Why Black Female Athletes Just Can’t Win When It Comes To Their Hair… Even When They’re Winning Golds

Ten years ago, when Gabrielle (Gabby) Douglas started training to realize her dream of becoming an Olympic gold medalist, chances are she was focusing
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Ten years ago, when Gabrielle (Gabby) Douglas started training to realize her dream of becoming an Olympic gold medalist, chances are she was focusing
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Ten years ago, when Gabrielle (Gabby) Douglas started training to realize her dream of becoming an Olympic gold medalist, chances are she was focusing more on nailing her gymnastics floor routine than conjuring up a beauty routine that would earn her a perfect ten (yeah, yeah, we know the scoring is different now--you get the point). Now, at age 16 and the first Black Olympian to win an all-around gold medal in the sport, Douglas is learning that some viewers expect her beauty routine to be as perfect as her floor routine.

The Controversy Rather than applauding her victory, her fellow Americans—-many of whom are fellow African American women—-took to social media networks to critique the condition of her hair as opposed to commending her amazing lines or the unbelievable height that she reached in her tumbling passes.

All this gab about Gabby’s hair had us asking the exact question that the powerhouse herself asked in an interview with the AP: “What’s wrong with my hair?”

According to women’s artistic gymnastics (WAG) standards, gymnasts must keep their hair tidy and any unruly hairs that may distract the competitor could merit a deduction.

Seems to us like Douglas played by the rules. Her strands were slicked back and secured with several clips. The only thing “messy” about her ‘do was her bun- but wasn’t that the point? Douglas’ teammates, McKayla Maroney, Aly Raisman, Kyla Ross and Jordyn Wieber all flashed their undone buns to the cameras at the Games yet the fine-haired flippers didn’t seem to catch the overwhelming flack that Douglas was met with when logging onto her computer in London on the night that she added to her country’s growing medal count.

“Gabby's hair served its purpose--it stayed out of her way so she could concentrate on executing the amazing leaps, flips and twists that led her to the all-around gold medal,” said Baze Mpinja, freelance beauty writer and creator of the blog Beautycism.com. “Even if her hair didn't look ‘perfect’ by her critics’ standards, her contagious smile more than made up for that—she’s adorable!”

And Gabby's not alone...

Gabby’s Not Alone This Olympic season, female African-American athletes are doing their country proud. Sanya Richards-Ross was the first American woman to win a gold medal in the 400-meters event since 1984. Succeeding Richards-Ross was former Olympic gold medalist, DeeDee Trotter, who brought home the bronze. First-time Olympic medalist, Carmelita Jeter took silver for the women’s 100-meters race. Maya Lawrence snagged bronze in the Women’s Epee, as did Lia Neal for the women’s 4x100-meters freestyle relay. The famous Williams sisters racked up the medals on the tennis court taking the gold as a pair in women’s doubles while Serena took the gold in women’s singles, which made her the second woman in history to complete the Career Golden Slam.

Other than being able to say that they’ve stood atop the most glorious of podiums for their incredible athletic achievements, what do these women have in common? Hair haters!

Sanya Richards-Ross

Sanya Richards-Ross

Richards-Ross looked gorgeous on the field, her signature braided crown and long tresses flowing in the wind. Yet twitterers criticized the track star (who in addition to being a two-time Olympic gold medalist is co-owner of The Hair Clinic, a hair salon in Austin Texas), for wearing her hair down while running and voiced their speculations on whether her hair was in-fact her own. Some particularly nasty examples: • Congrats Sanya Richards-Ross on the gold medal! But why wear your hair down to run? #tiethatcrapup #longhairprobs--Meredith Moorman ‏@meremoorman • That is some ratchet ass hair Sanya Richards-Ross has--Ashley Anita ‏@pASHionateLEY86

Carmelita Jeter

Carmelita Jeter

Carmelita Jeter rocked a cropped cut for her silver-medal winning race. She even made a point to style her hair especially for the Games, tweeting: “About to get ready for my Medal Ceremony. Tryin to figure out what im gonna do with this hair its way too long. #haircut.” Still, her efforts weren’t enough for the tough, virtual crowd. Some felt strongly about her cut being too short while others claimed that she used too much grease and gel (example: "Somebody needs to squeeze out the oil from Carmelita Jeter's hair. Never seen hair stick like that since I was at Nigerian hair salon," Nandile Soni ‏@nahndeelee).

Maya Lawrence

Maya Lawrence

Though many on #teamnatural applauded Maya Lawrence’s afro, of course there had to be at least one comment on the imperfection of her locks—apparently they were too long for her liking: "If I were her coach, I woul have shaved Maya Lawrence's hair down an inch or two before semis #epee #fencing #olympics #USA," tweeted Elizabeth Doyon ‏@lizdoyon.

The Williams sisters

The Williams sisters

The Williams sisters are no strangers to facing criticism for their hairstyles. This time, it looks like they joined in on the fun and demonstrated that laughing with the haters is a way to keep positive when it comes to self-image—at least that’s what we got from the sisters re-tweeting negative statements made on Twitter likening Venus’ hair to a “female George Clinton.”

So what's with all the hair hate? Why does hair inspire such vitriol?

Sanya Richards-Ross

Sanya Richards-Ross

Why Care About the Athletes’ Hair? As hard as it is to believe that these are the conversations that are being had amidst these competitors’ wins, the fact of the matter is that they are- but why?

“We live in an appearance-driven society, that's just the way it is and often times, appearance matters more than actual substance which is unfortunate,” said Alexandria Williams, co-founder of Sportyafros.com, a site devoted to helping active black women maintain healthy hair regimens. “Hair can add a lot to a look as just another way for us to express ourselves.” In sports, there is little room for expression of personal style when you’re given a team uniform and in the case of gymnastics, limited to minimal makeup, maybe a touch of glitter, a few hair clips and a scrunchie to match your leotard—-a style that, off of a spring mat, was left in the ‘90s. A female athlete’s hair takes the form of an accessory and when not “in-style,” it’s up for scrutiny. Besides, these athletes are in the best shape of their lives. You couldn’t possibly criticize their physique so what else is left? Their hair!

Yet Gabby’s critics it seems were tougher on the teen than her fellow title-holders. “While track events are dominated with many Black female athletes, gymnastics is not as diverse of a sport so that put Gabby in the spotlight from the beginning," said Williams. “Not only did she stand out because she was talented, but she stood out because she was African-American as well, creating a perfect storm of positive and negative commentary.” Yes, we’ve seen Black women before but perhaps viewers are jaded by the Beyonces and Rihannas of the world. This is not to say that the performers are not working up a sweat as they sing and dance their hearts out, but the advantage they have over these professional athletes is a full glam squad and in the case of ads and magazine features, Photoshop. This real-life, uncensored view of Black hair might in fact come as a shock as it contradicts the many images of Black hair that we’re used to.

"Gabby Douglas is an athlete at the top of her game and I hate that people are taking the attention away from that to cast judgment on her appearance,” said Patrice Yursik, founder of afrobella.com. “The focus should be on her talent and her incredible achievements.”

As Douglas told her mom earlier this week, "Really?! I won two gold medals and made history and my hair is trending?"

At 16, many of us would not have been able to shrug off such negative comments about our appearance—but then again, the paper trail of the world’s knee-jerk reactions and opinions were not placed at our fingertips via websites like Twitter and Facebook when we were 16 (not to date ourselves or anything).

“I wish we wouldn't police each other's hair and beauty choices as much as we do,” said Yursik. "Let Gabby be great. She already is."