UPDATE: Since this column was originally posted, Gabby Douglas won the gold medal in the women’s all-around gymnastics competition, the first African-American ever to do so.
On Tuesday, 16-year-old Gabrielle “Gabby” Douglas led our women’s gymnastics team to a gold medal, the USA’s first since 1996. The bouncing, bubbly superstar will also be competing for the gold again today, one of just two Americans chosen after she outperformed media darling Jordyn Wieber, whom everyone expected to land a top spot.
But instead of collectively celebrating her accomplishments on the Olympic stage —‘cause I know like you know we always root for the Black girl to upstage the competition — Gabby has been dogged with cruel criticism. Too many folk aren’t discussing her awe-inspiring leaps, bounds and accomplishments. Instead, it’s her hair that has become the topic du jour of some less-than-pleasant viewers.
No, it’s not runway-ready. But Gabby isn’t strutting a catwalk, so why does it need to be? She’s an athlete, competing on the world’s largest stage for the world’s greatest accolades. Did you catch that? She’s not just a champion of her block, or her borough, or her county or state. She’s one of the best in the world, as in all of Earth and womankind. At 16. Her hair may not be flawless, but her gravity-defying performances have been doggone close.
In the same way the phenomenal and oft-winning Williams sisters are dressed down for their colorful and sometimes skimpy attire, Dear Gabby has been blasted over an un-slicked ponytail. And I just don’t get it. Not only is it dead wrong to talk about a child, but I don’t understand why, with all she’s accomplished, her hair is even up for discussion. A gold medal trumps a fresh wash-and-set any day.
Anyone who looks camera-ready after a workout equivalent to one-tenth of Gabby’s just isn’t working hard enough. I dare the woman who gets her sweat on at the gym to show me a picture of her looking stellar post-workout. Gabby, meanwhile, has been tumbling, flipping, bouncing — and winning — all across bars and vaults and floors in London. Her hair, whether you love it or hate it, should be irrelevant.
I know a woman’s locks are thought of as her “crowning glory,” and I know of the billions Black women spend to keep a ‘do looking right. But let’s keep it all the way real here: If you’re a Black girl or woman who straightens her hair, you’re asking your fluff to do what it doesn’t do naturally. And if you don’t have the time or energy to attend to it, it’s going to “revert.” That’s just nature. I challenge anyone to explain to me that Gabby’s focus should be on something as trivial as her roots when she’s focused on a dream that many aspire to, but few accomplish. You really want her sitting up in the Olympic Village thinking about a hot comb or some lye right now, with all that’s on the line? And I know you would talk about her bad if her hair was on-point, but her performance on the biggest of stages was not.
A commenter on Gawker put it all in perspective: “If Gabby Douglas, or the Williams Sisters, or the entire US Women’s Track and Field Team had said ‘oh, I can’t do that – what will happen to my hair?’, the world would have been deprived of some of the greatest athletes of all time, male or female.” If you’re one of the woman thinking about Gabby’s hair, I need you to think long and hard on that statement too.
For the record, I think her hair is just fine. She’s bringing home at least one gold medal, and when she receives her accolades in the form of network appearances and magazine covers, I have no doubt that she’ll show and (im)prove with a mane to envy. But right now? There are bigger things to worry about, like how Gabby performs today in the individual competitions, whether her hair meets some arbitrary standards or not.
Demetria L. Lucas is the author of A Belle in Brooklyn: The Go-to Girl for Advice on Living Your Best Single Life (Atria), in stores now. Follow her on Twitter @abelleinbk