Film explores black image of beauty

Whether to wear an Afro, braids, dreadlocks, perm or weave, usually a discussion limited to black women, is getting broader discussion because of Andrews native Chris Rock's documentary, "Good Hair," which opened nationwide last week.

Rock's amusing and thought-provoking documentary takes a look at beauty and business practices in the huge black hair-care industry. It deals with the time, energy, money and discomfort black women endure to get straight hair, which most have been raised to believe is "good hair."

While many blacks choose to wear their natural kinky hair because of convenience or pride, far more choose an option that temporarily leaves their hair straight or semi-straight. Hair that mimics that of whites long has been the standard of beauty for many blacks, and points made in the documentary indicate that isn't going to change anytime soon.

Rock produced the documentary, which he also co-wrote and narrated, after his daughter asked him why she did not have " good hair." The documentary won the Sundance Film Festival's Jury Prize earlier this year.


"The basic issue with many folks is how we get our idea of beauty," said Dr. Stephen McLeod-Bryant, a Medical University of South Carolina psychiatrist. "A lot of that is driven by what society as a whole believes is beautiful. For many centuries, the hair associated with being black was not seen as a sign of beauty. If hair was not straight and did not blow in the wind, it was a sign of inferiority."

McLeod-Bryant said some blacks shed those ideas about their natural hair during the '60s and '70s, when wearing an Afro became a political and fashion statement.

"But something that is bred over centuries does not just go away in a number of years," he said. "There is still quite a bit of pressure within society to conform to a sense of beauty that is straighter rather than curlier hair and longer rather than shorter hair."

Whether you look at Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey or Tyra Banks, models of African-American beauty, the message is that natural black hair is not as good as straight hair, McLeod-Bryant said. Women's magazines sometimes feature black women on their covers, but rarely one wearing an Afro or dreadlocks.

"As Chris Rock highlights in his film, this is big business, and people are making lots of money to keep us thinking we need to have our extensions and weaves and all that kind of stuff on our heads," McLeod-Bryant said.


Ninety percent of the black women who patronize Shear Beauty in Charleston want straight hair, said Tralane Bell, the salon's owner. Most request a chemical relaxer or perm to straighten their naturally kinky hair, making it possible to sport the latest hairstyle.

Others achieve trendy hairstyles by having long, flowing imported hair pieces called weaves sewn onto their braids. Weaves give such a natural appearance that some women claim their husbands think it's their own hair.

"I'm gonna wear a weave until I die," Bell said. "If it ain't long, it's wrong. I feel like Beyonce. Once you wear a weave, it's hard to go without it. Some people won't be caught dead with one, and others won't be caught alive without one."

The weave can become the outer expression of an inner idea of beauty, said Angela Fuller, a stylist at Shear Beauty. "Wearing a weave changes a woman's personality, her outlook on life and makes her feel more beautiful. When I took out my weave, it took me a while to see myself as beautiful."

But Fuller warns: "If we are not careful, we are going to hurt our girls. We have to let our daughters know that they are beautiful in their own skin.

"It's important that their idea of what is beautiful is coming from the right place."

Many people actually think that having a bit of straightening done to their hair, even texturing an Afro, achieved with a mild relaxing, gives them a glow, the stylists say.


Patricia Jones flirted with the idea of going natural since college, but was held back by family members who said wearing an Afro would make her look like a man. In her 30s, she saw an increasing number of women wearing natural hairstyles and admired them. And she was growing tired of sitting in salons for most of the day during biweekly visits for a wash and set.

"On June 10, 1998, I woke up and said, 'This is the day I am going to cut this perm out of my hair,'" said Jones, training supervisor for the Charleston County Consolidated 911 Center.

The idea that straight hair was good hair and nappy hair was bad had left her completely.

"I just said I'm OK with my natural hair. It's good. It's cool. . . . I don't have to have straight hair to assimilate or to compete in the workplace.

"It's like the India.Arie song said, 'I am not my hair. I am not my hair.'

"I don' t have to fit in."

Before wearing a perm for almost 20 years, Jones had Jheri curls (shiny, loose curls popular among blacks in the '80s and early '90s) for a few years. Think Michael Jackson in the video "Billie Jean." Jheri curls were just too messy, she said. An activator gel made the hair stay curly and glistening, and it required sleeping in a plastic cap so the hair would stay moisturized.

Jones said it was cheaper than a perm at $20 to $30 and would last for three months.

"I got my first perm when I was a sophomore in high school. A perm was about $50 and would last for about six weeks before new growth needed to be permed. The washes and sets every two weeks cost $25.

"Now I get my Afro cut for $12, and in 30 minutes, I am out."

Blacks who want to stop being exposed to the harsh chemicals are turning to natural hairstyles, said Chavala Wilkerson, owner of Nubian Designs in Charleston.

Wilkerson said the number of people wearing Afros, braids and dreadlocks is increasing because the styles are becoming more acceptable, especially among people 30 and older.

Sometimes, they choose to wear a natural hairstyle because they can be low maintenance, Wilkerson said. "Often, it just takes shampooing and conditioning every two weeks. With some natural styles, you can go longer than two weeks, but it's not maintenance-free.

"The amount of time spent in the salon depends on what you are having done," Wilkerson said. "There are so many different styles you can get. If you are having some twists done, it takes an hour and a half and you may have to sit under the dryer. Mostly, you have to make sure your hair is dry before you leave so that it does not unravel."

Yet natural hairstyles beyond a very short cut may be unacceptable in the workplace.

"We had a customer and she had dreads," Shear Beauty owner, Bell, said. "She wasn't getting the promotion she wanted because she didn't look the part.

"She cut her hair and got it relaxed, and she got the job. It's sad, but that's the way that it is."