Reactions to Good Hair

I wear a few hats on campus. Along with being a graduate student and a Feministing contributor in constant search of my next post, I am also the President of the Campus Coalition for Sexual Literacy (CCSL). CCSL, an org that is an affiliate to the National Sexuality Resource Center, promotes sexual literacy through community forums and serving as a liaison between students and campus health providers. This past Wednesday, with the help of HBO, film distributor Roadside Attractions, University of Michigan academics and student organizations, we held a private screening of Chris Rock’s Good Hair 2 days before the film premiered in Michigan.
While the event, and the conversation that followed with the 300 audience members was powerful and revealing, the film really underwhelmed me. The sexist comments and the framing of black hair issues was striking. In addition, the portrait of Black hair excluded some important voices that were equally vital to the black hair conversation. However, the film did make a contribution by grappling with the relationship that decision-making about hair has with age. Lastly, it educated the masses about the harm involved with relaxers using two methods that are bound to be widely received–humor and famous people.
So let’s break this down.

What do I mean by sexist? I am not just referring to Andre Harrell, music executive, referring to women as broads. I am talking about the fact that Rock never used his interviewing time to pose a moral question to black men about their role in promoting the straight-haired standard of beauty. Instead, he asks them about how they feel about having to fork over money for weaves and relaxers. And this just seemed like a totally irrelevant question. Additionally, the issue of black women restricting themselves physically because they are afraid their hair will go from straight to kinky was not presented in the film as something that could negatively affect the overall health of black women. The conversation instead became about the frustration some black men have with not being able to touch black women’s hair and engage sexually with wild abandon. While I think it is important for black women to feel limitless when creating sexual intimacy, this is also about the importance of an exercise regimen and the possibility that some may shy away from that because they want to preserve straight hair.
So who was excluded? Well, just about all the black hair experiences that fell outside of Los Angeles, New York City and Atlanta. This struck me as odd because having spent some time living and working in the DC metropolitan area, it just seems that black hairstyles are on a different wavelength there. It was interesting to me that he spotlighted Oprah Winfrey, Michelle Obama and Condoleezza Rice’s hair as linked to their success. However, it also means something that congresswomen who have risen to prominence in the DC Metropolitan area, such as Eleanor Holmes Norton and Donna Edwards have their hair cut short in Ceaseresque styles. Additionally, rural black women and their hair stories simply had little to no representation in the film. Finally, Dominican hair salons, a crucial player in hair relaxation in black communities on the east coast, were totally omitted. And since the film only lasted 90 minutes, it just seemed that he could have filled the final 30 with a more inclusive picture of Black hair.
On to a pro, the strength of the film was that it grappled with age and hair through featuring parents and their children with Rock and his daughters as the main subject of the film. It’s not to be missed that relaxers are a choice often made by parents for their daughters. Often, these young girls are either not at the developmental stage where they can even grasp the weight of the decision to relax, straighten or add extensions. Or they are informed and their parents have decreed that relaxers are the only option. In this way, many black girls don’t really get rights to their hair until after they leave home or they are 18. And even then, the influence of their parents is monumental.
I am usually the first to be critical when people shelve the blame of social problems on the parents, but with black hair we have to be more critical about parental influence. I am not exactly ready to call parents child abusers who douse relaxers filled with potentially harmful sodium hydroxide on their 3-year-old. Many black mothers who relax their daughters’ hair are probably not as informed about the health consequences. Additionally, they might do so to demonstrate how much they care about their daughters appearance to challenge stereotypes that frame them as neglectful. However, the fact remains relaxers are potentially harmful. And if the film accomplished anything, it transmitted this important message humorously (That [soda] can’s gotta GOOD perm!) that people of color should take seriously.

Join the Conversation

  • IamnotTheDudeness

    What in the world is sexual literacy?

  • sangetencre

    “Sexual Literacy: Our perspective on healthy sexuality
    At NSRC, we focus on a positive, integrated and holistic view of sexuality from a social justice perspective. We believe that every person should have the knowledge, skills and resources to support healthy and pleasurable sexuality—and that these resources should be based on accurate research and facts. We call this sexual literacy.”

  • vegkitty

    I really want to see this movie, but I’ve heard a lot about how flawed it is. I guess any step in the right direction is good?
    Also, I’m a white female, so I worry about whether my presence will be good or bad in a theater. I’ll probably just wait until I can Netflix the film, since that’s cheaper anyways.

  • Ambrrr

    I’m a biracial woman, and coincidentally just saw this movie last night with my (Black) mother. I’d rate it a B-/C+, for some of the reasons you listed above and the lack of focus on the natural hair community, which has been growing quite rapidly in recent years.
    My hair has always been a source of strife in my life, since it wasn’t as strong as either one of my parents. Instead it seemed to pick up the “worst” aspects of each – curly and weak, prone to breaking. My mother used a hotcomb (literally a metal comb heated on the stove) to straighten my hair for years and years, and I got my first relaxer when I was in 8th grade so I could take care of my own hair while on an overnight trip with my classmates. I don’t remember how many relaxers I had after that, it couldn’t have been too many because they were expensive and difficult to maintain on our budget.
    I was 22 (only a year ago, ha) before I found the natural movement online, and websites on how to properly maintain Black & biracial hair without harsh chemicals; actually reading labels to find out what was in the products I’d been using was eye-opening. Even so, when I came home this May after graduation Mom would always complain about my hair. Why didn’t I straighten it more often, why did I go for days without combing it (actually safer, trust me), etc. After seeing the film, which really opened her eyes (more in terms of weaves, which she didn’t even realize are as popular as they are) she hasn’t said a negative thing yet. I’m waiting for her to try, so I can remind her of that sodium hydroxide. Direct heat (hair dryers, hot air brushes, flat irons) isn’t any better on your hair when used to excess. And there’s NOTHING wrong with my natural curl. The part of the film that bothered me the most was the group of high school girls telling their classmate that her beautiful ‘fro was “unkempt” and “unprofessional.” If a woman whos hair has been “tied, fried, and laid to the side” walked into MY office I’d know she’s fallen prey to the idea that our hair must look like everyone else’s in order to fit in, and I must say that places her in a different category in my mind. I’d rather have a lawyer (the profession the girls were talking about) with a ‘fro who clearly didn’t give an ess about what other people thought than one with someone else’s hair in her head who did.
    This is a tough subject to discuss in a comment, sorry if I rambled on too long!

  • Phenicks

    1) It is TREMELY heteronormative to place the onus on black mn to change what they are attracted to or hat’s beautiful in regards to black women. Not all blac women give a goo gotdamn about what attracks black men because some of them are *gasp* lesbians!!!
    2) Even for those who are heterosexuals, just WHY should men be given the power over what a woman does with her hair? Why does his opinion mean she will put herself in danger to plase his or anyone else’s eye? That’s an epic fail. We as women who make choices about gving life to the unborn regardles sof how black men feel about it shoudl also be so liberate to make choices about our health and our hair without trying to ALTER ourselves to our detriment.
    3) Relaxers should be outlawed for small children because of the damage it could do to their hair. Parents should not have the right to forever alter someone’s appearance (relaxers will forever change the natural teture of a person’ hair- the only fix is cutting all of the relaxer out of the hair) for the sake of appeasing black men/boys or some notion of neglect.
    If ANYTHING has to change amongst public opinion it has to be the notion that a child with natural curly or tightly coiled hair is being neglected because they haven’t been subjected to a relaxer or braided hair. Groomed hair is groomed hair ,it doesn’t mean that it is straight or wavy or big soft curls. It means it has to be combed/brushed or moisturized.

  • argolis

    Also, I’m a white female, so I worry about whether my presence will be good or bad in a theater.
    I’m multiracial and I’m always happy to see diverse audiences show up for events that I care about. It’s really heartening to see people who are willing to educate themselves and put themselves outside their comfort zone.

  • vegkitty

    Duly noted. I just worry that any Black women in the theater would feel like I’m in their territory, you know?

  • Eileen

    I saw the movie in the theater and worried a bit that I was almost eavesdropping on something that was none of my business. There’s nothing wrong, though, with witnessing experiences that you don’t share… hopefully it will make me more sensitive about this topic in the future. It would be a mistake for me (as a white person with straight hair) to form an opinion about what black women do with their hair, and so I don’t. Maybe I understand better than I did, but people still know more about their own experience than I do. And that’s how I try to be an ally and not an asshole. YMMV.

  • DAS

    My daughter is multi-racial and has very fine, easily tangled hair that is also very curly (as does, incidentally, my mother, who is pretty much all white, although my mom’s paternal grandmother was something other than straight-up Ashkenazic … nobody knows what her original ancestry was) — everybody always says how beautiful her hair is (and fortunately it doesn’t break easily), but it does take a lot of effort to braid her hair.
    However, my wife (an African-American woman) feels a lot of pressure to make sure our daughter’s hair is always nicely braided. If our daughter’s hair is not perfect when we go to family events, she always frets about how her parenting will be perceived.
    I agree with Phenicks — from what I see the problem isn’t the pressure men are putting on women to “have perfect hair” but rather the pressure that is put on mothers to make sure their daughters have a certain kind of hair style (that basically is there to serve as a sign that the mother is willing to spend a lot of time caring for her child) and also the pressure employers put on employees to have “proper hair”, the definition of which somehow excludes many forms of “natural” hairstyles.

  • rebekah

    I know that this is going to sound ignorant but what is a relaxer? A weave? I live in a place where the only chemical that gets put on your hair (regardless of your race) is hair dye and its normally done in bright neon colors by teenagers, less so by women who want to hide their gray, although I do know a few who do that as well. Although its not a predominately black area of the country the black women around me either have Afros (which I happen to find to be quite beautiful) or dreads. I don’t have any idea what those chemicals are or what they do to your body. Is there a website that has accurate info on it?

  • cattrack2

    Oh, some ppl might feel that way, but they’re haters :-) Most black ppl would like that you took an interest. Some ppl will take offense at anything, if you’re interested, go!

  • cattrack2

    Are you really suggesting that its “EXTREMELY” heteronormative to suggest that men shouldn’t place unrealistic expectations on women?
    Why shouldn’t parents get to fewer rights to decide a hair style for their kids, than they do life changing medical procedures???

  • Sloppy Sandwich

    I’m sorry to threadjack here, but when is Feministing going to get this ad problem under control? I’ve got some bullshit about Dragonwars with boobs hanging out at the side of my screen and it seems like every day there’s some ad that is simply NOT FEMINIST.

  • ElleStar

    It’s a perm that straightens hair.
    Weaves are weaves or extensions.
    I also think you’d be surprised at exactly what people do to their hair that you’re not supposed to know about.

  • ak33yu

    Google is a good place to start.

  • cebes

    Hey, her eyes are glowing and she’s all… floating… or something. That’s empowerment!

  • ak33yu

    Pardon, I should clarify:
    It’s not that Google will necessarily bring up the BEST resources, but it’s best to try and inform yourself on basic terminology and concepts introduced in an article before asking someone else to explain them for you.

  • DAS

    I suspect the point is that it is extremely heteronormative to conclude that African-American women who spend so much time and money (and damage their hair) to get a “perfect look” are doing so in order to attract men. The reason why this conclusion is heteronormative is because it assumes that all women who are relaxing, getting weaves, etc. are interested in attracting a man in the first place. Certainly many African-American lesbians (even out of the closet lesbians) still feel the same pressures to change their hair to conform (and still relax their hair, etc.) for reasons that have nothing to do with attracting men.
    So is the issue really one of “I have to look a certain way to attract a man” as implied in the critique that “Rock never used his interviewing time to pose a moral question to black men about their role in promoting the straight-haired standard of beauty”? Considering some of the women who feel the need to adhere to a straight haired standard of beauty are out of the closet lesbians who don’t care what attracts men (*), to blame men involves some rather heteronormative assumptions, doesn’t it?
    I am a rather dense, white male, so I am sure that I am missing something, but I don’t see black men promoting “the straight-haired standard of beauty” but rather I see the biggest promoters of this standard being older black women who view a failure to the tremendous amount of time required on grooming one’s hair and one’s children’s hair as a sign of a lack of dedication to self-care and a lack of dedication to child-care. Also, workplace standards as to what kind of hair is considered “professional” are a big influence on the grooming habits of African-American women — but do black men really set those standards?
    (*I know that there are some out of the closet lesbians for whom the ability to attract a man is part of their gender identity — I was a “beard” of sorts for someone like that: she was fairly butch but it was important to her somehow that she could have any straight guy she wanted, if she would have been interested)

  • Newbomb Turk

    Boobs aren’t feminist?

  • Jessica

    We do take ads that aren’t feminist, but don’t want sexist ones. So if you see an offensive ad, you should email us and we’ll take it down.


    You said:
    “I am talking about the fact that Rock never used his interviewing time to pose a moral question to black men about their role in promoting the straight-haired standard of beauty. Instead, he asks them about how they feel about having to fork over money for weaves and relaxers. And this just seemed like a totally irrelevant question.
    Speaking as an African American man who has forked over money to pay for weaves and relaxers, let me tell you, it is a very relevant question!
    Having to pay hard earned money so your girlfriend/wife/daughter/niece can have dangerous chemicals put in her hair so she can fit in with racist Caucasiocentric White American beauty standards is very relevant!
    As for the “morals” of Black men – look, we didn’t impose White beauty standards on Black women – America did – and, since we live in a society where there are employers who will refuse to hire a Black woman with natural hair, we’re relatively blameless here.
    Don’t get it twisted – we’ve internalized those same racist beauty standards too and there are African American men who won’t date a woman with natural hair – but we didn’t start the ball rolling here, White America did.
    One of the lesser known victories of the Civil Rights Movement was that most Black men stopped putting chemicals in our hair (there are exceptions – Al Sharpton, the late James Brown, Ice Tea, but the exceptions prove the rule.
    If we ever have a second edition of the Civil Rights Movement in America (and we definitely need one!) hopefully African American women will follow our lead and stop burning their hair with toxic chemicals as well.
    Not only will it be better for our self esteem as a race, it will also save Black women (and Black men) a hell of a lot of money…. because Black women are 6% of the population but buy 70% of the hair care products (mostly from White or Asian owned businesses)

  • sepra

    I feel that way too about other women enforcing standards of beauty. I’m in business school right now and I find that it’s the other women in the program that are the real enforcers of “professional looks,” like high heels and pantyhose. I find that men are usually confused about what is appropriate for women, and will not give any opinion if asked.
    I am white though, so obviously am not in touch with this hair issue, except that I find natural hair beautiful.


    Relaxer is a powerful chemical compound that Black women use to straighten their hair. If used carelessly it can burn eyes and skin, it causes long term hair and scalp damage and nobody really knows the long term effects of relaxer, because nobody has ever bothered to do any research on the product (basically because it’s a product used by Black women, and consequently the government and the scientific community really don’t give a damn about it’s safety and health effects!)
    And if your curious about just how powerful relaxer is, buy some, fill up a glass container with it, then dip an aluminum soda can into the product and watch what happens (hint – it will literally strip the paint of the soda can – leave the can in the relaxer long enough, then the metal can itself will actually dissolve)
    Prior to the invention of relaxer, Black women used to use lye (the same stuff you use to clear clogs in your drain) – relaxer is actually a safer version of the old highly toxic hair straightening products.
    See the kind of things that self hatred makes people do?
    Incidentally, I would bet money that most of the Black women you know process their hair – because, sadly, it’s very rare to see a Black woman in America who doesn’t (I live in a largely Black neighborhood – West Harlem – and I suspect 99% of the Black and dark skinned Latina women in this community straighten their hair).
    You may not know they process their hair, since you don’t know the signs to look for, but that doesn’t mean that their hair is natural.

  • Meggy B

    I just want to say that I’m happy to see this discussion on Feministing (or anywhere outside my head, for that matter). As a multiracial kid, my hair was always off limits to my own hands until high school, and even then I only had a limited amount of control. I was always made fun of by both family and school mates for not always getting my hair permed or straitened. Now at 22, I’ve been growing locs for about 4 years and have never made a decision that affected my every day life more. I can swim whenever I want, have hot crazy rough sex, go running, wake up late for work or school, and save the 50 dollars a month or so that I would be spending to pay someone to torture me. That’s not an exaggeration. The shit hurts, burns, pulls your hair, etc. Once, a lady left perm on my hair for too long while she handled other adult customers and by the time she washed it out, my hair started falling out. I had to get it cut SUPER short at SIXTEEN years old. It made me stronger in the long run, but I would have preferred having the choice to rock a shorn look through the high school hallways.

  • Toongrrl

    It’s hard to believe that white is still considered more beautiful. Things haven’t changed since I was in Kindergarten and the coveted/dominant beauty ideal was that of the blond and blue eyed “Baywatch” women. That was in the year 1995!!!

  • baddesignhurts

    (side not to akeeyu here: i noticed that in the last week your blog has gone password-protected. is this a mistake, or have you stopped blogging? i’ve been reading your blog for a couple of years, and i really love it. i understand if you need the privacy. just count me among one of your former very appreciative readers, k?)

  • Phenicks

    Because it assumes that ALL WOMEN ARE HETEROSEXUALS!!!!
    And because when you’re talking about permanently altering a physical feature on a child for your own insecurites there is a serious problem. It borders on physical abuse because relaxers CAN AND HAVE burned the scalps of little girls and emotional and pyschological abuse in the sense that you are imposing a view of what is good enough, ie her natural hair ISNT.


    I really want to see this movie, despite it’s problematic aspects. I’m a trans racial Black adoptee with White parents, and had my hair straightened from the time I was 6 until I was 17ish.
    I don’t blame my parents, so much as I blame society that made six year old me want her hair straightened so badly, so she could be pretty like the other girls.

  • Phenicks

    “Careless” use of a relaxer includes
    * washing your hair within the past SEVEN DAYS
    * scratching your scalp within the past SEVEN DAYS
    * simply having a hair texture that doesn’t agree with the forumla (ie the strength of the relaxer is too much)
    * having a sensitive scalp
    I’ve seen a little girl cring, shaking and hysterical at the pain of a relaxer burning her scalp and her mother was disgusted that she couldn’t “hold out it a little longer so the perm could take”, the only thing disgusting about that situation was the mother’s attitude and the stylists reluctance to stop that poor child’s suffering.

  • Yas

    Yes, it’s very sad. I don’t understand why ppl think only one race has the market on beauty cornered.

  • SaraLaffs

    FWIW, The Autobiography of Malcolm X has some pretty harrowing descriptions of how “processing” worked back when he was a young man.

  • Yas

    Now that you mention it, I’m remembering the scene from the movie Malcolm X, when Denzel Washington (as Malcolm X) is conking (?) his hair. It starts to burn and b/c the police have shut off his water he has to resort to using toilet water to wash it out.

  • merichan

    “Also, I’m a white female, so I worry about whether my presence will be good or bad in a theater.”
    “I saw the movie in the theater and worried a bit that I was almost eavesdropping on something that was none of my business.”
    Way to perpetuate the stereotype that all black women are angry and clique-ish.
    I think how beauty is shown and defined affects all of us – regardless of race, ability, economic status, sexuality and gender. We should all be especially critical and aware and therefore, I think films exploring the paradigms of beauty should not suggest any segregation of their audience (and the audience shouldn’t suggest it either…).

  • Eileen

    I was concerned about my own presence, not about anyone else’s reaction to my presence. And, as stated, I saw the movie. Thanks.

  • merichan

    Chill. I wasn’t attacking you personally.
    All I was saying was that it is our business, as humans, to be critical and aware of the beauty standards in our society. It is about race – but it also goes way way beyond that.
    And to “be concerned with one’s presence” is only ever relational to others and their perception of you and your presence… would you have been just as concerned about your presence in an empty theatre?