Up Next

The unconventional legacy of Dominique Dawes

espnW: For the female gymnast, her movements liberated her from expectations…

Dominique Dawes was one of only seven to make it to the Olympic team in 1996, out of millions of girls who practice gymnastics.

Aside from the near impossibility of this achievement, there were even more predetermined challenges set for Dawes from the moment she entered the gym, simply because the sport wasn’t cultivated for black girls like her. Her body was considered deviant or exotic even before she began her routine.

In a 1995 Los Angeles Times article, writer Maryann Hudson documented that Dawes’ critics believed that “her look wasn’t quite right,” her legs were “bowed” or knees “knobby” and her hair “askew.” Dawes faced more than skewed perceptions of body image at the time – she confronted racial prejudice that had grown in the sport of gymnastics.

The sport began in ancient Greece, and Germany and Czechoslovakia produced the current form of gymnastics in the early 19th century. In the second half of the 1900s, gymnasts from the Soviet Union dominated.

Some of the most accomplished gymnasts were Larisa Latynina and Olga Korbut, who were described by publications as “beautiful” and “pixie,” images that invoked their elegance, diminutiveness and attractiveness. Then during the Cold War, while the Soviet Union and the United States competed militarily, economically and politically, the tension manifested in gymnastics.

As Ann Kordas wrote in the book Girlhood: A Global History, the United States used images of young, productive, female gymnasts to demonstrate their country’s superiority, showing the American gymnast was able to discipline her body to produce superhumanlike strength.

***

Not only does the female gymnast represent liberation through her movement – which can arguably be seen as feminist – but she smashes social conventions on how a woman should present herself, according to Ann Chisholm, assistant professor in the department of communication studies at California State University, Northridge. When a gymnast flies in the air and bends her body before landing back on the floor in a balanced, poised form, that execution disregards natural law and physical restriction.

For the female gymnast, her movement liberates her from expectations of what her body can and cannot do. Female gymnasts are generally petite and almost perpetually styled with smiles on their faces. They generate this idea of cuteness and adorableness.

When Dawes leapt through the air, stretching and contorting her body in front of a room teeming with white faces, she showed them, as well as the rest of the world, how black women could move and excel in traditionally white spaces, even if they had to take flight to do so. As a black woman, unlike her white female teammates, she was not afforded the chance to be “cute” or “innocent.”

It’s been 20 years since that fateful summer of 1996, but Dawes’ influence still reverberates throughout our present-day, brown-skinned, world-famous gymnasts. We live in an era when black gymnasts are more prolific, when it doesn’t take much effort to find a Gabby Douglas or a Simone Biles. But the racism is still as pervasive.

Read more at espnW.

Kelley Evans is a general editor at The Undefeated. She is a food passionista, helicopter mom and an unapologetic southerner who spends every night with the cast of The Young and the Restless by way of her couch.