Poor Gabby Douglas. She is rightfully celebrating the fact that she set a historical precedent of Olympic athletic achievement as a woman of color — the first black woman to take the all-around individual title in gymnastics. But in the wake of her win, she is mocked by members of her own community on social media about her hairstyle and its upkeep. So unreal. And not surprising. As I’ve blogged before, kinky natural hair is political.
Monisha Randolph of the Sporty Afros, has been dismayed at the comments.
Have we forgotten that Gabby is competing at Olympics XXX? This is not America’s Next Top Model that we’re watching. These ladies are participating in a global athletic competition. And the last time I checked when you play a sport, you sweat. I know I do. And when a Black woman who has chosen to wear her hair straight begins to sweat, her hair will (not might) begin to revert back to its natural coily, curly, or kinky state. Does Gabby need to stop every five minutes to check her hair? No. When one experiences back-to-back intense workouts, that person learns what works best on their hair.
Sadly, black female athletes have not been able to rise to prominence without facing racist or cultural criticism coming at them from all sides.
The 4-foot-11 Douglas appears to have chemically relaxed natural hair, to which she has added a human-hair ponytail for height. She apparently then slicks her hair back with a heavy layer of gel to encourage it to stay in place during her high-energy performances.
Hair is always a sore spot for black women culturally, but it has often reached a fever pitch when it involves women of color engaging in sports and other demanding physical activities. Gold-medal-winning track star Wilma Rudolph rocked a frizzy short perm during the 1960 Rome Olympics, while Flo Jo began her Olympic journey with a cropped cut layered perm on the track. By the 1984 Games in Los Angeles, the iconic late track star progressed to a flowing mane of hair extensions and even longer fingernails that became her trademark. Venus and Serena Williams have worn beaded braids on the tennis courts for years and faced critical commentary about their looks as a result.
And a nail-on-the head observation by Dodai Stewart over at Jezebel:
Recently, a New York magazine writer called investing in the Naturally Curly website a “dumb” idea. This sparked a backlash; and as the blogger behind Black Girl With Long Hair writes, “I think there are people both within and outside of the black community who are still ignorant about the increasing influence of textured/natural hair on media, business and culture.” There have also been controversies surrounding the hairstyles of First Lady Michelle Obama and her daughters. (Even a Photoshopped mock-up of Michelle Obama with natural hair sparked a shitstorm of controversy.)
The point is that hair — black hair, especially — remains a hot-button issue. Hair is political, laden with subtext and meaning. Curly, textured hair — the kind a lot of black people have — is often called “wild.” Straight hair — the kind a lot of white people have — is considered “polished” and “professional.”
Speaking of wild hair that didn’t receive any press or criticism. I mention it here only because I happened to watch the amazing gold-medal performance of Kayla Harrison in women’s judo — the first-ever gold for an American, defeating British judo athlete Gemma Gibbons. Both of these athlete’s hair styles took a severe beating while competing. Unkempt would be a kind assessment. Gibbons in particular had a loose ponytail that was a mess by the end of the hard-fought match. But who the F cares? A screenshot from the match:
Do a Twitter search for “Kayla Harrison hair” and you’ll not come up with one iota of hand-wringing.
My people of color on Gabby’s case, get your priorities in order.
* Is Natural Hair the End of Black Beauty Culture? Cassandra Jackson:
Most black women still have chemically straightened hair, and there are still people who consider natural hair socially unacceptable. When a naturallycurly.com web poll asked if the U.S. was ready for a first lady with natural kinky hair, 56% of respondents said no. Black hair is still political. Even those who view their natural hair journey as an internal process are engaged in a powerful political act, just by virtue of reclaiming the meaning of their natural hair.