Celebrating Good Hair: A Week of Follicular Coverage

This Friday, the Chris Rock movie Good Hair opens in select cities. Rock made the film, a documentary about the extremely complicated relationship black women have with their hair, after his two daughters asked him why they didn't have good hair: in other words, the soft, straight, blonde hair we see shaken at us on shampoo commercials.

The relationship between black women and their hair goes well beyond the occasional bad-hair day. It's about race, politics, and the expectations of women to conform to a certain standard. It's a great film, and one that teases out (no pun intended) the complex business of having hair that makes a political statement, whether you like it or not.

But without making light of all the messy historical, political, and cultural unpleasantness tied up in black women's hair, it's worth discussing another point: no one I know, black or white, woman or man, is ever really satisfied with his or her hair. I tested my hypothesis when I visited Francky, the proprietor of Francky L'Official salon on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. How many women, I asked, liked their hair? None, he said. They always want something totally different from what they have—though in fairness, those who visit Francky are willing to pay big bucks for styles, blowouts, and Keratin straightening treatments.

But even "good hair" is never enough. I should know. I have good hair: it's red and thick, and looks pretty good first thing in the morning. My reward for having good hair—aside from the fact that old ladies like to touch it at the mall—is that I don't have to think about it. But I still cry every time I get a haircut. And since my last cut, a 15-minute butcher session that left me with unflattering bangs and an uneven bob, I've been moody, insecure, and obsessed with the best way to hide my flaws. In other words, I've been miserable. Never mind that from a personal and professional standpoint, I've had several small and large victories since the cut. Now my hair—fixing it, hiding it, dealing with it—is all I can think about.

A co-worker of mine, who has big, gorgeous, sexy, curly hair, spends almost an hour each morning trying to dry it into a mellow wave. My sister, whose supershiny hair waves naturally, owns both a flat iron and a barrel curing iron for when she wants her hair to look good. My roommate, if her curls get too long and unwieldy, is not above chopping them off at the bathroom sink. Even my male co-workers have a reaction when they hear about a story on hair: one told me about his secret desire for thick, healthy hair instead of his self-described "Jew-fro"; another said with a happy smile that his side of the family had been blessed with full, dense locks.

In the U.S., we spend $7.5 billion a year on hair-care products. A British survey suggests that women spend 2.5 years of their life working on their hair. And still it's never enough. Why are we so obsessed with good hair?

I'm not the only one wondering about this. Janet Jakobsen, a professor at Barnard College and director of the Barnard Center for Research on Women, is hosting a panel discussion next week called "Just Hair? Women, Politics, Passion and Fashion." To her, hair is so much more than the stuff that grows out of our head.

To Jakobsen, hair is a canvas on which we can express our views—or by which our views are expressed. "Unlike clothing, which you can take off or put on, it's semipermanent. It's part of your body, and yet can be styled in all these different ways," she says. "It's more powerful than what clothes you put on, yet it has more malleability than other parts of the body do."

In other words: hair belongs to us but is not really a part of us—it's something we can change and style and re-create on a whim. That ability to change gives us power, but it also instills in us a sense that it could somehow always be different or better.

"Hair is one of the only things we have that grows, that replaces itself," says Connie Koppelman, professor of women's studies at Stony Brook University. Every new haircut, every few months with a different length or a different look, is a chance to be someone different. And there's always the hope that if we could just get our hair right, the rest of life might fall into place.

As personal as our hair is, it's also the subject of some very public and political discussions. Heather Barnes, a documentary filmmaker, chronicled the complicated relationship women have with their hair in her film Hair Stories. Her blog of the same name further explores the way that hair is not just a fashion statement but something much more complex: A woman in Canada loses her job after shaving her head for charity. A preschool student with dreadlocks is threatened with expulsion. Older women are taken to task for wearing their hair too long—a statement deemed "too sexy" for women over a certain age.

Hair, Jakobsen says, is one way we "communicate things that are fundamentally meaningful for us. It's not just 'I dye my hair because I want to look youthful,' but larger symbolic issues about how you view society and social meaning." If you dye your hair, you care about looking youthful. If you dye it badly, you care too much: it's pathetic and unbecoming. If you don't dye it at all, you've given up—or are treated as much older than you actually are.

Because we can change it, the way our hair looks is viewed as a choice we make—to wear it conservatively, to dye it green, to cut it short or grow it long in defiance of what societal standards are. That choice helps others decide what they think about us and who we are. So because our hair is always, always saying something, it's often difficult to ignore it.

With that in mind, we're celebrating Good Hair Week here at The Human Condition. All this week, we'll have stories about hair and our complicated relationship to it. Whether it's our quest to make it straight, the secrets it can reveal about our health, or the ugly side of getting good hair, hair talks, and we're going to listen.

Check back every day for more posts and articles about hair—and be sure to submit your stories and photos of your own bad hair memories.