White women complain about their hair. Ones with straight hair curl it. Ones with curly hair straighten it. They dye it, obsess about the length, and buy conditioners allegedly chock-full of the essence of the rainforest. But there is no comparison with black women.
I knew that black women’s hair was a big deal, but I had no idea how big until watching Good Hair, the 2009 documentary narrated by Chris Rock, who claims he was inspired to make the film by his toddler daughter’s innocent question, “Why don’t I have good hair?” Very quickly, we learn that ‘good’, in terms of black hair, means straight, smooth and shiny. ‘Good’ hair essentially means white hair. And black women will do anything for it, from burning their scalps with chemical relaxers to sitting for hours as real-hair is sown into their heads. And money seems to be no object: a good weave costs upwards of a thousand dollars, and the black hair industry is worth an estimated 9 billion dollars.
The film doesn’t waste any time getting to the politics of all this styling. As an interview subject explains that all every single famous black women straightens her hair or wears a weave, a montage of silky-tressed Beyonce, Oprah, Condeleeza Rice and Michelle Obama proves this to be the case. A group of teenage girls reach the conclusion that they would not feel comfortable going to a job interview with a curly, “nappy” ‘fro. And a clip of Charlie’s Angels-era Farrah Fawcett, flipping her famous feathered bangs, is immediately followed by a black interviewee with very similar blonde-dyed waves. I was shocked by footage of a six-year old getting her hair chemically straightened (shouldn’t that not be allowed?), and the trouble that weaves cause even after they’re in: you can’t wash them yourself, you have to go back to the salon to have them tightened every month or so, and many women don’t ley them be touched, even during the act of love-making. Like breasts implants, which I’ve heard lose erotic sensitivity for the women they’re attached to, getting weaves in your hair seems like admitting that a part of your body is no longer for you. As the Rev. Al Sharpton says, in a very Al Sharpton-y way, “How can we overcome our oppression when we’re wearing it on our heads every day?”
While Rock presents the largest black-owned hair styling company, he spends a lot of time on the argument that the black beauty industry largely benefits white and Asian-owened companies and stores. The documentary becomes borderline racist when Rock targets Chinese and Korean storeowners who sell long, straight weaves for black women, and tries to get them to buy a bag full of black hair (obviously, Afro wigs). Rock gets somewhat offended when the store owners say nobody wants hair like that, but as Sharpton had previously explained, if it’s black women who are doing the buying, and the overall culture which is influencing, you can’t really blame the sellers individually.
While many of the interviewed ladies talk on and on about the process of getting their weaves put in, they draw blanks when Rock asks them where they are from.
“It’s human hair,” a couple of them say.
“Yes, but who was this human? Where are they from?”
Truth be told, I had never considered where all this real hair was coming from, and the answer startled me: India! Young women in India will grow their thick hair as long as they can, cut it off for free in religious ceremonies, after which the temples sell the tresses to North America at a huge profit. There’s so much money in the Indian hair trade that there’s even an illegal black market: women have to watch out for men who will cut their hair off while sleeping or at a dark movie theatre! Thinking about black women importing weaves from India in order to have hair which is more white makes one’s head spin.
There’s two paradoxes in Good Hair. The first Rock points out when he mentions that, despite benefiting large white-controlled beauty companies and Asian-owned business, the beauty industry employs untold numbers of black hair dressers and barbers in every single in North America, who would see their livelihood disappear if more women embraced the natural look the movie appears to promote. Somewhat related, the look of ‘good’ hair is often not simply white hair on a black person: the film displays all the fantastical colours, patterns, shapes and heights that black hairstylists artistically create. While chemical straightening and weaving may have started with trying to look like Farrah Fawcett, by this point it can be seen as a launching pad for whole new, and black-specific, looks.
The irony is if I was a black woman I think I would like an Afro. Not a big one, a cute, compact one, like Macy Gray (who the film could have interviewed, as I read previously that she was advised to straighten her hair if she wanted to sell more records).
But I am Caucasian. I do not know what it’s like to grow up bombarded with imagery which equates beauty with whiteness.
African-Americans have created so much which has influenced and shifted North American culture, through music, language, comedy and fashion. The rhythms of the black church can be heard in the President’s speeches. Black men have influenced white men, through the athletic jerseys, hoodies and close-cropped hair which seem essential for white rappers (think about that term; white has to be added to rappers as black is the assumed). It’s a shame that there’s not more discursive space and appreciation for the beauty natural black hair.