How To Get “Good Hair”

Since about the age of nine, my hair has been chemically relaxed. For those of you who have been blessed with manageable locks, the terms “relaxer” or “perm” do not resonate as part of your daily life.

I, however, as a black woman, have had those terms embedded as part of my common vernacular, a type of chemical miracle of sorts that will eliminate the fuss of taming my thick Ethiopian roots for a twominute ponytail. Basically the formula goes: Natural Hair (bad hair) + Chemical Relaxer (magic potion) = desired silky tresses (good hair).

But there must be SOME hidden catch, right? When my locks are subjected to heat so often, my hair sheds like crazy, and gets easily dried out — not to mention the amount of dollars spent over the years from going to the hair salon once or twice a month for touch-ups and blow-outs.

However, since that fateful day of treatment as a young girl, I’ve been able to able wear my hair in a variety of styles — curly locks, awesome braid extensions with designs all over my scalp, straight with blunt bangs, pixie-cut. I am currently rocking a faux-hawk concoction with one side of my hair cut down, revealing the rarely-before seen natural locks that lie underneath.

So folks, you are probably asking the significance, or perhaps relevance of the history of my hair? The topic of black hair has been the latest media sensation, most recently when former model and talk show host Tyra Banks boldly announced that she was embarking on a weave hiatus and revealing her “real” hair. After much publicity and hype, Tyra revealed her shoulder-length, brown curls — not quite the shocking mane the audience was expecting.

But one must ask, what exactly IS so shocking about a black woman’s natural hair? Worthy enough of an entire episode on a primetime talk show? Or furthermore, worthy enough of a full-length documentary? Chris Rock, the comedian known for his raunchy stand-up, tackles this unlikely topic in his latest project, “Good Hair”, directed by Jeff Stilson and currently in wide release.

The documentary takes a comedic tour of the Black Hair Industry, from Atlanta to Los Angeles to India, taking the audience on an international tour-de-weave. With the help of cameo appearances from a wide array of black industry figures, Rock investigates the manufacturing of millions of chemical relaxers and weaves, the history of the notion of “good hair,” and an over-the-top hair competition show following four extraordinary divas.

Chronicling such a taboo subject in the black community is a risk. Chris Rock was initially inspired to make this movie after his own young daughter came home upset, asking why she did not possess “good hair.” Rock explains to the audience that more 80% of the black hair industry is owned by non-blacks, compelling the Reverend Al Sharpton to say that even the “hair on our head is being combed by oppression.”

The majority of hair stores you see around town are, interestingly enough, owned by Asian-Americans, who have somehow managed to slip under the radar of an already covert industry. Even mid-aged Korean men told Rock that good hair is “straight, long, and sexy”, defining the apparent demands from his black female clientele.

Rock furthers his quest of finding the meaning behind good hair by visiting the Dudley hair factory in Atlanta, one of the few manufacturers of black hair products owned and operated by African-Americans. The Dudley factory manufactures what seems like tons of chemical hair relaxers, the aforementioned miracle potion, which Rock reveals to contain sodium hydroxide — shown in the film to disintegrate a soda can within hours. The facts about my miracle potion are shocking: the catch has been revealed! Rock shakes his head at the results, then goes on to shake his head at the black women who use chemical relaxers, subtly asking the audience just how could these women subject themselves to such torture!

Another black hair product that is discussed in length are weaves, which are wigs that are sewn onto the head, an easier alternative than going through the motions of chemically straightening one’s hair. Once again, Chris Rock wows the audience when he reveals that getting a weave can get into the thousands; one weavalogist told Rock about a lay-away plan for customers.

Furthermore, the high demand for weaves has boosted India’s economy, as women’s locks are the highest exported good from the country. An irony of sorts is drawn out as Rock tours the hair capital of India, juxtaposing the dozens of Indian women with shaved heads with the black women he interviews donning weaves, possibly from those very same women.

As the film culminates in the finale of the glamorous Atlanta hair show, one begins to wonder what exactly the audience has learned in the past 95 minutes about “good hair.” Rock emphasizes how the American media has pressured black women to conform to an ideal of beauty that incorporates straight hair, and concludes that no matter how his daughters may decide to wear their hair, its what’s in their head that matters. As this philosophy may be applied to any young woman, I begin to wonder whether Rock began this project just because of its mysterious and controversial nature, rather than embarking on an effort to change the stereotypes of the definition of good hair.

As a black woman, as a human being, I can proudly quote India Arie by saying that “I am not my Hair, I am not this Skin, I am the Soul that Lives Within.” Although the film “Good Hair” provides laughs and some juicy information, I didn’t need Chris Rock’s help to come to that same conclusion.