I was talking to my friend Jane (of Passport Addict fame!) on the phone about the Olympic games last night and the subject of Gabby Douglas, the 16-year old, African-American, Olympic phenom came up.
Jane: “Did you hear what people are tweeting about Gabby Douglas?”
Me: “What? That she won the gold?”
Jane: “No! People are tweeting about her hair.”
(You can read the Huffington Post article, which features some of the hair tweets, here. Jezebel also has an article on it all here, too.) I planned to do a longer post about black women, exercise and hair, but this topic seemed too ripe to wait on.
I suppose on the one hand the tweets and comments about Gabby’s hair aren’t surprising- people will always have critical things to say about celebrities and public figures.
What bothers me is how the bright, supreme talent of a beautiful young black gymnast was (even slightly) over-shadowed by the ‘black beauty police’. Here we have a girl setting an example of women of color who are engaged in the most challenging test of physical fitness, and (black) people want to talk about her hair? About brown hair gel? About fish clips? Like, seriously?
So all this gossip about Gabby got me thinking: Where does this fear of “unkempt black hair” come from? Why do so many black people cringe at the thought of kinky roots or a nappy nape? The obvious answer is history. Black people in America have long been depicted as unclean, unkempt and unprofessional. To combat that depiction, the black community has had to present itself as exceptionally clean, proper and put-together. It’s a defense mechanism- I get it.
But what I don’t get is the obsession with policing black hair when it comes to exercise and fitness. Because looking “just-so” just has no place in the gym. On a treadmill. In a spin class. Kickboxing. I’m sorry, but your hair will be out of place. You will sweat. Your curls will fall.
And you know what? I think all that messiness in the gym is okay. In fact, I think it’s necessary, because when you’re working out, the focus can’t be on how you look on the outside, it has to be on what you’re doing for your body on the inside. It has to be about more than appearances; it has to be about you.
When I think about this young black girl who has dedicated her life to a sport, to being in peak shape for physical competition, to being the best- it doesn’t shock me that her hair isn’t perfect. How could it be? Why does it need to be? I suppose because she’s a black Olympic athlete she should have a bottle of Fabu-laxer on stand-by after each of her floor routines?
These critiques do more to support the idea that the black community values hair over health, style over substance. If we truly want to move towards being a healthier community, we have to let go of the idea that looking better on the outside is more relevant than how we feel on the inside. We have to stop living according to an old defense mechanism that has become maladaptive. And we have to value our champions who set a physical example of greatness for us.
I hope Gabby hasn’t even heard about these tweets. And if she has, I hope that she’s shaking off all the haters and enjoying that Gold medal…because she’s truly a superstar (and I would love to interview her! ).
What do you think? Are black athletes held to a different beauty standard? Do you think Gabby should have done more/something different with her hair? Does the state of her hair matter (to you)? -CFC
UPDATE!!!: Check out what Dominique Dawes thinks about the Gabby Douglas hair gossip by clicking here!