A few days ago, I watched Gabby Douglas win Olympic gold for her amazing efforts in the individual all-round event. What a cute wee pixie she was, flying around, tumbling, springing and jumping. “Prance, little unicorn, prance!,” and the gold was hers. Well deserved, I thought. (Though as a Canadian, I felt a twinge of sadness for our own team. But this is the Olympics, not modern-day elementary school: not everyone gets a medal.)
I was surprised however, to read some of the tweets rolling by on the Twitter train, criticizing Gabby’s hair. Of course there were many congratulating the sixteen-year-old Olympian (the first African-American woman to win this award) but suddenly, media everywhere was talking about the child’s hair.
I am a person of color who has spent more time and money in a salon chair getting her hair did during my lifetime, and I understand the merits of trying to keep one’s hair in good repair. Really, I do. It’s about looking tidy and respectable…and attractive, yes. Everyone wants to look pretty.
For many years, and for many reasons, popular culture has dictated a beauty standard for women everywhere. This is especially true in the west where shoulder-length-or-longer tresses reign supreme as a beauty standard against which we are all measured, be you black or white.
As there are more and more images of non-white people living their lives, with the hair that they have (be it long or short, kinky or straight, blonde or black), we become more accustomed to seeing different kinds of beauty. There are different ways in which to be considered attractive. Pulled together. Pretty.
And no, I’m not talking about Beyonce and the likes of her hair-sylist-at-the-ready hair, as pretty as it is. She should have perfect hair when she employ stylists as part of her entourage.
I understand, too, how the way a black woman wears her hair can be a huge identity-signifier – it sometimes says a lot about where you are in your life, about your status economically, and it even says, “I’m a girl, not a boy,” to people looking at you, if the case seems tricky. Whatever.
The problem of the tweets from the concerned people out there, all worried that Gabby’s hair needed correcting, or that it was messy (please!) is because oftentimes, when black people see themselves being “represented” somewhere out in the world, they need their blacks to act right, talk right, and (above all else) look right. Comedian Wanda Sykes has been known to utter, “White people are looking at you,” during her stand-up act… it’s funny, because as a person of colour, it’s an unspoken “thing” that helps keep people in line – appearances matter. You are representing, yo. That’s how come we all cringe so hard every time Kanye opens his mouth in public.
But, when a sixteen-year-old girl is at the gym, practicing every single day for four years in preparation for her shot at the Olympic games, she does what she need to do with her hair: she slides a butt load of gel into it, pulls it back into a ponytail, and uses clips to hold down the fly-away bits, just like every other female gymnast in the world does. That’s how they wear their hair when they’re working and practicing.
Really, I don’t understand all the discussion about it. Her hair looked fine during competition. Were haters expecting lots of long, blonde, Beyonce-esque curls? Were they expecting cornrows? Maybe plaits sweeping into some kind of swanky up-do? Perhaps something with the U.S. flag stitched into it?
None of these hair-don’ts would be useful for the likes of gymnastics. In fact, any other kind of hairscape on her wee noggin would more than likely have been a liability, and may have cost her the medal(s).
So, never mind about the girl’s hair. Her win has nothing to do with me or with you.
Does she represent? Hell yes. She represents the very best U.S. athletics has to offer, and for that, USA should be proud, indeed.
But, It’s a good thing she didn’t have ashy knees on the mat that day though…that would have been totally unforgivable.
Tracey Steer is Montreal-based writer and blogger. Find her hilarity at (On Top of the) Mutherload at UrbanMoms.ca and on her personal blog, Grumble Girl. You can follow her on Twitter @GrumbleGirl. She thinks stalkers are sexy.
image source London 2012