My Adventures Through Black Woman Land: What’s in a Compliment?

pretty-black-womanHave you ever had someone tell you, “Wow, you look pretty today,” only for you to respond with a gracious “thank you”? Then moments later ask yourself if that means you looked terrible yesterday? The truth is, compliments are very very tricky. These tiny gestures, which many of us crave by the way, seem innocuous and random. In actuality, compliments come from a socialized place internal to each of us and are driven by traditional ideals of beauty. Let’s break down to pitfalls of the common compliment for women of color and how getting one or not getting one is never a reflection on you.

First, folks usually compliment people when something has changed. If you go to work every single day with the same hairstyle or color palette, don’t be surprised when a slight change happens, someone notices, and says how nice you look. Usually a visceral response, these types of compliments actually are quite harmless. The bestower, in most cases, took notice of something and likes the effort put forth to make said something exist. And, adding the word “today” on the end of this compliment is not necessarily a diss to your normal appearance.

In my case, I tend to wear a lot of jeans. I mean, A LOT of jeans. Being over six feet tall for a decade and a half has resulted in a natural propensity toward comfort over fabulosity. But, there are times when I dress up and shock the mess out of folks who aren’t around me all the time. And, in those cases, I can understand the shock of seeing me with a twist out, sundress, contacts, and some makeup on. But, there is a flip side of this.

My second point is simply that many folks just have not been exposed to diversity. For women of color, we tend to change our hair quite often. We may go from braids to weaves to a press to a curly lace-front. And, living or working in areas with many people who do not share those same traits can lead to awkward compliments like “how did your hair grow so fast?” or ” wow, your hair does so much cool stuff and mine just lays here.” Now, these are both meant in a complimentary fashion, but they may leave you feeling like an artifact under a microscope or an exhibit at a museum. In these situations, the best thing to do is be humble, thank them for the compliment, and maybe even educate them on how your hair “grows” so fast.

Traditionally, white women have been the social standard of beauty. Since most white women are and have not been channeling their inner Bo Derek, ethnic hairstyles have yet to fully integrate into the acceptable standards for most people. With a general lack of these types of styles in the mainstream, you can guarantee folks are unaware when it comes to the maintenance of these styles.

Third, exposure to some folks instigates a euphoric state of disbelief. I have found myself showing folks kanekalon hair and discussing shrinkage at length. And, while some folks are accepting and open-minded, others may have a hard time digesting. I will always remember wearing my afro for the first time to my part-time job at the Housing Department on campus in college. Everyone stared at me all day. And, finally, two of my colleagues mustered up the courage to ask me, “does your hair do that naturally, like without products?” I assured them it did. In disbelief, they said, “no, like does it do that from the scalp?” Again, I answered in the affirmative. Trying to catch me on a technicality, they asked, “well, does it do that ‘from birth’?” My initial reaction was a chuckle until I looked in their eyes and realized that they have never been this close to an afro before. And, while they were careful not to touch it too much, they were like wide-eyed children seeing Santa in the mall for the first time. And I pitied them.

In these cases, folks typically mean you no harm. They probably do think that your hair is so cool that it couldn’t possibly be real. So, no need to be offended. Set the the tone for the next ‘fro they come in contact with.

In conclusion, what is most important is not looking for or being defined by other people’s adoration. One should never dress for the purpose of garnering attention from other people. Do you and do it well. Whether someone else likes it is seriously irrelevant. But, if it turns into a National Geographic moment, just tread lightly until the tourists accept your reality.

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