When I came home after a show last night, I found my 6-year-old daughter on the couch watching the Olympics. I knew she’d be there – she’s been fastidiously following all the action in London since the opening ceremony last week, constantly reporting scores to me like a sportscaster. “Mommy, it’s U.S. 11, Croatia 4!” (The Olympics aren’t just a lesson in fair play, dedication and virtuosity. They’re also teaching her about geography and math.) She doesn’t care what sport is on, either, she’s in it to win it for Team USA whether it’s water polo, women’s basketball, swimming or beach volleyball. But, as is so often the case for little girls, the sport that has taken her heart by storm is gymnastics, along with the gymnast at the center of it, Gabby Douglas.
Around 11:00 or so, I asked my daughter if we should go to bed, and she replied, “No, not until you see the gymnastics.” That’s how I got to see Michael Phelps win his 20th medal, because I was waiting up to watch the individual all-around finals. They did not disappoint. The Russian tumblers were excellent, possessing both thrilling gymnastic and ballet skills, but no one was as brilliant as Gabby Douglas, aka The Flying Squirrel. She bounces so high into the air when she flips and spins and then sticks her landings with such a perfect thud – not too hard, not so soft she doesn’t feel powerful – and then quickly glides her feet into fifth position just to prove how unwavering she is. Douglas is truly unbelievable, a consummate performer who took a glorious bow at the end of her floor routine in the individual all-around final, after which she became the first African-American woman to win all-around gold.
But being an Olympic champ hasn’t left Gabby Douglas immune to criticism. Unfortunately, one of the most talked-about subjects during these Olympic Games – on Twitter, at least – has been Gabby Douglas’s hair. Specifically, what’s wrong with her hair.
Jezebel’s Dodai Stewart shared a few examples on Wednesday of comments chastising Gabby Douglas for her “unkempt” hairstyle, and yesterday The Daily Beast published a quote from 22-year-old Latisha Jenkins of Detroit, who said, “I love how she’s doing her thing and winning, but I just hate the way her hair looks with all those pins and gel. I wish someone could have helped her make it look better since she’s being seen all over the world. She’s representing for black women everywhere.”
It seems that black female athletes “can’t win” when it comes to their hair, at least according to 25-year-old semi-pro tennis player Nina Barnes. She told The Daily Beast, “You’re out there to compete and prove you have this amazing talent. You do what you can with your hair but it’s not something you worry about too much. You can’t.” I’m not sure why that’s such a difficult concept for such a clearly demanding audience of black women to grasp, but what I find so strange is that it’s the audience that feels the pressure for the athlete to conform to some kind of beauty standard — and not the athletes themselves. Barnes says black female athletes are damned if they do, damned if they don’t. She notes, “There aren’t many options for a black woman with their hair doing [gymnastics]. And let’s be clear—even if [Gabby] cut her hair off and went bald, black people wouldn’t be satisfied. They’d call her ugly and say she looks like a man. I think she looks fine and is doing what she needs to so she can win.”
Celebrity hairstylist Larry Simms says he understands why Gabby’s ‘do has been criticized, because “black girls in particular view her as a representation of themselves for the world to see.” He then added, “She just needs some Smooth and Shine gel and she’d be OK.”
Ugh. Ugh ugh ugh.
You know, I’m a white woman, so I don’t know if I even have a place in this discussion, but I’d like to say this. I didn’t even LOOK at Gabby Douglas’s hair until all this hair talk cropped up on the Internet. And it makes me gut-wrenchingly sad to think that as a society we have come to a place where a young woman who is chock full of poise, grace, skill and power is being overshadowed by her ponytail. It would be overly simplistic for me to just throw my hands up in frustration and say, “WHO CARES? DID YOU SEE HER ROUTINE FOR GOD’S SAKE?,” because I understand precisely why people care. Women are still valued for their potential to be lovely more than anything else, even if the other feats they achieve are stunning, awe-inspiring acts of wonder. Yes, she’s the first African-American woman to win individual gold in gymnastics, BUT DID YOU SEE THOSE CLIPS IN HER HAIR? Shameful.
I have to agree with Nina Barnes when she says that there’s no way around criticism for black women when it comes to the choices they make about their hair. As my friend Nichelle Stephens, the blogger behind Cool Black People, put it in an email to me just now:
The criticism about Gabby Douglas’ hair is super ratchet ridiculous! I have no idea why some black women have been harshly critical of her hair, but lately the issue of black hair has been growing (no pun intended). Some of the natural hair bloggers have taken it upon themselves to police what hair is acceptable. Conversely, beauty supply stores across the country are being burglarized for their expensive weave inventory. I wish everyone would just look at this Sesame Street video and chill.
Sometimes it seems that puppets are the only reasonable people on the planet.
Comedian Jacquetta Szathmari agrees with Stephens, saying, “It’s hard to keep up euro-style hair when you do more than sit behind a desk or at home on your ass all day tweeting about what other black women are doing while they are out there actually doing it. Lucky for her, she is not trying to impress black women with her ‘do – she has higher goals like winning medals. What is the ebonics equivalent of schadenfreude?”
While I don’t know what it’s like to be a black woman facing the pressure to have “good hair,” I do know what it’s like to be a white woman who is not blonde or thin, so I can relate to living outside of the beauty standard. I have shortish brown hair and have worn it short most of my life, initially because my mother wanted me to, but then embracing short hair as the style that suits my personality best. I consider myself lucky to be able to embrace so many things about myself that fall outside of the beauty ideal, because so many women can’t seem to for whatever reason. And given that “a woman’s hair is her crowning glory,” it makes sense that feeling bad about your hair is not an exclusively black phenomenon. I’m sure you all know several women of all stripes who chemically treat their hair, perhaps by dyeing it or straightening natural curls. As Oprah Winfrey points out in the September issue of her magazine, where she appears on the cover wearing her hair naturally for the first time, it’s okay to wear your hair however you want, as long as your ‘do is coming from a place of self-love and not self-loathing.
It’s clear that there isn’t much self-loathing in Gabby Douglas’s body, and thank God for that. Douglas is an incredible role model for girls the world over and she should not be subject to this kind of nitpicking about her locks. Then again, Douglas doesn’t seem to be paying attention to any of the smack talk, either. I imagine she’s too busy celebrating her gold-medal win with an enormous smile on her adorable face.
I can tell you one thing for sure: my own 6-year-old daughter didn’t notice anything wrong with Gabby Douglas’s hair when Douglas appeared on the TV screen last night. As Douglas walked in front of the cameras before her floor routine began, my daughter said in an affectionate and admiring tone, “That’s Gabby.” Like she was the newest American Girl Doll or something. Like she was the champion that she is.
Photo via Kellogg Company