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.”