The “Good” Hair Standard

African American woman with naturally curly hair


By: Paola Aguilar

Would you ever be willing to let strangers cut or shave your hair to support the message that beauty is more than a person’s external appearance? I’m not sure if I could. In this video from The Liberators International, co-founder Jae West does just that.

This video was particularly powerful to me simply because I realized that I, like many women, have a strong attachment to my hair. Most of my confidence comes from feeling beautiful and feminine and my hair is a huge part of that. I spend time washing, cutting, dying, straightening, drying, and curling my hair to make it look just right. As much as I hate to say it, if I didn’t have my hair, I don’t know how I would carry myself with the same confidence I have today. As much as I hate that my confidence comes from my external appearance, it should be acknowledged that for many women, hair is a form of expression.

As women, we are conditioned to believe that hair is a sign of femininity and when styled just right, is a way to make yourself look beautiful. Unfortunately, this is also one of the many things that women, especially women of color, are constantly policed for. One example of this is a petition that asked for Blue Ivy’s hair to be brushed and shamed her parents, Beyoncé and Jay-Z, for not doing so. The petition has since been closed, but was originally started two years ago when Blue Ivy was only two years old. Take the first lady, Michelle Obama, as another prominent example of women of color being critiqued for their hair. In 2012, an edited image of Michelle Obama with natural curly hair surfaced on the internet . The image sparked both positive and negative comments. From people saying they loved the naturally curly hair, to others that insisted that it is not the right time for her to be wearing her hair that way. This was only a fabricated image but I imagine that if the First Lady decided to wear her hair natural, the whole world would be talking about why she should or should not be wearing it. Although Michelle Obama is a figure head for our country, shouldn’t her appearance be her own business? If FLOTUS ever decides to wear her hair natural while President Obama is still in office, she shouldn’t be expected to conform to white beauty standards.

Women of color with thick, kinky, and curly hair deserve to feel beautiful without having to conform to a standard of beauty that is based on white women. I believe that it is every woman’s prerogative to do whatever they want to do with their hair. Whether that’s putting relaxers in, perming it, straightening, dying, braiding, or locking it. The problem comes when we have a standard of beauty that idolizes something that only certain women who are born a certain race can attain.

It’s difficult enough sometimes to maintain our hair and to make it look just right in order to feel feminine and confident but for many women of color, they have an additional obstacle of having their natural hair being seen as unacceptable. Last week, a federal appeals court made a ruling determining that firing an employee for having dreadlocks is not racial discrimination. It’s frustrating to see that because dreadlocks are a hairstyle, they can be the reason for a person losing their job. Firing someone from their job because of the way they choose to style their hair is something we only ever hear about when it comes to people of color. When people of color are told that a hair style that is rooted in their culture is unprofessional, it is reinforced that the ideal of professionalism portrayed by white culture is the default and should be what all people, including people of color, should strive to attain.

I have lived my life feeling like I’m always compared to “Becky with the good hair,” as the standard of beauty even though I was privileged enough to be born with naturally fine and straight hair. I still feel the pressure of trying to fit into a box that I was never meant to fit into. When beauty means white and you’re not white, when do you ever get to feel beautiful if you’re always measured against something you’ll never achieve?

I have always had naturally straight and dark hair. To wear my hair natural and unstyled has never been difficult for me and it is a luxury that many other women of color do not have. That being said, I have felt restricted by the hair styles I should or should not wear. When I was younger, my hair was always in one or two long brown braids. I hated wearing my hair that way because it was so different from that of my fair skinned and blonde friends. To this day, I still wear it down most days. It has some blonde in it and I keep it short despite my father’s wishes. I put time and energy into caring for my hair because I have such a strong attachment to the feminine qualities it has and the confidence it gives me. A true act of resistance for me would be to go back to a hairstyle that is an expression of my Mexican heritage. That would mean growing my hair out and keeping my natural dark color, then styling it into braids like those of Frida Kahlo.

Hair plays a big role in our ideas of femininity, beauty, and even racial stereotypes. We are given one standard of what “good hair” is and get punished by our society if we do not fit that standard, even when we will never be able to. Beauty and professionalism are completely subjective so why not let everyone just do with their hair whatever it is that they want to? What women do or do not do with their hair is a form of expression and should not be judged according to one set standard.


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