Here's What Elle Got Wrong About "Becky With The Good Hair"

Photo: Via Elle Magazine.
"What do you see when you look at this cover?" asked Melissa Harris-Perry, Elle.com's recently appointed editor-at-large, in her latest article for the website. She's referring to the magazine's August issue, which features singer FKA twigs on the cover. Her question might confuse — maybe even baffle — some readers. But, once the line is identified, the issue is glaring for others. There it is, in the upper righthand corner: "Becky Who? It's Going To Be You With The Good Hair."

The cover blurb is, of course, referring to the line from Beyoncé's "Sorry" video, which was the topic of conversation for weeks after its release. While many were busy wondering who Becky is and what her "good hair" looks like, many members of the Black community understood the true meaning of the term. And, as Harris-Perry explained in her piece, the language used in Elle's callout is problematic at best.

"The question of whether Elle has committed a racial faux pas or even an egregious act of racism by inserting the 'Becky with the good hair' reference right next to the lovely visage of FKA twigs on our August cover is not merely a matter of opinion, taste, or aesthetic; it is a matter of race, power, privilege, and ongoing issues of diversity and representation in the industry," she wrote.

The "good hair" reference, as we have explained before, is a loaded and damaging colloquial term often used to refer to someone whose hair doesn't naturally kink or curl — a type that's historically been considered one to aspire to. "Becky," Harris-Perry went on to note, loosely refers to that infamous line in Sir Mix-a-Lot's "Baby Got Back." You know the one: "Oh, my god, Becky, look at her butt / It is so big. / She looks like one of those rap guys' girlfriends." The lyric may seem innocent enough, and Lord knows we've probably blurted it out at parties on more than one occasion, but Harris-Perry explained that there's something more insidious to it. "Becky personifies the cruel rejection of Black women's bodies through a small-minded policing of white beauty standards."

Becky personifies the cruel rejection of Black women's bodies through a small-minded policing of white beauty standards.

Melissa Harris-Perry
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Harris-Perry added that not everyone will see the same thing — and that can be a result of a variety of factors, including someone's upbringing, race, or gender. "When our cover asks, 'Becky who?' some editors saw a reference to a now-famous subversive Beyoncé lyric. It is that," she wrote. "Other editors see a reference to painful, and at times divisive, racial history where white women stole the culture, the lives, and the loves of Black women, and Black women fought back by discursively diminishing them as 'Beckys' in return. It is that, too." She even admitted that her own reaction was merely "meh," at first. It was when she opened the issue and flipped to the actual story that the anger started to set in.

There, she found an image of a white woman with blond hair accompanied by the words "Beauty" and "America's Most Wanted." Sigh. "I thought the 'good hair' reference next to FKA twigs could potentially be subversive, suggesting that her dark, stylish locks are an alternate definition of 'good hair,' displacing all the Beckys of the world," she wrote. "I dislike good/bad dichotomous thinking about hair, but I was willing to read this as a disruption of Eurocentric standards — a kind of interesting inversion. But page 110 was downright triggering!"

She continued her piece with an important history lesson on Black hair and the politics behind it. Slapping the line on a cover is one thing, but choosing to perpetuate the ideal that good hair is only equated with straight, maybe blond, but, most importantly, white women, is a dangerous message. As Harris-Perry concluded, this dismissal of Black women's hair and their needs is by no means a new phenomenon. But, she suggested, this cycle will continue until we make changes. How? By diversifying the editorial room. Make it a point to bring brown and Black people into the room where these decisions happen. And, once they're there, listen to what they have to say.
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