Why African American Women Try to Obtain 'Good Hair'

By Bellinger, Whitney | Sociological Viewpoints, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview

Why African American Women Try to Obtain 'Good Hair'


Bellinger, Whitney, Sociological Viewpoints


ABSTRACT

This study examined the definition of "good hair" according to African American women in order to understand the reasons young African American women choose to change their hair from its supposed "natural" state. The data was collected by participant observation and open-ended interviews with fifteen African American young women. The respondents indicated that younger African American women say they no longer follow historical norms of wanting to appear White in appearance, but claim that they change their hair's chemical make-up for time, ease of styling, and the creation and perpetuation of healthy hair. Other respondents choose to not change their hair based on racial pride taught to them by their mothers.

INTRODUCTION

This research was conducted to understand why African American women feel the need to not wear their hair naturally. The question I began with is: Why are African American women raised to change their hair from its natural state? As the research progressed the question of what is natural and what is not natural arose. I found that a distinct minority of women do not consider braids nor afros natural. The women's reasoning for this is that they must still care for their hair, oiling it, shaping it, and detangling it. Even when they wear braids the hair must be manipulated into a complicated arrangement that looks semi-natural. Natural hair can be defined as hair having been unaltered by chemicals and therefore does not have a straight look but is tightly coiled or kinky in nature and appearance (White 2005). Generally, African American women have had their hair chemically altered from its natural state starting around six to eight years old, and braiding begins at the age of six months or occasionally younger.

A HISTORY OF BLACK HAIR STYLES

I want to know my hair again, the way I knew it before I knew that my hair is me, before I lost the right to me, before I knew that the burden of beauty - or lack of it - for an entire race of people could be tied up with my air and me.

- Paulette Caldwell, "A Hair Piece" (2000: 275)

Traditionally, African American hair has been viewed in a number of contradictory ways. In past and present African nations, hair is considered a symbol of status, identity, and ancestry. Women who specialize in hairdressing are held in high regard by the communities around them. Young girls are instructed in how to braid and those who show skill are encouraged to specialize in that field. People who let their hair grow wild or messily, or do not take proper care of it are considered loose women having little or no morals, or crazy (Patton 2006). A Black person's hair is a symbol to all, although the specific hairstyle and the message conveyed sometimes fluctuates in different nations. The principle of the importance of one's hair is common in some northern African nations.

When the slave trade first emerged, slavers collected an average of 300 Africans at a time and, before they set sail, every slave's hair was shaved off. However, the slave owners did not do this to undermine the slaves' identities, rather, they did this for sanitary reasons. Whatever the reasoning, shaving the slaves' heads was the first step of stripping new slaves of their identity and lowering their status (Byrd and Tharps 2001; White 2005).

In addition, slave masters and mistresses often told slave children to refer to their hair as wool and encouraged young slaves not to like their own hair; in the 1850s a scientist, Peter A. Browne, claimed that African Americans and White men must be from two differing species because White men have hair while African Americans have wool and not hair on their heads (Sieber and Herreman 2000). Hair was a source of pride and house slaves were forced to look "decent" as they were in their master and his guests company for extended periods of time during which their appearance was not allowed to offend any person of White breeding. …

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