Black women, hair and Olympic power
America’s best female athletes are doing us proud in Rio, yet their hair still makes folks crazy. Enough already
I pray Gabrielle Douglas, who distinguished herself four years ago as the first black female gymnast to win an all-around Olympic gold medal, doesn’t go to sleep at night wondering if she deserves all this hair drama.
Douglas and her classic “snatch it back and stick some barrettes in it” bun — which social media dragged to hell during the 2012 London Olympic — has once again been subjected to a tsunami of mean-spirited nappiness since her arrival in Rio de Janeiro.
“No shade, but … Gabby Douglas’ hair … C’mon it’s 4 years later, you would think she would fix that. Especially for the Olympics,” wrote @LoveRitaLynn. Another close gymnastics watcher, @Terilynn7, tweeted: “Does Gabby Douglas have dandruff in her hair? I’m so upset.” A personal favorite came from @1011Keelo: “Gabby Douglas is pretty AF but her hair …”
She’s pretty, but her hair …
That phrase elicits in every American black woman a particularly dehumanizing and existential dread — a fear, a state of mind, a poison distilled from over 400 years of not having “good-enough” hair. Douglas and Simone Biles, with her sweet little French braid running horizontally atop her bang line, are now in code breaker territory. Once seen, their competition hair — sprayed, mussed and sweated out — apparently cannot be unseen. Black Twitter trolls have slathered Douglas and Biles with their slave shack judgment; the gymnasts’ technical brilliance and creative genius has been overlooked and replaced with social media’s Big House aesthetics. Yes, whites and Latinos have thrown shade, too. But it’s mostly a lot of trifling black men and women who seem pissed that Douglas and Biles “failed” the respectability optics test.
And the saddest, most outrageous thing? Douglas — the gift from gymnast heaven — let the Rio hateration get to her. Douglas’ failure to place a hand over her heart as the national anthem played brought her more scrutiny (it’s the Pledge of Allegiance that requires a patriotic hand-on-heart). Then her less-than-enthusiastic response for Team USA mates Biles and Aly Raisman during their all-around final event brought another round of Twitter and Facebook clapback.
“I tried to stay off the internet because there’s just so much negativity,” Douglas told ESPN’s Johnette Howard. “Either it was about my hair or my hand not over my heart [on the medal podium] or I look depressed. … It was hurtful. It was hurtful. It was. It’s been kind of a lot to deal with.”
“I’m like, ‘Did I choose my hair texture? No,’ ” Douglas said in a Reuters story. “I’m actually grateful for having this hair on my head. Sometimes when you read hurtful stuff, you’re like, ‘OK, wow.’ ”
Simone “Wow” Biles’ Rio Olympic run has confirmed her status as the greatest gymnast ever with her three-gold-medal haul. Biles won the women’s individual all-around competition by a record-breaking 2.1 points over Raisman, which is the biggest margin of victory by every world all-around women’s gymnastics competition from 1980 to 2012 combined. That’s not just a win, but a name-a-city-street-after-her triumph. And oh yeah, her gold medal tally could increase as this week progresses, so sorry about the hair. (Not sorry.)
How could social media zero in on something as trivial, as pointless, as vapid as hair when Douglas, Biles and their teammates — the most racially diverse team in American history —- have flipped, charged, hurled and swung their way into the GOAT (greatest of all time) history books?
Here are the receipts: Biles and Douglas have been crushing the competition since their days on the junior circuit. Douglas, who was 16 at the time of the 2012 London Games, was the first black woman in Olympic history to be crowned the individual all-around champ. She was also the first U.S. gymnast to win gold in both the individual all-around and team competitions in the same Olympics. Now 20, Douglas even has a new Barbie “Shero” doll in her likeness, which she proudly showed off to the media days after being named to the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympic team. (Hello, she has a Barbie, people! Best hair in the business — everybody knows that.)
Consider, too, that 19-year-old Biles hasn’t lost a meet since July 2013. Her a signature move — a double-flip with a half-twist — is so difficult that other elite gymnasts refuse to add it to their competition routines. (It’s also called a Biles.) Last year, she became the first woman to win four consecutive world all-around titles, making her the most decorated American gymnast in the history of World Championships.
Is it even possible to win Olympic gold, break Olympic records and be the best of the best without hateful commentary or insulting insinuations such as …
What kind of kitchen-show hairdressers are they working with?
Can’t their mamas make a late run to Sally’s Beauty Supply?
And damn, doesn’t anyone in the Olympic Village have a 465-degree flat iron for Gabby’s edges?
Really? So, if Gabby and Simone’s looks don’t pass your sniff test, who would you like them to look like? One of their white or Hispanic teammates? Another elite athlete in another sport? Or let me guess: Y’all haven’t quite thought this through.
No one has (yet) suggested that basketball players Maya Moore or Brittney Griner adopt actress Kerry Washington’s silky smooth edges, but maybe that’s coming. Or perhaps Simone Manuel, the first black American woman to win gold in swimming, should look to Rihanna or Beyoncé for hairspiration and get a $5,000 weave made from real waterproof tresses.
“Wherever there’s a black girl, there’s a hair conversation,” said Michaela Angela Davis, fashion writer and media critic on race, beauty and hip-hop culture who often appears on CNN. “To a conservative black audience, this is the point where respectability politics kicks in. It triggers something in them that says, ‘If you’re not really pulled together, or if you are a little black girl with messy hair, that means you aren’t loved or something just isn’t right.’
“Maybe someone is in jail or your mama’s on drugs. Something is really wrong if your hair isn’t right,” she added. “God forbid a black woman is presented on an international stage with less than ‘perfect’ hair. People feel it’s their right to lose their minds.”
The well-meaning backlash to Douglas and Biles’ haters has been a standard “So, what exactly have you done that’s as good/interesting/kickass”? It’s a fair question, but we all know the answer will not be “winning gold medals.” Awesome for you that your mama always had her hair looking extra-tight when she left the house. But lucky for us that Douglas’ mother, Natalie Hawkins, raised a prodigy. Or that Biles’ mom told her to throw that hair into a ponytail and keep it moving. Fresh-from-the-beauty-parlor hair is a wonderful thing, but so is the cover of a Wheaties cereal box and an invitation to dine with Barack and Michelle at the White House.
All of the sweat and sacrifice, physical labor, hard emotional work, sore muscles, lost sleep, grit, steely drive and determination that it takes to win against the toughest competitors who walk the planet — but it’s still not enough. Being not black enough or being too black — it’s all a version of the same poison-tipped arrow that hangs over Douglas and Biles’ magnificently talented heads. And we’re doing it to ourselves.
“There’s some kind of stain or trauma that Gabby Douglas’s edges … bring up,” she added. “That you would spend your time going after someone who makes us proud on an international level — like, what happened to you that criticize the best of our best?”
So this is the opportunity we didn’t know we needed. One that lets black folks “heal rather than hide behind any kind of shame or guilt,” about hair, said Davis.
Douglas and Biles shouldn’t have to be courageous as they stand in the white-hot spotlight of the world’s glare. While their haters are stuck in an ugly past that makes them feel — and act — ugly, Gabby and Simone are defying gravity, and letting their hair “be.”
So, Ms. Douglas and Ms. Biles, take comfort in your gold. Read social media with every single medal around your neck and eat some Wheaties while you’re at it. As for the rest of you trolls, listen to Davis.
“There’s something in you that needs healing, so let’s engage it. Let’s love us first even when we’re broken.”