In 2013, I made a life-changing decision. I went to the hairdresser’s and asked my stylist to cut off all of my chemically straightened strands of hair, leaving me with a short afro. With every snip, I felt a pang of panic. I knew I was making the right decision and that by ditching straightening products, known as relaxers, my hair would be much healthier. But I was fearful of what people would say. What comments would friends and family make? And what about those who know me from a distance? What would be running through their minds when they saw my tight curls, rather than the shoulder-length straight strands they were used to?
After my big chop (a phrase used by black women when they cut off the straightened parts of their hair, leaving just their natural hair texture), I was pleasantly surprised by the positive reaction. I remember being on the Tube one Sunday afternoon and another black woman striking up conversation with me. She showered me with compliments about my afro and I was delighted that she’d taken the time to praise my kinky curls. However, towards the end of the conversation, I was overcome with a feeling of sadness when she said: “You’re lucky, you have good hair; you can wear your hair out, unlike me.” In that one comment, she was telling me that she felt she couldn’t wear her hair naturally because, to the world, her curls weren’t good enough. She didn’t have “good hair”.
The phrase “good hair” has long haunted black women. Used in America’s years of slavery, it separated house and field slaves. Slaves with “good hair” (those of mixed heritage, thus with loose curls) were house slaves, as they were considered worthy of being seen and didn’t do the more laborious tasks that field slaves, those with darker skin and afro hair, were ordered to undertake. Ever since then, that phrase has told black women that if our curls are tight and zig-zagged, rather than loose and round, we should keep them under wraps – literally.
Two years ago, the term was put under the spotlight by Beyoncé, who acknowledged how the phrase has impacted her personal life on her critically acclaimed album, Lemonade. During the song Sorry, Beyoncé sings: “He better call Becky with the good hair.” While the album was speculated to comment on her marriage, at surface level, the lyric speaks to how the woman her husband, Jay Z, allegedly had an affair with didn’t have Beyonce’s natural afro-hair texture. However, with the album clearly charting the ups and downs of black womanhood, Beyonce singing, “He better call Becky with the good hair,” speaks to the historical significance that “good hair” has had upon black women.
Rachael Carson, co-founder of haircare line Afrocenchix agrees that the term “good hair” has had a long-running and detrimental effect on the relationship black women have with their hair.
“I still have conversations with people who say, ‘You can wear your hair out [because] you've got good hair, but mine is too tough.’ I always stop to explain that I used to say the same and it's not true; healthy hair is good hair and our hair isn't tough – it's strong.”
The truth is the term “good hair” is a coded way to tell black women that our hair is only acceptable when it emulates European hair textures, hence why so many black women have turned to relaxers and weaves. But the dangerous language that surrounds black hair doesn’t start and stop with those two words.
The truth is the term 'good hair' is a coded way to tell black women that our hair is only acceptable when it emulates European hair textures
Haircare brands have also played their part in creating a harmful lexicon around afro hair. Haircare lines that use popular slogans like “tame the frizz” encourage consumers to straighten their hair by reinforcing the idea that only a smooth and sleek hair texture – one that is not the natural hair texture for most black women – is desirable. Furthermore, by hair brands using words such as “tame” and “unruly” when promoting hair treatments to straighten afro hair, they evoke an animalistic rhetoric that reinforces the racial stereotypes that have often dehumanised black men and women through history. While you might “tame” a lion, black women shouldn’t have to “tame” their own hair.
Even hair-removal products aimed at black women often use words that contribute to the politicising of black hair. Hair-removal creams that use the adjectives “tough” and “coarse” play into the hair hierarchy that places afro texture as the trickiest and therefore least desirable. Every time I take my Nair tough-hair removal cream (yes, that is the name of the product) out of the bathroom cabinet, it is a reminder that my natural hair texture is seen as problematic by an entire beauty company.
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Despite the damaging dialogue that is ever present around black hair, reports show that more and more black women are returning to their natural texture, with sales of chemical relaxers steadily declining. Loretta De Feo, founder of Dizziak, a conditioner for all hair types, believes that the increased representation of black women wearing afros in the public space and greater ease of access to products is the reason why more black women are embracing their natural hair.
“When I was growing up in the 90s, there was no internet and magazines didn’t feature anyone with [afro] hair like mine. My hair was styled by my mum, whose knowledge had been passed down by her mum and that was all I had.
“Furthermore, products were hard to find, especially as I lived outside of London. Now, we see more representation of afro hair in the media through celebrities and the internet has made products are easier to buy.”
I know why I felt sad while talking to the woman on the Tube that Sunday afternoon. When she made her “good hair” comment, I said, “Thank you.” That wasn’t the response she needed to hear and what I should have said was: “There is no such thing as good hair. My hair, like yours, is beautiful.” I should have admitted that the only reason my hair curls looked defined was because I had used a handful of products and finally mastered a YouTube tutorial after several failed attempts. Instead, I basked in glory for being praised for having hair that looked more curly than coily.
The natural-hair movement has been vital in giving more black women like me a sense of pride when wearing an afro. So, maybe the natural-hair movement will also be the vital catalyst for change when it comes to the language used when describing black hair. Black hair is not “unruly”, it does not need to be “tamed” and all hair is “good hair”.
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