October 18, 2009

Good Hair Day


I come from Asia, where the standard of beauty is long, smooth, shiny black hair. Of course, I don't have that. My mother has naturally curly hair. 3 out of 4 of her daughters inherited that gene. My coarse (formerly thick) hair starts to frizz up the moment my plane lands in the Philippines. My sisters have had their hair straightened, I've seen friends have their hair relaxed. I have watched a black friend laboriously flatten/iron her hair on the day of her baby shower. I babysat a Ghananian friend's two kids while she went to the beauty parlor for a whole day. I wondered why a trip to the salon would take 8+ hours, but I dared not ask. So I was excited to have the brilliant Chris Rock unveil the mystery behind black women's hair in the documentary Good Hair.

Spurred to action by his daughter's question, "How come I don't have good hair?", the always edgy Mr. Rock went to Harlem, the Dudley Products headquarters in North Carolina, barbershops and beauty salons, the Bronner Brothers' famous hair show in Atlanta, a chemist's lab to show the damaging effects of relaxers (whose main ingredient is sodium hydroxide) and to a temple in India where worshipers sacrifice their hair in a ceremony called tonsure. Indian hair then makes it way to the U.S. in the form of weaves. I had previously read about this practice but never knew that the African-American hair culture was a billion dollar industry, with only 4-5 companies owned by black people. Asians, particularly Koreans, seem to have a monopoly on black hair care products. One of the film's uncomfortably comical scenes was Chris trying to sell black people's hair to different stores, and the potential buyers would bluntly turn him down.

Director Jeff Stilson interweaves these stories with interviews from Tracie Thoms, Nia Long, Raven Symone, Ice-T, Salt-Pepa, Sarah Jones, even Maya Angelou and Reverend Al Sharpton(who admitted having his hair relaxed). The end-product is a frank, lively, incredibly funny and astute discussion on culture, beauty, race, exploitation, economics, and even relationships. (Black men aren't allowed to touch their ladies' hair. And if you spend thousands of dollars on it, I can understand why.) I was the lone Asian in the moviehouse, surrounded by interracial couples and groups of black women. I sometimes wondered if it was inappropriate to laugh at some of the things being said or shown on screen, but thankfully, we were all laughing out loud. I guess the quest for good hair is a universal thing. And funny is funny. There is room for debate on whether the black women are trying to conform to the Caucasians' standard of beauty, or they are simply looking for a convenient way to manage their hair.

It all boils down to women just wanting to look their best. But I hope it's Mr. Rock's shrewd observation that it's not what's on top of your head that's important, but what's inside it, that ALL women will take to heart.

(photo from Impawards)

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