The Good Hair Debate

Tuesday, 28 April 2009 18:01 Written by  Alyce Maddocks

Relaxers, perms, flat irons, curling irons, straightening combs, hot oil treatments—we women (and men) of color are no strangers to these torture devices meant to beat our hair into submission.  But the question is: Why? Why do we put ourselves through so much pain before we deem ourselves presentable?



Comedian Chris Rock takes a good, long look at why the struggle for ‘good hair’ has been so prominent in African American culture and how maybe the ‘nappy root’ of the problem lies within our own collective conscience in his appropriately titled documentary, Good Hair.

It all started on an unassuming day when Rock’s youngest daughter, Lola ran up to him brimming with tears and asked, “Daddy, why don’t I have good hair?” Thus began Rock’s exploration of hair, self-acceptance and appreciation, the reasons why we’re never happy with what we’re given and why we sometimes look to foreign sources to feel better about ourselves.  The comedian explores not only these issues, but travels to India (the ‘good hair’ capital), salons and barbershops all over the U.S. to try and understand why we’re so emotional about our hair and why we use that to define who we are.

The struggle for ‘good hair’ is not new to many women, mostly African American, who strive to be taken seriously, be successful and prove they have a place in a mostly Caucasian, male-dominated world.  Some may ask ‘Why is hair such an important part of that?’ but in the business world today, to be seen as competent and capable, you have to look the part.  You must not only perform your job well, but you must also look as if you perform your job well.

“It’s all about visuals,” candidly states Larry, a 21-year-old fashion student.  Larry wears his hair in a boxed, twisty style, keeping the ends bound with rubber bands. “People are going to judge you based on what you look like, and I don‘t agree with it, but it’s true and hair is a part of that first impression.”

In one distinctive clip of the documentary, a young girl with relaxed hair and a professional demeanor states that if someone with an afro came in to her job and had all the qualifications needed, they most likely wouldn’t get hired because people wouldn’t be able to get past the hair.

“You just don’t look put together,” she confessed to another young girl with a cute, curly afro. This is just one of the defining moments in the comedic, thought-provoking documentary.

“Hair is a big part of how society sees us and treats us,” admits former Columbia College photography student Nila Latimore. “Hair is very important. It's one of the first things people see and is the best accessory because it can be different every day if you choose for it to be.”

On the subject, Isaiah Smalley has more than enough to say being the son of two former hairdressers. Isaiah was more than happy to reveal his thoughts as someone who’s been surrounded by hair-crazy men and women all his life.  

GlossMagazineOnline: As the son of not just one, but two former hairdressers, what would you consider 'good hair'?

Isaiah Smalley: Generally, good hair is hair that grows; versatile hair that can go from thick and coarse to smooth and flowing without drying out or breaking off. But I prefer hair thick and curly.

Do you think that hair texture affects confidence?

IS: Yes. As African American people, we've been taught as long as we've been in this country that the closer your hair resembles Caucasian hair, the better. It was always more acceptable, and even today, the closer a girl’s hair is to straight, the better she feels about herself.

Why do you think hair is so important in our society?

IS: Hair is important because, in our culture’s history, we've been judged by the texture of our hair almost as much as the color of our skin. Even though, over the years the styles have changed, hair has remained a very important part of black society.

GMO: Do you think people get their hair done mostly to feel good about themselves or mostly to impress others?

IS: A mixture of both. When other people think you look good, you feel better about yourself, so in the end when your hair is done the way you want it, you do both.

GMO: If you see an African American woman who prefers weaves or extensions to her natural hair, do you judge her based on her choice to spend hundreds of dollars a month on hair alone to feel more socially acceptable?

IS: People do all kinds of things to feel accepted. They dress certain ways, they act certain ways, and hair is no different. Using their money to get their hair done to be acceptable is no different from her spending hundreds of dollars on a pair of shoes or clothes. So I don't judge them harshly; if you got it, use it. The use of weave is mostly attached to the state of mind that straight hair is good hair.

GMO: In your opinion, do people in the corporate or business world judge African American women with more 'natural' styles more harshly? Do you think it's harder for a woman with that hairstyle to get ahead in the corporate world?

IS: From what I've seen, even today as 'progressive' as we are, 'ethnic' hair is completely unacceptable in corporate America. It's considered unprofessional, and I've known lots of women who've either almost lost, or actually lost their jobs over something as trivial as their hair.


Model: Eboni Inge

Alyce Maddocks

Alyce Maddocks

Alyce Maddocks is originally from Queens, New York but is currently residing in Charlotte, NC. She is a first year magazine journalism student at Columbia College Chicago. With an interest and passion for an array of music and literature, she looks forward to honing her writing skills so she can pursue her dream of being a music journalist.

She can be contacted at

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