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Is the Natural Hair Journey the Old Road to 'Good Hair'?

06/25/2013 05:57 pm ET | Updated Aug 25, 2013

Last week, Tracee Ellis Ross launched the "Hair Love" campaign in response to an instagram meme from Aroundthewaycurlz. The meme pictures a sobbing little brown girl, and the caption reads "The Moment You Realize You Don't Have Tracee Ellis Ross's Hair." In her YouTube response, Ross offers a sincere account of her own journey to learning to love her hair. She tells her viewers that while she is happy that people love her hair, they should also learn to love their own. "I love that you love my hair," she says. "But I only love that you love my hair if it's an inspiration for you to love your hair." She concludes by requesting that other women participate in the campaign by making a video with one to five words about why they love their hair.

Ross's thoughtful and passionate request that women love their own hair gingerly circles the issue of black hair values. Traditionally, hair like Ross's was considered more desirable among black folks than more tightly coiled kinky hair. I grew up at a time in the South when more loosely curled hair on brown people was still referred to as "good hair," -- the implication being that kinky hair was bad hair. This is not to suggest that hair like Ross's was necessarily easier to manage. (Lord knows that anyone with that much hair could not have had an easy time.) But hair that could more closely approximate straighter European textures was prized. Now many years later living in the Northeast, I am sorry to say that I have recently heard this term "good hair" used exactly as it was all those years ago. This should not be surprising given that hundreds of years of social conditioning do not simply evaporate overnight. But what I find interesting about the hair envy that Ross has inspired is that it is coming from a community of naturals who while claiming to embrace natural hair seem to also be chasing the old good hair aesthetic. In other words, these women have positioned Ross's loose curls as an aspiration, rather than an inspiration, while perhaps unconsciously dismissing the idea that tight kinks and coils could also be desirable.

Now before I start getting angry emails from naturalistas, let me just say that this is not an indictment of all black women with natural hair. I am, however, suggesting that the general culture of the current natural hair movement exemplified on popular natural hair forums, blogs, and vlogs, demonstrates an obsessive focus on curl definition, eliminating frizz and shrinkage (the tendency for tight curls to shrink to shorter lengths), achieving length, and natural potions that claim to do any of the above. A lot of the most popular natural hair vloggers, bloggers, and product hawkers, also seem to have long relatively loose curls. And, while there is a stated preference for natural hair over relaxed hair or weaves among online natural hair communities, there is also a shocking amount of product junky-ism (excessive purchasing of hair products) among naturals who are attempting to stretch and define their curls. Please note that I am not excluding myself from this phenomenon. My bathroom cabinet is a shameful graveyard of slimy gels and creams -- so many that when my husband wants hair products, he "shops" at home. As if that isn't embarrassing enough, I admit that one of those dusty jars of goop that costs its weight in gold was purchased from a company that proudly claims to stretch kinks into soft curls.

To be sure, there are many white women who also appear to be engaged in this frantic search for products to create the perfect curl. But I view their search as related, and yet starkly different from the curl quests of black women. More precisely, white women don't have 400 years of history weighing on their heads. If their curls are viewed as unkempt, they won't likely be fired for making a political statement. The recent ban on afro puffs and braids at a school in Lorraine, Ohio was not targeted at white girls. The growing number of white women who are choosing to cultivate their curls instead of straightening them are not referred to as a movement in the way that black women's shift to natural hair is. In short, these white women's desire for silken curlicues seems to be more personal than historical, more about shifting style trends, than emulating an aesthetic rooted in broad externally and internally imposed cultural values. Granted these white product junkies might have some issues, but they aren't necessarily the same issues as those of black women who have been steeped in the ideology of good and bad hair for generations.

Black women have faced a culture in which kinky hair textures have not only been considered ugly, but also as a sign of their inhumanity as evidenced by Don's Imus's now infamous reference to "nappy headed hoes." Some years ago, I was attending a talk given by the scholar and activist, bell hooks, when a young white woman raised her hand and asked hooks why do studies that focus on the self image of girls seem to always conclude that black girls feel better about their bodies than white girls. In response, hooks pointed out that the researchers were probably asking the wrong questions. They were asking the girls how they felt about the size and shape of their bodies. Had they asked them how they felt about their hair texture, she pointed out, they would likely have gotten very different results. I tend to agree. In fact, if someone had asked me how I felt about my body size at the age of 8, I probably would have said, "Just fine." Then I would have tossed the long shawl that I had tied on my head as my pretend hair over my shoulder, and said, "So what do you think of my hair?"

I'd like to push this analogy between white women and body image and black women and hair image a bit further. Susan Bordo has argued convincingly that anorexia nervosa, an eating disorder most prevalent among young middle-class white girls and women, stems from a desire to gain a sense of control, power, and self-mastery -- all things traditionally associated with men. And, thus, these women experience feelings of freedom, even while constraining and ultimately destroying their bodies. Is it too farfetched to suggest that African-American women's long battles to control their hair could speak to a similar desire for self-mastery in a culture that deems them unruly bodies that require policing? I do not wish to suggest that hair manipulation approaches the self-destructiveness of a disorder such as anorexia or that this disorder is limited to white women. I am, however, suggesting that black hair, so full of meaning and controversy, always rife with political suggestion, could be the means through which black women could experience control as freedom. How else can we make sense of the contradiction between the representation of natural hair as freedom (from relaxers) and the many YouTube tutorials on how to stretch, define, and goop kinky hair into submission? Relaxers too were once touted as vehicles of liberation from kinks and hot straightening combs, even though today's natural-haired women cannot imagine how chemically burning a hole in one's scalp could be freeing.

Perhaps, one day we will look back at this moment and wonder if our efforts to 'discover' our curls were really all that freeing. Maybe we natural women aren't as free as we think. Maybe, we still have a shawl tied on our heads. Then again, it's possible that the journey to kinky hair acceptance is just a little longer than we thought.