Good Hair: What the Phrase Really Means and Why It Should Go Away

For Beyoncé to say "good hair" with such disgust is for her to denounce the ideal that she actively benefits from.
Publish date:
April 29, 2016
music, Beyonce, race, Good Hair

As a natural who has a lot of opinions about black hair and its various textures, I was heartened by Beyoncé's Lemonade.

It was the first time since her Destiny's Child days (shortly before they broke up, I became a hater for several years — we all make mistakes) that I'd seen her wearing her hair in cornrows and a much puffier texture than what she usually rocks in her videos and on the red carpet. Seeing all of the women around her in the film also sport undeniably afro-textured hair was fascinating, as it wasn't something that's usually seen from artists as mainstream and high-profile as Beyoncé. I doubted that I was the only natural who noticed this.

I also doubted that I was alone in daintily putting my hand to my mouth at her mention of "Becky with the good hair" and wondering if my ears had temporarily stopped working.

Beyoncé? Calling out someone else's "good hair"? Beyoncé, who has never been seen in public with hair any curlier than a 2c? That Beyoncé?

The afterglow of hearing this surprising and somewhat ironic statement from Queen Good Hair McBlowout herself was immediately dampened, as all things Beyoncé tend to be, by a deluge of thinkpieces by people who had probably gone their entire lives without hearing that phrase in the way Beyonce meant it or the way black people on the whole understand it. It became glaringly clear from the flood of articles pouring down my Twitter feed that these writers all seemed to think that good hair literally meant hair that was good.

To say they were wrong, and that those unresearched approaches to a culture they're unfamiliar with were insultingly lazy, would be to make a towering understatement.

The phrase "good hair" isn't used to describe hair that's particularly well-styled, or even kempt. It's solely a descriptor of texture, and refers to black hair that is straight, wavy, or very loosely curled. The term is rooted in demeaning highly coiled afro-textured hair by damning comparison: "good" hair isn't kinky or nappy, it's loose and fine; it blows in the breeze and sways with movement; "good" hair is considered beautiful on its own, while highly textured hair must be pressed, permed and beaten into "presentable" submission. Though it's rarely explicitly stated, the heavy implication is that all other types of black hair that aren't "good" — especially densely coiled hair — are "bad."

And yes, this is a line of thought that is used specifically to talk about black hair, as there's an underlying implication with the type of people who use this rhetoric that non-black, non-coiled hair is already perfect on its own and needs no qualifying prefix.

A depressingly large contributing factor to our internalized shaming of highly textured black hair (and, similarly, dark skin,) was, and sadly still is, survival. We still very much live in a world where black people, even in 2016, are reprimanded and fired from their jobs for their hair textures being too "unprofessional" for the workplace, to say nothing of times decades prior where being slightly lighter and looking less immediately identifiable as black could mean the difference between a job or unemployment, harassment or safety, and life or death.

Lighter skin and looser curls are also prized for being closer to a white standard of beauty that offered no space for the dark-skinned and kinky-haired to also be considered beautiful. When black people are told our entire lives that the only way to achieve anything, be successful financially, or be desirable is to look as close to a certain aesthetic as possible, especially when the conferred benefits of treatment are confirmed around us in the experiences of our lighter-skinned family members and friends, it's no small wonder that elevating loose curls and light skin as the only form of acceptable blackness became so entrenched in our, and other's, mindsets.

Which brings me back to Beyoncé, someone who has been upheld as a perfect example of how black women should aspire to look: light skinned, with loose curls or straightened hair. For her to spit out the phrase "good hair" with disgust shortly before a soul-burrowing stare into the hearts of the viewers, for her to not only denounce this ideal that she actively benefits from, but to so directly link it to the cause of her pain in the narrative woven in Lemonade, is a stunning and unexpected display of solidarity with the darker-skinned, coilier-haired black women who have been both tacitly and explicitly compared to her for over a decade.

That so many people managed to miss the point she made by a mile and a half is, sadly, also stunning, but by no means unexpected.

There have been more than enough articles expounding at length on the five words in the entire hour-long film and 45-minute album that obliquely reference white people; however, and I don't intend for this one to add to that growing pile. What should be the focus, instead, is the creative direction that displayed "bad" hair in all its thick, coiled glory, in so many different ways, shapes and presentations. The scenes where straight hair took the forefront were few and far between, and greatly outnumbered by fluffy, braided hairdos that showed the versatile architecture of what our hair is capable of. It could look like serene clouds, or towering braided spires, or long plaited ribbons or different formations of puffs, poofs and locks that leaves the mind in awe of the creativity involved.

There was, for the first time in a long time, and certainly the first time in such a mainstream capacity, an honest, gleeful celebration of highly-textured black hair and the beautiful people who wear it.

All in all, despite all of this, the presentation of natural hair in Lemonade was both a statement, and an aesthetic backdrop in a film that was made to center and explore a specific facet of black womanhood. It was an added detail that meshed with many other details to form a finished tapestry of art, one that felt truly honest to the experiences of so many women who have their vulnerabilities, bodies, and beauty hidden from them by the media.

The phrase "good hair" in this context falls into that same category: something that was meant to be a reminder of the intended audience of the film, and to underscore where the loyalties of the narrative laid. While it's sadly unsurprising that the complexity of the film is being ignored in favor of picking apart this phrase, we can only hope that the result is that the notion of "good hair" goes the way of "bae," "fleek," and every other black phrase that's been dragged kicking and screaming into the mainstream to be misused with reckless abandon for months on end: that all of us eventually get tired of it, and move on.

Here are my pre-emptive condolences, "good hair." Should you truly perish, you shall not be missed.