While tearing up the dance floor at a local pub a few weekends ago, one of my friends presented a dilemma I hadn't considered before. She described a tricky situation in which a coworker of hers (let's call her Afua) who had always rocked natural hair came into the office one day with a relaxer. In the past, my friend had grown so accustomed to seeing her natural hair that after a while she stopped giving Afua compliments. So when Afua showed up to work with long, sleek hair, my friend was in a pickle. The change was so drastic she had to speak up! However, by complimenting Afua, wouldn't she be affirming that her hair looks better straight now?
When she realized that she was caught between a rock and a hard place, my friend simply decided not to say anything to her about her hair that day. My friend understood that her words have a deeper meaning. You can't deny that society persuades girls and women to look a certain way, and this pressure manifests in our everyday interactions with people. Growing up I found it puzzling that some people would swoon over my weaves, but would say absolutely nothing when I got box braids or cornrows. As an adult I now understand that they likely meant no harm, but it's a blatant indication of what our society values in terms of beauty. I think my friend's active decision not to feed into the "straighter is better" mentality was wise, and I applaud her for her thoughtfulness.
As I write this, on the other hand, I can't help but think to myself hair isn't always political! Afua has every right to wear her hair however she pleases. We kinky-haired girls are blessed with endless possibilities when it comes to our hairstyles — relaxers included. Maybe Afua has never felt pressured to straighten her hair. Perhaps she just wanted a change, in which case my friend's struggle to be politically correct would've been for naught. Moreover, there's no doubt that a compliment on her relaxed hair would've made Afua's day. Not saying she's seeking attention or anything, but that's just how we humans are programmed; we like to receive compliments.
So what's the right thing to do? Honestly, I don't see this problem as being binary. I think there's a grey area in which we can support each other without getting bogged down in the politics. Rather than commenting specifically on a person's new relaxer, wig, or weave, I would simply tell them that they look great. That way they receive the ego boost they rightfully deserve for all the time and energy they put into their new look, but without any sociopolitical strings attached. And, of course, as our mothers taught us: if you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all.
Do you get more compliments from people when your hair is straightened? Share in a comment below!
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