issue that needs to be confronted. Hopefully someone picks up where Rock left off and takes it much, much further.

    • August Says:

      Also, I like your blog! There is too much silence about mental health/illness and black folks and it’s wonderful to see someone writing about it.

  2. choleandjo Says:

    Hair is one of those totally bizarre things to me, as evidenced by the fact that I do virtually nothing with mine. I have “good hair,” too, even for a white lady – think and wavy and amenable to doing a lot of different things. And I do nothing because I can think of about a million better ways to spend my time (and money and electricity) than standing in front of a mirror curling it, putting chemicals into it, etc.

    I can understand your mom’s perspective insomuch as she is looking at the world and knows that Eve may deal with some of the same prejudices you dealt with and the same comments, etc. But why continue a legacy based on, among many things, racism?

    I can imagine some potential battles as little Evie gets a little older and faces some of the frustrations at school. Because eight year old kids don’t see the world from the cognitive, shades of gray perspective of an adult; they just feel the pressures and hear the comments at school or wherever else.

    I’m interested to see how Eve’s personality plays into a lot of these topics; she is so strong-willed already!

    • August Says:

      Actually, I’d be more happy about it if Mom were looking at it from a “the world’s gonna be so harsh on her” perspective. She’s not, though. She definitely thinks that Eve’s hair itself is going to be the source of her worries, that it will be horrible to deal with and will never look…well, “good.” She doesn’t want me to let Eve’s hair stay natural because natural hair is bad and ugly and unmanageable. Basically, my mother has completely bought into the narrative. Internalized racism at its finest.

      I may loc her hair while she is still very young. I’m still undecided.

  3. makeitplainonline Says:

    Thank you for the positive response about my blog and let me know if there any topics you want to see get addressed there!!!!

    I will be checking in on your blog regularly.

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