We were discussing my wife Mel’s new haircut as she stood in the bathroom with her hair clipped on one side and a curler tangled on the other. Her hair was much shorter than before and was supposed to have a little wave in it — or at least that’s what she was hoping for.
“But it doesn’t wave at all,” she said, as she showed me the picture of the hairstyle she showed her hairdresser. She then she pulled the clip out and titled her head down so her brown hair could fall to the sides of her face. Dragging a flat hand along her hairline, she lamented, “And see? It’s uneven. It’s such a hack job. I look horrible.”
Naturally, I couldn’t see any of this, nor had I noticed it the day before when she and our 8-year-old daughter came home with new, shorter hairdos. We were in the kitchen the day before when I gave her a kiss and told her she looked wonderful. She gave me a half smile, as if my compliment was obligatory, rather than sincere. I guess that happens after 14 years of marriage; I do the same thing. It’s what I call “the marriage compliment zone.” We’ve both fallen into the habit of assuming all compliments are something performed out of duty rather than genuine admiration.
But the reality was that I honestly thought her haircut looked very nice. I liked the way it pulled to the side, making her jawline look sharper. I thought it brought out her blue-green eyes a bit more, while showing more of her neckline. Naturally, I didn’t say anything that smooth, as the words are only coming to me now. Instead I said something cliché like, “It looks nice.”
But honestly, how much do I even know about hair? I’ve been buzzing my own head once a week for over a decade. So many of my compliments come down to the fact that I think Mel looks beautiful, regardless. We’ve grown together over the years, and each year it becomes more difficult to separate the way she looks on the outside with who I know she is on the inside.
It wasn’t until the next morning when we were both getting ready for work that she told me about her frustration with the haircut, and I argued with her in true, loving-husband form.
“It looks really beautiful on you.” I said. “I like it a lot. I think you are worrying too much.”
She diligently worked on her hair as I spoke, leaning in close to the mirror tugging at this and that, growing more frustrated with each draw of her comb. I kept talking, attempting to get her to see things through my eyes. When I think back on this moment, I realize how I grew more insistent with each compliment, almost as if my opinion about her beauty as her husband was the end of the discussion. I was the man that she loved; the father of her three children. I was the one that took her out to dinner on holidays and anniversaries. I’d devoted my life to her. If I said her hair looked nice, then it looked nice … right?
Eventually, Mel put down her curling iron and looked me straight in the face. “I appreciate what you are saying right now, but would you please stop?”
I took a step back from the bathroom doorway, clearly offended. I mean, honestly, I was just trying to make her feel better.
“Really?” I said as I put my hands up. As I was about to walk out, she let out a breath and said, “Listen, I get that you think I look cute. But the thing is, I love you, but your opinion is not the only one that matters. I need to feel like I look cute, and I don’t right now. I really dislike this haircut, and I have to be to work soon. I don’t want to walk around all day feeling like I’m in some lopsided clown wig.”
We looked at each other for a while.
My knee-jerk reaction was to walk out of the room and say something like, “I’m sorry for thinking that you look beautiful!” But instead, I thought about what she was saying. And for the first time, I wondered why I’ve always felt like my opinion of my wife’s beauty was the only opinion. The reality was, her opinion of her own beauty was what really mattered. I can’t make her see through my eyes, nor can I see through hers. And if she doesn’t feel good about the way she looks, forcing my opinion on her wasn’t going to take.
We didn’t speak for a moment. Mel went back to her hair while I walked out to finish getting ready. Once she came out with her hair done, I approached her and said, “I still think your hair looks nice, but it’s your opinion that really matters. I get it if you want to go somewhere else and get it fixed.”
She smiled this time — and not the half smile she’d given me when I first complimented her. It was a smile of relief; the kind she only gives when I finally understand. She kissed me and said thank you. It was a thank you for listening. A thank you for understanding. And dare I say, a thank you for the beauty I’ll always see in her.