Good Hair

If you were born with any kind of textured hair, you will have to deal with certain things that many people will never understand. And by textured, I don’t mean hair with layers carved in for beachy flounce. There is smooth hair, and then there is nappy, frizzy, kinky, and rough-- “Afro-textured,” it’s called, and most mainstream definitions of beauty undoubtedly favor the former.

I will not lie and say that I have never used the term “good hair.” My conception of beauty for the majority of my life was undoubtedly directed by my mother’s decision to perm my hair at the young age of four. The suburban Atlanta community where I was born and raised is over 85% white, and going to dance class every day made me extremely aware of the differences between girls’ hair at an early age. I saw that my hair didn’t move like the other girls. I spent hours straightening it every week in pursuit of this standard of beauty. Before every performance my mom and my dance instructors would load it with grease – however much was necessary to restrain the rebellious kinks to my head like a helmet.

Regardless of where you are from, it is generally accepted that beautiful hair is hair that is smooth and sleek; hair that is under control. Exacerbated by the world of dance in my small community of Alpharetta, Georgia, I fell under the spell of the creamy crack. I would beg my mom for a perm at the mere sight of anything resembling a curl or kink. I spent countless nights with my head in the kitchen sink, where my mom would labor for hours, perming my hair. By the age of fifteen, my hair was irreparably damaged by years of chemical treatments in search of a beauty that I wasn’t born with. I expressed interest in going to a hairdresser who specialized in natural hair care, a philosophy of embracing one’s natural hair texture as opposed to chemically altering it. And after months of fighting, she finally convinced me to let go of the perm. That was when the transformation began.

It wasn’t until college that I finally began to find peace with my hair and to examine the sociological implications of my own ingrained standards of beauty. The fight to “control” my hair all those years, subjecting it to perms, the straightening iron, and layers of grease took on a new significance to me as I reflected upon slavery and colonialism in an academic context. It is a shocking and painful phenomenon to wrap one’s mind around – the idea that, to this day, an entire race is ingrained with a concept of beauty that completely rejects and demeans their natural phenotype in favor of the enfranchised “white hair” phenotype. A slave to beauty, I spent time and emotional energy subjecting my own hair to chemical treatments and styling in pursuit of acceptance.

It is not my intention to demonize those who embrace mainstream definitions of beauty. Hair is a personal journey comprised of complex personal decisions. Beauty, identity, personal expression, and manageability are just a few facets. And this is not to say that by choosing to “go natural” I am making a radical political statement, or that the girl who wears a weave is a weak-willed conformist with identity issues. Rather, I came to realize that we are all in this together. Whether it’s wearer wills it or not, the fact of the matter is that hair is inevitably perceived as a political statement. It is read as a statement of personality, of racial identity and relative conformity; even of class. And this is unavoidable.

As I emerge from Dartmouth and enter the workforce, the world of hair changes again. Entering the real world introduces a whole new set of challenges in the search for professional acceptance. I have to look employable in a world where all interview guidebooks have to say about female hair is that it should be “under control,” and no one seems to be the least bit bothered by the racist implications of this assertion. It is an unspoken understanding that textured hair, hair that is indicative of African heritage, is perceived as “less classy” than straight, sleek strands. Regardless of my intentions it is perceived as unruly, as non-conformist, even radical.

I realize now that the hours spent perming, straightening, and greasing my hair didn’t make it more manageable – rather, it made it easier for me to conform to standards of beauty that reject my genetic legacy, which is inextricably tied to my heritage. I came to the personal belief that all hair is inherently “manageable,” though certain styles may be more easily achievable than others. Then finally, I came to see “good hair” as manageable hair, and that the struggle is in defining your end goal and your own standard of beauty -- whether that be afro, braids, weave, or perm.