There is always an uneasiness I feel when I’m offered compliments about my hair.
It’s not just a matter of saying “thank you” and keeping it moving. Sometimes – I would say about half the time really – the compliment deviates from a simple courtesy of “your hair is really pretty” into a discussion about texture, thickness and length, which is usually loaded with so much that it makes responding with a simple “thank you” damn near impossible.
Compliments range from, “Your hair is really soft, I wish I had hair like that,” to “Your dreadlocks are really nice – my hair is too nappy for that.” There is no easy response that does not involve a history lesson as well as challenge to one’s entire core being – or even the possibility of losing a friend (or making a new friend), because someone could confuse my attempt to point out that there is nothing special or magical about hair with humble bragging.
Worse are the assumptions that come with the compliments. In particular, people like to think that my hair is more manageable (it is not) or that perils of fitting into the standard of beauty are less perilous because I have long hair (that too is a fallacy). Those who had to suffer through negative interactions with their own ethnically black hair don’t like to hear this, but I can’t help but feel maligned into a position of having to speak to a privilege (in this case: the privilege of “good hair”), which affords me no real benefit. Trust when I say there are more variables at stake than if I’m able to shake my hair around like a white girl.
With that said, I will not try to pretend to be obtuse. My personal awkwardness in how I respond to these “compliments” is a drop in the bucket of deep history, politics and even pain in our hair stories. Thick and tightly wound coils, aka the naps, are always viewed as problems to be fixed. There are perms and flat-irons offered as solutions to make one more aligned with the Westernized beauty standard. And even in natural hair spaces, which are supposedly free from the tyranny of “good hair” standards, we see an emphasis put on everything light and curly. I remember a time when women used to wear Bantu knots as an actual hairstyle (and expression of cultural ties), but now, if women are not knotting, stretching, pulling, defining, braiding and length testing, then we are applying a bunch of products that promise to help us achieve our curly “natural” look.
And oh, are there products!
Curl definers, creams, puddings, milks, smoothies…and those are just a few products. As noted by Christina Patrice on the blog Black Girls Long Hair, our obsession with the curl is often introduced to us at a young age through hair straightening products like the Just For Me Texture Softener, which Patrice writes, “walks like a relaxer, talks like a relaxer, and pretty much is a relaxer,” but is marketed as an option to loosen “hard to manage” hair. Patrice also points out that in the texture softener’s FAQ section (frequently asked questions), there is advice given to parents on teaching black girls to love their hair (I sh*t you not), which includes this little pearl:
“Proactively talk about loving your daughter’s hair. Your daughter’s hair is unmistakably linked to her self-image and self-esteem. If she feels her hair is a problem, she will also think there is a problem with her image. If she believes her hair is beautiful, she will believe that she is beautiful. Your little girl will take her cues from you, her mother. Be careful not to inadvertently pass along negative feelings through the frustrations of everyday grooming.”
I agree that hair and self-esteem for women does tend to go hand-in-hand (not always and not definitely, but it can), however, proactively talking to your daughter about why she should love her hair while simultaneously slapping a bunch of perm…er, excuse me, texture softener, into it doesn’t seem like a consistent message of self-love, which Just for Me is trying to pretend it’s about. It should be noted that while some of these curl achieving products are owned by mainstream companies, there are plenty of black owned hair companies in the business of helping black women hate their hair too. And while I would put them on blast, I also know that more times than not, those companies are only responding to the market trends. In short, there is a need and want for products like this. Why else would they make them?
This means that the onus to change the perceptions of what is “good hair,” which should simply be hair that is healthy, is on us. And that means that we need to reexamine all the things we find unmanageable about our hair and wonderful about everybody else’s. That includes how we choose to issue hair compliments. And if the only reason why you think my hair is pretty is because of its texture or perceived manageability, I don’t see that as much of a compliment, and in all honesty, you can keep that to yourself.
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