"I wonder what you would look like with straight hair," a woman commented on my Instagram page. I'd just posted a picture from an event I was attending. It was a big deal—to me, anyway. I had two-strand-twisted my natural hair that morning, then sat under the dryer that afternoon so there'd be a chance that my coils would be red-carpet ready that night.
My hair had chosen to agree with me that day. It does not always. It was poofy enough to be big, coiled enough to make it look as if I put some effort into it, shiny enough to look moisturized without crossing to greasy. I thought it was a good hair day.
I glanced over the woman's comment, taking it for what I hoped were its best intentions: She was simply curious about what my hair looked like if I spent hours running a blow-dryer and a pressing comb and a flat iron through it. (It takes all that to straighten and style my hair.)
I've been natural on and off for 16 years since I cut out my perm in college. Ten years natural, three years permed and three—going on four—years without lye. I've heard all manner of sideways comments about my hair, whether it's bone-straight or curly-kinky-coiled (yes, three textures in one head).
Black women really can't win on this one. The woman's curiosity was mild when you put it up against a strange woman gawking, then sticking her dirty hands in your hair while asking—with part wonder, part disdain—"How do you get it like that?" Lady, if you don't get your hands …
So I thought about the Instagram comment and dismissed it. Then I thought about it some more, which meant I wasn't dismissing it. I wondered if the woman had ever been curious enough about a woman with straight hair to say, "I wonder what you would look like with natural [or curly, kinky, coiled] hair." Of all the things asked about straight hair, that was never one of them.
There's a slight, well, slight in telling a woman with unstraightened hair that you'd like to see something different on her. The reigning beauty standard is straight hair. A crinkly-haired woman has chosen not to abide by that standard, for whatever reasons, which don't really need to be explained to strangers.
In asking her why she doesn't wear her hair straight or suggesting that she give it a try (for your amusement), you're more or less asking, "Why don't you conform?" Or, worse, suggesting that she do. You may be curious about versatility, but what she hears is, "There is something wrong with your hair that needs to be fixed." What she hears is, "White is right." Is that what you intend?
I admit that this isn't something to make a big deal out of. But I do think it's worth being mindful of, especially with black women. Images are getting better, and more women are going back to their roots, but still, we are all bombarded with messages that straight is where it's at, and the by-product is that something is wrong with our natural texture. Even in many—but not all—natural-hair communities where fluffy hair is favorable, there often remains a hierarchy of ideal texture that favors loose curls and waves over kinks, coils and "nappy kitchens." This hair stuff, and the insecurity around it, runs deep.
I say all that to say this: If you like a woman's natural hair, just say so. "I like your hair" is sufficient and to the point. And if you don't like it? Compliment something else or keep it moving. She didn't ask your opinion. And if you wonder what her hair would look like straight? Keep wondering. If that naturally curly-kinky-coiled-haired woman wanted straight hair, she'd wear it that way.
Demetria Lucas D’Oyley is a contributing editor at The Root, a life coach and the author of Don’t Waste Your Pretty: The Go-to Guide for Making Smarter Decisions in Life & Love as well as A Belle in Brooklyn: The Go-to Girl for Advice on Living Your Best Single Life. Follow her on Twitter.