When 'Good Hair' Hurts

For years, I relaxed my black hair using painful chemicals as a way to find acceptance in my mostly white environment.

Katie Martin / Emily Jan / The Atlantic

I can vividly recall being a kid, standing in front of a mirror, and wishing I was someone else. Maybe I could be Christina Aguilera or Jennifer Lopez; Beyoncé or Aaliyah. They were all singers who shared the one thing I coveted for the better part of my 26 years—not their musical talent, but their “good hair.”

I used to loathe the days I had to sit in the kitchen while my mom worked her comb through my tight, unyielding curls. As I drove my nails into the seat of my chair, I imagined having the long, straight tresses of the famous women I admired. Some days I would go into the bathroom and pull a T-shirt over my forehead so that the collar hugged my hairline and the rest fell down my back and I could pretend to have long hair.

It was a curious way to behave, because I don’t ever remember feeling ashamed of my blackness. I grew up with loving parents who prioritized teaching black history and culture to my three siblings and me. Our family read books on the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade, black artwork lined the walls of our home, and my parents took us to museums and movies that featured black stories. I’ve come to realize that I was not ashamed to be black, but I was ashamed of a significant marker of my blackness—my hair.

Black hair has always been contentious and political in the United States and around the world. Black girls who wear their natural curls are threatened with expulsion from school, black people at work are told their hair is unprofessional, and blacks at all levels of fame and success can face social ridicule for how their hair looks. A “Good Hair Study” released recently by the Perception Institute found that the majority of its 4,163 male and female participants, regardless of race, “show implicit bias against black women’s textured hair.” White women, however, showed the strongest signs of both implicit and explicit bias against black women’s textured hair. The study also found that black women face “high levels of anxiety” about their hair more often than white women.

In their 2002 book Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America, Lori Tharps and her co-author Ayana Byrd traced the history of black people’s relationship with their hair from 15th-century Africa through the present-day United States. “Hair was considered something sacred in Africa. It was considered holy almost, because the hair was really one’s identity,” Tharps said. “A person could tell everything about another person based on their hairstyle.”

Slavery changed that. Hair became a symbol of difference between black slaves and their white owners, Tharps said. How slaves chose to wear their hair wasn’t a matter of beauty, it was a matter of acceptance and survival. Tharps summarized this point in an essay she wrote for The Grio:

“The term ‘good hair’ harks back to antebellum America, when slaves knew that the less African they appeared, the better treatment they would receive from slave owners. Hair was the number one marker of negritude. It was also the most malleable ethnic trait. Using a combination of homemade concoctions and ingenious straightening methods, the slaves worked tirelessly at making their hair seem less foreign to their white masters. In return, they hoped that their straightened locks would aid them in being chosen for the coveted house jobs instead of working in the fields.”

That idea of mimicking the European aesthetic permeated black existence—for both men and women—as we found increasingly sophisticated ways to “tame” our kinky locks in order to satisfy white standards. Mass media and social conditioning reinforced a preference for white features, so much so that black people judged each other based on whether or not they had “good hair.” Because, as Tharps and Byrd wrote in their book: “There was no excuse for ‘nappy,’ or unstraightened, hair.” In the 1970s, products known as lye hair relaxers, which straightened black hair using harsh chemical combinations, took off in the United States. Blacks at that time also turned to wigs and hair extensions, or weaves, to get the look they desired.

I never got into weaves, but I was very excited to get my first hair relaxer at age 10. My mom has said she will never forget the image of me standing in front of the mirror after that first appointment, shaking my straightened hair back and forth. I started going to the hair salon every two weeks for washing, conditioning, and styling. As a private-school girl until college—with just a few, if any, black peers—relaxing my hair was the first time I could connect with my classmates on the basic level of physical appearance. We may not have had the same skin color, but now we could wear the same hairstyles.

Little did I know that I was trading in my mom’s painful combing sessions for thin hair and the occasional open sore on my scalp. My relaxers did not have the lye concentration of past products, but even “no-lye” treatments can cause long-lasting effects. Chemicals in relaxers have been linked to problems with hair loss, cancer, and reproductive health (such as miscarriages and infant underdevelopment). Every eight weeks my relaxer needed to be refreshed. My stylist would divide my hair into sections, apply the cream to the base of each area, and let me sit so the product could work its magic. For the most part, the discomfort of the chemicals was manageable. But some days I committed the cardinal sin of relaxers—scratching my head before my appointment—and the burning would be excruciating. I would squirm in my seat and tears would fall, but at the end I emerged with the sleek look I loved.

Eventually, however, I grew tired of my sore scalp and my noticeably thinning hair. I needed something different. My mom transitioned to “locs” around the same time I started relaxing my hair. She was tired of using extensions that caused hair breakage, and decided to cut off her chemically processed hair and start fresh. Over the years, she encouraged me not to use relaxers, but I didn’t think the natural look worked for me. My real awakening came at age 19 during my sophomore year of college, when I started to see more women my age wearing afros, braids, and other natural styles. In the late 2000s, many black women became more vocal about forgoing harsh chemical straighteners and expensive weaves, and sporting their natural curls. Women started blogs and YouTube channels dedicated to showing others how to care for and style natural hair. Products for maintaining healthy curls also became more available. I was overwhelmed by the possibility of a different look and the amount of upkeep involved in maintaining natural hair, but my mother and these women inspired me to stop the chemicals.

Today my hair alternates between an afro and a two-strand twist (which is similar to a braid, but uses two pieces of hair instead of three). My hair now is fuller, healthier, and much longer than it ever was relaxed. I don’t think about going back to my old look, but my transition to natural hair was not easy. My afro, for example, tangles easily and requires a nightly ritual of combing and braiding that takes about an hour longer than my nightly routine with relaxed hair. I have also felt a social shift with my natural hairstyle. I have gone on dates with men who told me they weren’t “into” the natural look. White people have questioned the cleanliness of my hair. And not a week goes by that I don’t wonder how my hair will be perceived in the office or during a job interview. In spite of this, I feel connected to my black roots in a different way than I did growing up. The world around me still overwhelmingly values white features but I have changed how I see myself.