What is “Good Hair”?

This is how my hair looks after I wash it. While it’s still wet, I spritz it with herb-infused water, massage in a shea butter moisturizer, grab hanks of hair at random and braid them into a chunky two-strand cluster. Then I let my hair dry overnight and unbraid it in the morning. The style is called a twist-out. Depending on whom you ask, my hair is kinky, highly textured or just plain nappy. To break it down even further on the hair hierarchy, my locks are a Type 4. In spite of this newfangled classification system, I grew up believing my kind of hair fell into one category: bad.

I’ve been natural for more than three years. This means I chopped off my processed, highlighted hair and have been learning to treasure the coils that grow naturally from my scalp. I say “learning” because it’s not an easy process to value locks such as mine, often deemed unruly or hard to manage. Yet, I’m proud to be a naturalista.

So why am I dredging up those knotty old demons?

It seems that not a week goes by without a headline about black women’s hair. Recently, actor Isaiah Mustafa, also known as the Old Spice Guy, found himself entangled in controversy when he described his ideal wife as having “good hair.”

“Yes, it does have to be real hair. I want my kids to have nice hair so she better have good hair. Cause, I don’t know if you’ve checked my hair out lately. Aside from today it’s normally nice. Today it’s slightly nappy,” Mustafa said.

The Twitterverse and blogosphere backlash was swift, and many sisters accused Mustafa of being shallow and self-hating. Still others defended his preference, responding that people (read: bitter black broads) need to stop being so sensitive. The Man Your Man Could Smell Like later apologized for his comments, calling them ignorant. Moving on to the next stale headline …

I don’t take issue with Mustafa’s preference. Some gentlemen prefer blondes, redheads and hair that blows in the wind. This partiality isn’t limited to black men. I went to school with black girls who swooned over brothers with “good” hair, those silken tresses you could run your fingers through. Truth be told, I was one of the swooners. To us, dating a guy with wavy hair was a sign of status, a form of mane alchemy, transforming our kinks into something beautiful and worthy. But that superficial desire is something I’ve outgrown like neon gloves and spandex dresses. I get that Mustafa was probably joking when he told the E! News anchor that his hair was “slightly nappy,” yet, his use of the word “good” is troubling to me.

What exactly is good hair?

Healthy hair is good hair. That’s one way conscious women have reappropriated the term. After years of conditioning (no pun intended), and believing my hair was inferior unless it was chemically straightened or artificially enhanced, I have to agree. Regardless of texture, hair that is worn proudly is good. Although my tresses are comb-defying, they’re well-groomed and strong.

We live in a society where more and more black women choose to rock their God-given locks, where teeny weeny afros, cornrows and twist outs are hailed in commercials, movies and even the halls of Congress. There’s a movement afoot (or should I say a-head?) challenging cultural norms that privilege long straight hair, instead showcasing the beauty of naturalistas. In the face of this emerging aesthetic, the term “good hair” sounds like throwback slang, something a Negro sporting a jheri-curl and a shower cap would utter at a passing “redbone,” not words coming from the mouth of an informed black man in 2011. Or maybe the only thing Old Spice Guy is informed about is deodorant and body wash.

If it were up to me, I’d bury the term good hair, like those well-meaning activists who held a burial for the word “nigger.” Unfortunately, there will always be the unenlightened among us who resurrect this phrase that, like the N-word, marginalizes and conjures up feelings of shame and ugliness. I long for the day when black women are no longer being “graded” on our hair, when our worthiness is no longer predicated on the silkiness or length of our tresses. Until then, I’ll keep loving these versatile strands more and more. Now that’s what’s good.

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