Translating ‘Becky with the Good Hair’

blonde becky with the good hair beyonce

Earlier this year, I wrote about Beyoncé’s politically charged Super Bowl performance and the scandal that arose in its wake. Half the world praised her for giving Black empowerment a moment in the media, while the other half branded her a racist and threatened to boycott her music.

Beyoncé made no apologies and paid no heed to the angry mob. Instead, she later followed up the performance with the release of Lemonade. Since its release, the album has inspired critical acclaim, a whole new host of pop culture references… and the witch hunt foone very elusive “Becky”.

In her song Sorry, Beyoncé stated:

He only want me when I’m not there He better call Becky with the good hair

Brilliantly Bad Decision

In hopes of capitalising on the spotlight thrown on Beyoncé yet again, two staffers of Glamour devised a brilliantly terrible plan. They fired back at Beyoncé’s Becky with the Good Hair by posting:

Becky with the Good Hair.jpg
Photo Credit: Glamour

I had to see it to believe it. I couldn’t believe that anyone living in a multicultural society, like America or the UK, could be so bloody clueless as to why this would be inappropriate.

The responses on social media further brought perhaps the biggest embarrassment any lifestyle and entertainment brand has faced in quite some time.

Becky with the Good Hair 2Becky with the Good Hair 3Becky with the Good Hair 5

Glamour Magazine is not Alone

But I would soon learn that Glamour staffers weren’t the only ones who didn’t quite get it. Many people actually have no idea what this means.

The following day, while Michael and I drove back from the gym, I asked him if he had heard about the incident.

To put things into context here, let me just inject the necessary detail that my husband is White.

Michael raps, has more Black friends than I do, and knows more about Ebonics than I will ever care to learn. Yet, even he was clueless as to why the article was offensive, and as to what on Earth the phrase “Becky with the good hair meant”.

“Isn’t that the whole thing about Jay-Z cheating on Beyoncé?” he asked me.

“Becky isn’t the point. Don’t you know what ‘good hair’ means?” I asked incredulously.

He didn’t.

It was at that moment that I had to step back and re-evaluate what I believed should have been common knowledge and fairly obvious. After all, I come from a predominantly Black country, whereas America is… well… America.

So let me explain why this is not just another minority-tantrum like the many that make it through the media.

The History Lesson

Of all the angry tweets directed at Glamour, this one summed up the root of the problem best.

Becky with the Good Hair 4

The keywords here are “historical significance”. This is because the phrase good hair wasn’t coined by Beyoncé for Lemonade, or even by 90s rap. It’s been a part of the Black Movement and the Black struggle since the days of slavery, and is deeply rooted in the journey of Black women (and men) from properties to human beings.

To keep slaves compliant, they were taught that their natural features made them somehow less worthy of rights and freedoms than other races. This primarily included the colour of their skin, and the texture of their hair. Coincidentally, these are the two most distinguishing features of what it means to be Black.

After slavery, as civil rights movements took shape and Blacks received their first chance of assimilating into regular society, these differences posed a problem. But while Black skin brought no inherent inconveniences besides people’s personal biases, Black hair did.

Let me explain how.

The Struggle is Real

For most Black women, our hair is still a part of that daily struggle – especially in an era where personal appearances mean so much. Our friends of other ethnic groups and mixes can easily throw their hair into a ponytail in five seconds. But our frizzy hair obeys no law and no man.

Even in the corporate world, many of us are forced to ditch our natural hair, because corporate thinks our kinky locks are too naughty for regular business operations. And at my Catholic school, every ethnic hair-do was banned in the rule books, and as we tried new ones – like my signature Mickey Mouse puffs in seventh grade – those were quickly outlawed, too.

But ironically, the people who notice our hair the most? – is us. While other teenagers mostly worried about body image issues and acne, we worried about that and our hair. Maybe mostly our hair.

Many of us have tried everything – perms, presses, cornrows, braids, and just cutting the damn thing off. Sometimes we’ve done so much crap to it, it just falls off on its own…

And all of that to conform to what regular society decides is good hair – which is essentially not our stubborn kinky hair. Good hair is the Black Community’s bitterly-spoken name for obedient, soft, silky smooth locks of the Mixed, the Asians, Latinas, and of course White folks.

It’s worry-free hair; the hair of the models they put in Pantene ads, and the girls on Pinterest with an effortless bun on the top of their heads.

In contrast, our naturally dry, frizzy hair is bad hair. We are taught from an early age through dolls, school rules, corporate expectations, and the media that our genetically gifted natural hair is not sufficient, fashionable, or appropriate.

To soften the message, the media often puts forward an image that kinky (or nappy hair) looks like this:

This is true to an extent, but more accurately, this is what African hair looks like when a woman is mixed. In other words, if Michael and I had a daughter, she would likely have a similar hair type to either of these two women. Often times, these hair-types become grouped with good hair because it’s “less Black”. 

But for most of us, our hair looks a bit more like this:
Black kinky hair.jpg
Photo Credit: Steven Depolo

Imagine trying to get hair that kinky to meet society’s professional, beautiful, and neat standards, like these Beckys with the Good Hair

Becky with the Good Hair.png
Photo Credit: Glamour

And then imagine the overwhelming pressure to meet these expectations. We quite literally get chemical burns from relaxers and heat burns from press combs just trying to keep up. As one tweep summed it up nicely:

beck with the good hair beyonce twitter

The Way Forward

Of course, things are changing now. Many corporations “allow” us to wear our natural hair without causing a fuss. I, for instance, wore my dreadlocks when I worked at Xerox Business Services.

Similarly, many magazines, fashion shows, and movies also feature Black women who embrace their natural heritage; whether they have bad hair, good hair or something in-between.

As we grow older we learn what works for us, and we accept that we’ll just have to spend more time and more money on making our bad hair good enough to meet societal expectations.

In fact, Beyoncé made a strong statement by refusing to chemically alter her daughter’s hair – at least, not yet. However, when that same Queen Bey – the most powerful female symbol in the Black Community – hires a team to make her look like a Becky with the Good Hair, you know we still have a ways to go…

Photo Tony Duran
Photo Credit: Tony Duran

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354 thoughts on “Translating ‘Becky with the Good Hair’

  1. Am 1/8th American Black Foot Indian, 50% german, and the rest of my family was a good old American hodge padge of races like, Polish, Scotish, English, and anyone else you can think of. The right side of my head of hair is of boring German appearance. Left side looks as confused and curly as it can be! The left side varies from day to day if it will lay down or not.

    My mom tried giving me repeated perms to make it behave. No luck as soon as I took a shower it fell out of the waves the chemicals instilled in my hair! Got so annoyed with it in my Junior year of high school, cut it all off! My long blonde hair (sun damaged) was no more! Grew right back before classes for my senior year began. Still as messy as ever!

    Moved away at the wise old age of 17 to attend college out-of-state. Now my hair was no longer subjected to hideous perms. Later in my upper 20’s hair naturally changed to brunette. Still as annoying as ever, though.

    Was diagnosed with the chronic disease multiple sclerosis the year after marrying my husband, My hands lost the ability to use curling irons, so my long hair was cut down to shoulder length.

    Back in 2004, cut my hair down to chin length. Now my husband uses a Whal clipper to make my hair behave. Right side still flat, left side looks possessed! Have no idea what I did to deserve this confused head of hair!

    1. Haha. This is quite the hair journey you’ve been on Jeanette! I’ve had a similar problem with my own. The left side of my hair is curlier than the right. I also have a mix of colours – from black to burnt orange to dirty blonde to reddish brown.

      My hair stylists never knew what to do with my hair. Usually when you relax your hair, you choose the chemical based on the texture of your hair. But since my hair ranged from bone straight to kinky.. I imagine you know how that turned out. When I straightened my hair, people thought I had jerry curls! Eventually I gave up. Dreads were a great move for me.

      Thanks for sharing your hair journey, and I do hope you drop by again to share more fascinating life stories with me. 🙂

  2. Am having one of those bad hair days, so I decided to browse for different options that can maintain my natural african hair instead of shaving it off again. That’s how I stumbled onto this really,other than relatable, awesome article. I had no idea very few got the meaning of “becky with the good hair”…. You have broken it down very well, loved this piece.

    1. Hi! I’m glad your hair search brought you here! Might I suggest dreads? It turned out pretty awesome for me 🙂

      Really glad you enjoyed the piece. And until Glamour’s scandal, I didn’t know so many people had no idea what good hair was either.

      Thanks again for reading, and I hope you stick around 🙂

  3. This was probably the most empowering post I’ve read in a while.
    We need to better embrace our distinct features-hair, skin color. It’s tough when we live in a society that is constantly reminding us our features are not “beauty” standards.
    I hope things to change.
    In order for them to change though, we need to educate our community.

    1. Hi Gem. Thanks for dropping by to read the post. I did write this to educate and empower, so I’m glad it had the effect on you that it did. I’ve learned to embrace my racial identity, but as you pointed out, society did not make that an easy journey…

  4. Great post. I barely search for natural hair videos or posts about natural hair styles, but when I do, I usually have to follow up with “4c hair,” bescause, as you know, the natural hairstyles that do come up are those for people with loose curls.

    “n fact, Beyoncé made a strong statement by refusing to chemically alter her daughter’s hair – at least, not yet. ” —> Why was this even a thing? Blue is a child! Sad that anyone would even think about putting chemicals in a child’s hair.

  5. Well, damn. This 69-year-old white woman knows what “good hair” means and just sort of assumed anyone who was reasonably clued in did as well. Silly me.

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