Good hair, bad hair: Is this concept still alive?

Image is more important today than it’s ever been.  The great news is that we as black women have
come a long way in terms of our acceptance and love of self.  The sad news is we still have
a long way to go.  Remember when Spike Lee’s film, School Daze, addressed the Wannabes and the Jiggaboos. Unfortunately, I’ve noticed evidence confirming this concept to be just as real today as it was
fifty or a hundred years ago. You know what I’m talking about: the good hair/ bad hair
syndrome.  And the syndrome doesn’t exist in a vacuum.  It has shades of color (light
skin and dark skin) in the mix.

The illness is still kicking. We are still suffering from the residual affects of being
brainwashed into believing anything that is African is not as good as the European
standard. And today this good hair / bad hair, light skin vs. dark skin measure of beauty
appears to be more subtle than it used to be. However, In the south it’s still quite prevalent. When there was a Khamit Kinks in Atlanta, back in the late ’80’s early 90’s, you could hear grown, very educated women mention “good hair” in the salon, on a daily basis. It was truly amazing!

Being in the middle seems to be the most exalted of positions.  When a woman is neither
black or white, but mixed—you know exotic— then it seems all others pale in comparison, in terms of what is considered exceptionally beautiful. And yes, the old double standard still exists; a man can be of any complexion, hair type, etc, as long as he’s a man, looks don’t seem to be nearly as high a priority when it comes to whether or not he’s a good catch.

So tell me what you think? Do you believe that you’ve witnessed prejudice or preference
based on hair texture and or complexion?  If so, share your experience.

17 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by KG on July 30, 2008 at 2:45 pm

    I’ve dealt with the good hair/ bad hair complex since childhood. As a child, if you had short hair you were considered “bald.” If your hair was not permed, you were considered “nappy-headed.” In terms of the dark skin / light skin complex, I believe that many people have transitioned from the issues of dark vs. light into “exotic” vs. regular. I have learned that many black men prefer hispanic women over black women because they look exotic. On a number of occassions, I’ve been told that I “look much better with a long straight weave, because it makes me look hispanic.” I’m starting to believe that many people do not know how to appreciate the beauty within all races and hair types. Sometimes I am disapointed with how black women get the short end of the stick, when it comes to acknowledging global beauty. One great example of this is the Miss Universe Pagent.


  2. Posted by sharon on July 31, 2008 at 10:09 am

    I was recently surprised to see the reaction to my hair by a singer, a beautiful statuesque sister with a fierce short haircut. I’d just run out to pickup something from the corner bodega. Fresh from the shower, my hair was dripping wet and fell to just above my waist. (though 20 minutes later, its natural shrinkage would bring it up by inches) “Wow,” she said ” your hair is so long.” True enough, I suppose, but the way she said it was what struck me. Flashback to a baby shower a few weeks ago where my 20-something cousin sat staring at my hair, which was in two braids. “Wow, how do you get your hair so incredible?” she asked with a dreamy glaze over her eyes. “Well I’m not sure what you’re asking,” I responded. “It’s just so, so…amazing, how do you get it like that?” Like what? I haven’t permed my hair since she was an infant and the last time it was even colored was probably ten years ago, so is she refering it its virgin state? its length? both?

    Though I’ve not heard the phrase “good hair” used in common parlance in a few years, the inference is there, the subtext. I like, most of us, have multi-textured hair, but the curl pattern of mine is just a bit looser than is hers, and therein lies the difference. In her perception, that difference makes my hair “incredible” whilst she masks her tight coils with stick-straight extensions reminiscent of Barbie.

    Fast-forward to the singer. When she said “wow..” she had the same odd measure of reverence in her voice. The same reverence accorded me in junior high school when I was voted
    “Longest Hair”–a dubious distinction among the other superlatives one could be voted: Smartest, Most Talented, etc.–and to be quite honest, it wasn’t even true. I didn’t have the lock on hair length.

    In the 30-40 years since the Black Power Movement, the prevalence of these archaic notions is changing, but they do still exist and we have centuries-old history to blame. With more people like you, Anu, showing black women that their hair, unadulterated, is too beautiful, perhaps the paradigm shift will come a bit sooner.


  3. Thank you for sharing your story Sharon…


  4. Posted by Donna on August 3, 2008 at 7:22 am

    I don’t witness prejudice’s like I did growing up. I find it crazy when I hear women having issues when they decide to go natural. My family members, even if they wouldn’t do so themselves actually liked my hair when I did and I guess I’m not around too many others that would take issue with it.

    However I do find there to be a problem in society still that even unspoken causes much damage. My daughter, who’s hair I’ve straightened maybe 1 or 2 times in her lifetime, for a change. Always encouraging her to love her hair and even when choosing a straight style, appreciate the fact that she has the option to do this while other races of people don’t have the option to get her hair texture, not making you better than anyone but you were blessed with a uniqueness that isn’t a curse but a blessing.

    Yet she still tends to desire straight long hair and I’ve concluded that the black women she see in society play a large role in this. We simply don’t see enough of us rocking our own. Even with all of the strides made when it comes to natural hair and those of us who are choosing to go chemical free. It’s still standard for black women to wear straight hair. And I don’t have issue with someone wearing their hair straight, as I’ve said I’ve even straightened my daughter’s once or twice. However I have issue when that because the standard rather than the option for those of us who do not have naturally straight hair. I use to be a hard core natural LOL where I felt you simply didn’t love your hair if you altered it’s texture now I say hey play with it try new things but love your hair in it’s coily state.

    Last thing, education plays a huge role on this, even as a hairstylist I didn’t know how to truly care for coily hair until I went natural and learned for myself.


  5. Posted by Marquette on August 6, 2008 at 7:01 am

    Hair has always been an issue for me. Because of my dark skin and my permed thick hair being down to my lower back, my hair was never looked at as being “my” hair, but I was considered to have good hair (at that time people only saw the length). Not only that, because of the length I was very limited in what I could do if I was avoiding gels. So here comes the ponytail . I had no joy in what others would consider good.

    Rewind to 4 years ago, with my hair natural I have gotten nothing but positive attention about my hair. I have options that I never dreamt when it comes to styling. I still have problems when it comes to products (I have two textures so what works for one half sometimes doesn’t work for the other), but I will never go back.

    If there is a good hair/bad hair issue still going on I have not experienced it personally when it comes to peoples reactions towards me. But, I get so many women who tell me they desire to do what I did, but feel their hair is not as good as mines.LOL. What they need to know is that their hair will adapt.

    This is what makes our hair so beautiful and unique. It will perform if we train it. To me bad hair is bad attitude. If you love your hair people will see nothing but good. To change how hair is viewed we are the ones who have to change how hair is viewed.


  6. Posted by Latesha Williams on August 6, 2008 at 11:33 am

    The good hair/ bad hair syndrome is very much alive and still more prevalent in the south than up north today. I had this syndrome until perms started thinning my hair. Now that I have locs and learned how to manage (clean, moisturize and style) my hair in its natural state, I could NEVER go back to a perm. Most black women have perms because they do not know how to (or do not wish to) deal with their natural hair. In addition, this “concept” comes from slavery, when black women were told (by slave owners) to “cover up” their hair because it was unsightly (read “Hair Story,” by Ayana Byrd & Lori Tharps.) This also goes hand-in-hand with the light-skin/ dark-skin concept, but that is for another blog. So to me, women with perms are in fact “covering up” their hair, because they are changing its natural state. Once a person embraces their natural hair, wanting “good hair,” which to me means hair more like Caucasians goes away. My first perm was put in my hair because I am tender-headed and it was hard for my mom to press & curl my hair. I have a 4 year old daughter, and do not plan to press & curl or perm her hair. I want that to be her choice. I will teach her how to manage her natural hair and if she chooses otherwise, so be it. I am constantly told by perm wearers that they could never have locs because it is so “permanent,” meaning you have to cut off all of your hair to get rid of them. Well, a perm is the same thing! I had to cut off all of my permed hair to get locs. Again, I believe the uncomfortable feeling (insecure) most black women have when their hair is not “long enough” or “straight enough” comes from slavery. I am not knocking perms- -it’s just no longer for me.


  7. Posted by Stephanie on August 13, 2008 at 10:50 pm

    Good hair /bad hair is something I grew up hearing often. Family and friends focusing on hair texture and length. If you were light skinned with long hair you were a double threat; dark skinned with long hair few people believed it was yours. As a child my hair was called krimpy; I guess that was because when wet it was curly and soft in texture. As I got older I had bvarious styles including an afro and then relaxed; cut short in the back and on the sides. Couldn’t tell me my hair wasn’t together. Well that became tooooo much work and those curling irons, spare me . As I got older I took the giant leap to locks which are now in the middle of my back with 2 shades of highlights. My hair is healthy and I often get compliments. I have never felt better about my hair; now that’s what I call good hair….


  8. Posted by Veronica Bailey on September 4, 2008 at 9:25 am

    Great post, Anu. I just wanted to add to all the wonderful observations above that what i notice now is a locs vs. straight hair issue among black women. Because i have locs, i’m often perceived as a bit stuck up because sometimes women with locs have a tendency to preach to those who relax their hair. I’ve never done that but i’ve noticed a bit of defensiveness in “mixed groups” when the subject of hair comes up. The ladies who straighten or weave often feel the need to defend their choice and prove to others that they are not self-hating, as some natural-haired women sometimes accuse.

    I personally think women should be able to choose whatever style makes their life the easiest. For me, it is locs. But if asked, i do try to educate on the dangers of relaxers for our hair and scalps, but never in a condescending, i’m-better-than-you way.


  9. Veronica, what you’ve stated here is true and we really shouldn’t judge others based on these externals. As India Arie stated, “We are not our hair”. But on the other hand, going with what is natural, turns out to be a lot less damaging in the long run.


  10. Posted by afrikan queen on September 16, 2008 at 11:34 am

    I grew up also with the good hair/bad hair & light skin/dark skin issue all my life. I hate to be the one to tell everyone that it is still very much alive today as when I was growing up in the 70-90’s. Today it’s just in a more subtle way that’s all. Like someone else said it’s the exotic vs. the plain and the only thing exotic means is that you look more white/hispanic/asiann or mixed. If you look 100% AFRIKAN very few consider that to be beautiful. And I dont care what anybody says it all stems from slavery and from white people teaching us how to hate everything that our true idenity/culture represented and that included our hair, our skin color, our lips/features, religion and so on. For those who haven’t read the “Willie Lynch Letter & The Making Of A Slave” and you will sadly see the remnants of slavery still alive today. I am a dark skinned black woman who is not mixed/biracial or whatever you want to call it. I have african kinky/nappy hair & full lips to go with it. I am stating this because when I decided to go natural with my hair I noticed almost immediately a decline in male attention, it was like most men looked right past me as oppesed to when I used to rock the long weaves & pony tails. What makes me absolutely angry is that the Black Woman mother of creation is always the left out of the equation when it comes to beauty standards. Again, now all you see is either biracial women i.e Alicia Keys, Halle Berry, Vanessa Williams, etc as standards of black beauty? I have literally had to on a daily basis tell myself through meditation and communing with my ancestors that “willie lynch” will not live in me or through me and I will embrace by blackness and culture on every level physical, spirital etc and will not be moved inspite of the reaction to my hair. But even the reaction from our own people is sad. “why would you want to go natural” “everybody can’t go natural” and all these crazy things that show the reality that we really are not as far removed from slavery as we would like to think. Perming and straightening our hair is just another link in the chains that grip our minds because of enslavement. It is my dream to one day see every black woman embrace her kink/nappy hair and be chemical free and begin to SET instead of follow the standard of beauty. As much as we spend as consumers we need to begin to demand to see true African/Black images on the screen and finally burry old willie lynch!


  11. Posted by Terrence on September 25, 2008 at 6:49 pm

    huh Anu i just wanna say that you look really good from the little thumbnail pic that i can see huh i dont have anything to say on this topic sorry


  12. Hi Terrance,

    Thank you for the compliment. I bet your wife and daughters would have something to say on the topic…

    Long time no see, are you still a member of the Park Slope Food Coop?


  13. Posted by Pat B on November 7, 2008 at 7:03 pm

    Hi Anu

    I like to say I have been a customer of Khamit Kinks since winter ’04. You are right about the twist and the braids. I have just decided to cut my hair very short and wear it this way for a while. But it did thin pretty bad. I was patient. At first, because I had the fancy free and boy did I feel free and sexy and very confident. Once I had taken them out I had to get used to me in a different way. But one thing I do feel about me is that I have a face for short hair and I believe your inner confidenece shines outside and people feel that confidence you have about yourself, your style and they just wonder. I have had lots of compliments on my short hair and when I had the two strand twist or the fancy free. I just love the versatility. I don’t know if this is politically correct but a girlfriend of mine found out her husband was cheating on her and I consider her a very good looking women. Her answer to me was well you know Holly Berry husband’s cheated on her as to admit she is beautiful and if it happen to her I guess it can happen to her. I feel we as women should not be hung up on light skin or dark skin but know all shade are beautiful and the main thing is to be confident in yourself. Search yourself and find your beauty because we all have it and if you are still unsure ask your Maker to beautify your with meakness with salvation.


  14. I have a new baby daughter and I pray I shield her from ever adopting this sort of thinking. I love this blog. I put a link to it in mine.


  15. […] has infected the black community-and other communities as well-with the diseased notions of “good-hair” and the “paper bag test.” Our world is one that makes otherwise beautiful people […]


  16. […] has infected the black community–and other communities as well–with the diseased notions of “good-hair” and the “paper bag test.” Our world is one that makes otherwise beautiful people bleach […]


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