Inspired by his daughter Lola who, at the age of 5, asked him “Daddy, how come I don’t have good hair?”, Chris Rock’s 2009 documentary ‘Good Hair’ explores the notion of what “good hair” truly is. Rock visits barber shops, salons, conventions, scientific labs and even Hindu temples to discover just why having African American hair is particularly important to millions worldwide.
The industry is enormous; some estimates place its worth at $9 billion, and the distribution, supply, marketing and retail of its products is truly global in scope. Official statistics show that, despite constituting just six to seven percent of the current US population, African-American women purchase between 30 and 34 percent of all hair products. Lori Tharps, journalism professor at Temple University and co-author of the book Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America, explains that the terms ‘good hair’ and ‘bad hair’ stem from slavery. “The closer your hair was to straight European hair, the more likely it was that you had white blood in you. That meant that you would have more access to better food, better education, preferential treatment and be more likely to be set free – so literally good hair meant a better chance at life. It wasn’t about beauty at all; it was about survival.” This contentious stance is opposed by others, however; Mikki Taylor, former beauty and cover editor for African-American magazine Essence, explains that “good hair now is healthy hair… When will our hair cease to be political? Every other group of women can do what they want with their hair, and it’s not seen as making a statement. We’re over that, and we wish everyone else would be over it, too.”
But have things really changed? “When it comes to hair, we’re still living in segregated America,” explains Tharps. “The hair salon on Saturdays is right up there with church on Sundays as the most segregated place in America”. Though “natural hair movements” are present today, many African-Americans interviewed by Rock stated that natural, Afrocentric styles of hair were not “professional” looking; in addition, with current trends in the national and international media placing emphasis on Eurocentric standards of beauty, many African-Americans feel the need to alter their hair through a multiplicity of means.
Two such means are through chemical relaxers and weaves. Chemical relaxers are creams used to straighten afro-textured hair, the most common form of which is a corrosive blend of sodium hydroxide and other chemicals which alter the protein structure of hair and force it to straighten. The process is potentially dangerous and can cause severe scalp burns, blindness and lung damage. The famous blend of chemicals is known as “creamy crack” by many of the millions who swear by it – including, as Rock notoriously shows in his movie, children under 2 years old. Weaves, meanwhile, are products made of natural and synthetic hair which can be purchased and then sewn and glued onto one’s natural hair.
India is the industry’s primary supplier of hair for weaves and wigs and vast quantities of it actually derive from the religious ceremony of ‘hair tonsuring’, which takes place on a daily basis in Hindu temples across the country. As part of the ceremony, Hindus (both men and women) shave their heads as an act of sacrifice and modesty, subsequently leaving their hair behind at the temples. In one such temple, Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam in Andhra Pradesh, South India, over 50,000 devotees partake in the ritual daily, producing in excess of 1 tonne of hair every day; this is then sold to wig and weave companies around the world. Commenting on the bizarre irony of the situation, Rock explained that, whilst in India, he witnessed “some of the worst poverty in the world… I don’t think [people] know they’re walking around with $1,000 on their head.” Once they have arrived in the US, most weaves and wigs (along with related beauty products) that are supplied to retailers catering for African-Americans are, controversially, not actually in their control; instead, for a variety of reasons beyond the scope of this article, Koreans control over 80 percent of the industry, and this has created some measures of contention between the two communities.
For better or for worse, there is no denying that the black hair industry is booming. Though the history and dynamics of the industry may be questionable and open to debate, its increased attention in the public sphere is argued to be a step in the right direction. Jason Griggers, an Atlanta-based stylist interviewed in ‘Good Hair’ (who, incidentally, is white) hopes this may help to break down walls between races; as he explains: “More dialogue is better than no dialogue.”