Illustration: Olivia Fields
In 1993, I decided I wanted to stop chemically treating my hair and just let my natural curls do their own thing. It wasn’t a popular concept at the time; a woman’s beauty and femininity were still tightly connected to how she styled her hair. But for countless reasons, both political and professional, I wanted no parts of artificially straightened hair anymore.
My boyfriend, a college senior, was not supportive. His idea of glamorous was Mariah Carey, Janet Jackson, and Toni Braxton. And my plan — a half-inch Afro — was not what they were rocking.
I told him why the cut was important to me, but he didn’t budge. My shoulder-length straightened hair was all he’d ever known, and what I was considering was far too drastic for him to accept.
So I asked him point blank: Are you attracted to me or my hair?
He refused to answer. I went through with the big chop the following day. (We broke up within a few weeks. He said it wasn’t my hair, but we both knew better.)
That was nearly 30 years ago, and it still stings that he couldn’t find a way to support something that was so important to me. Since that day, I’ve never allowed a relationship to determine how I’ll dress, wear my hair, tattoo my body, or anything else.
In every relationship there’s an initial attraction. We’re interested in what we see on that first date (or first swipe). That attractiveness grows and changes shape as time goes on, but we can’t act like it doesn’t matter.
If you love someone — truly love them — you have to get over yourself and be supportive. No matter what my college sweetheart thought of my hair, he should have said something like, “I see this is important to you. And it’s bigger than hair. I do like your hair long. But you’re beautiful and I’m here for you.”
Over the years, I’ve undergone other major changes in different relationships. Like the time I lost 40 pounds. My partner back then didn’t like that certain body parts weren’t as… bootylicious. He mentioned that he liked me with a little meat on my bones. But he understood my insistence on weight loss when I reminded him that my grandmother was heavyset and died of complications from diabetes.
There’s power in someone’s decision to dictate their own look as they see fit. If you’re in a relationship for the long haul, there may come a point at which those choices are not available.
I have to check myself on this, too. I can be judgmental when it comes to style. On a birthday trip to Italy, when my ex showed me what he was bringing — Timberland boots, oversized denim, and sweatsuits — I put the kibosh on his entire suitcase and took him shopping for linen, walking shoes, and blazers.
He looked amazing on our trip. And he loved the new threads. But thinking back, why did I feel the need to change him? Why couldn’t he wear his Timbs on the island of Capri and on the Amalfi coast?
I’m a work in progress.
If your partner wants to make a major change to their look and you’re ambivalent — or straight-up don’t like it — consider the following:
1. How important is the change for them?
When the big chop came up, my ex should have supported it simply because cutting my hair was super important to me. These days, I like to experiment with my hair and my partner doesn’t mind. He also knows that if he does have an opinion, he should feel free to share because I’m not committed to any particular style. If your partner’s change is personal (a tattoo with sentimental significance) or political (if it’s hair, that’s almost always the case — especially for Black women), then let it go.
2. Is it temporary or permanent?
Your partner wants to dye their hair pink? Shave their name on the side of their head? Dress completely differently for an event? Let them live! Now, if they want to start using large plugs to stretch their earlobes, tattoo their forehead, or go under the knife, it’s fair to state your case. But at bottom, it’s their body. Period.
3. Team up!
Your partner is cutting their hair? Buy a good pair of clippers and the proper hair products so they know you’re supportive. Your partner wants to get a tattoo sleeve? Help them decide on the artwork. (You’ll be looking at it for a long time!) And maybe consider a tiny tat of your own, for solidarity.
There’s power in someone’s decision to dictate their own look as they see fit. If you’re in a relationship for the long haul, there may come a point at which those choices are not available. Weight fluctuations, hair graying (or loss), cosmetic surgery options — all can be affected by aging. So let your partner cook while they have the chance. Have their back. And maybe consider switching up your own steez, too.