When Good Hair Goes Bad: a Sociological Perspective of the Documentary ‘Good Hair’ Essay

When Good Hair Goes Bad: A Sociological Perspective of the Documentary ‘Good Hair’ Within the African American community, there exists a notion of “good hair” and “bad hair”. This topic has historically ignited a great debate within the culture that has entrenched the community drawing no lines between gender, socioeconomic status, or age. To understand some of the dynamics of the hair debate it is important to comprehend the cultural relativism of the social facts and the belief held by the African America Diaspora.

Cultural relativism is the idea that “something can be understood and judged only in relation to the cultural context in which it appears” (Andersen & Taylor, 2011, pg. 41). Social facts were described by Emile Durkheim as the “social patterns external to individuals, e. g. customs and social values” (Andersen & Taylor, 2011, pg. 14). To fully grasp the magnitude of the debate within the African American community we must understand two key sociological terms.

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The first term, impression management is the “process by which people control how others perceive them” (Anderson & Taylor, 2011, pg. 118). The second term is deviance and is recognized as behavior that “violates expected rules and norms” (Andersen & Taylor, 2011, pg. 152). Through content analysis (“a way of measuring by examining cultural artifacts”) of the documentary ‘Good Hair’, we are afforded a glimpse behind the veil to gain a measure of insight into the hair norms within the African American culture and the peculiarities of “good” and “bad hair” (Andersen & Taylor, 2011, pg. 7). Narrated and produced by comedian Chris Rock, ‘Good Hair’ is a documentary that explores African American hairstyles and the booming industry that aids in the attainment of the positive moniker “good hair”, while attempting to clarify its meaning (Rock & Stilson, 2009). The pursuit of “good hair” is so ingrained that children’s perceptions are socialized from an early age to understand that some hair texture (or style) is innately better while others are not. However, the socially learned attitude is one that may be rebuffed as they grown and their circle of influence expands.

One observes of the African American women in this documentary, that there is a persistent and continual need for impression management, demonstrated by comparing chemical- processing or “creamy crack” to a drug addiction. Further denoting the additive nature of the “creamy crack” it is said that African American women spend exorbitant amounts of money (like an addict spend on their addiction) to achieve a “look” that is highly desirable within their community or to be more desirable to the opposite sex (Rock & Stilson, 2009).

The “look” is described as “hair that is not kinky, course or nappy” but is “smooth and straight”, similar to that of people of Eurocentric descent (Titelbaum, 2009). The women went to great lengths to achieve or at least give off the impression of “good hair” by fashioning and wearing hair from other races, jeopardizing financial security and chemically-processing their hair, exposing themselves to possible personal injury, in order to have “good hair” (Rock & Stilson, 2009).

There were few favorable opinions regarding natural hair, and by majority, participants viewed hair in its natural state as “bad” (Rock & Stilson, 2009). In contrast to “good hair”, those who chose to grow hair naturally, free from chemicals and extensions emerge as deviance. This deviance being a preference for “kinks or coils” rejects the prevailing norms and is considered counter culture, “a subculture created as a reaction against the values of the dominant culture” (Andersen & Taylor, 2011, pg. 40).

A prevailing belief is that natural hair is more cost-effective and takes less time to manage (Titelbaum, 2009). Natural hair is also perceived as unkempt and dirty (Titelbaum, 2009). If one chooses to style their hair in a naturalistic way, effectively rejecting the dominant cultural opinion and pressure to conform to the hair standard; they are accepting of the fact that their choice will likely garner negative connotations and reactions. In conclusion, impression management by women through hair styling is not exclusive to the African American culture.

However, this documentary illustrates that this is a fundamental part of their diverse culture. The individual choices made about hairstyle preferences or deviance from the norm will ultimately foster a characterization of “good” or “bad hair”; which sets this group of women apart from women of other ethnicities. It must be quite damaging to the ego to believe that a naturally occurring characteristic as unique as one’s own hair to be perpetually “bad” when in fact, any hair can be beautiful in any length and texture.

The debate surrounding “good” or “bad hair” in the African American culture is best summarized by one participant from the documentary, “having any hair at all should be” [thought of as having] “good hair” (Rock & Stilson, 2009). One’s self-image should not be dictated by general consensus or dominant culture and the choice of conformity or deviance should not have such an immensely dividing effect within one culture.

As with any community, there are many issues specific to African American culture that require redress; concern should be focused in those areas that foster unity, and cohesiveness, not discord and division.

Works Cited

Anderson, M. & Taylor, H. (2011). ‘Sociology: The Essentials: 6th Edition. ‘ Belmont: Thompson Wadsworth. Print Rock, C. (Producer), & Stilson, J. (Director) (2009). Good hair [Theater]. 20 Nov 2011. Titelbaum, S. (Director) (2009). In Banks, T. (Executive Producer), The Tyra Banks Show. New York: Chelsea Studios. Web. 21 Nov 2012.

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