Gabby Douglas is Not Her Hair

“Are you kidding me? I just made history. And you’re focusing on my hair?” That was 16-year-old Olympic gold medalist Gabby Douglas, bravely echoing singer India.Arie’s anthem, “I Am Not My Hair.”

The criticism of Douglas’ locks on social media sites such as Twitter and on black blogs is typical of the multiple types of censure black girls face—even when they succeed at incredible levels. In the athletic world, Venus and Serena Williams endured similar rebuffs for beaded braids, a look that did not conform to the predominantly white world of women’s tennis. Venus even suffered a point penalty during a match because of runaway beads.

But the hubbub over Douglas’ hair is about more than this one Olympian or about African American women athletes. Throughout U.S. history, black women have faced gendered and racialized pressures on their appearance. Some of that pressure is transferred in the hair practices these women share with daughters and sisters.

The complicated truth is that many black mothers teach their daughters from childhood that they have to look presentable at all times. In the early 1900s, black hair products trailblazer Madam C.J. Walker linked beauty and racial advancement with ads saying, “Look your best … you owe it to your race.” For some girls this means contributing to the $9 billion dollar black hair industry documented in Chris Rock’s Good Hair. It means hours spent at the beauty salon when they are barely old enough to sit still, when wiggling in your chair might cost them a burn on the ear from a flat iron or (in another era) a hot comb. The costs of having a perfectly coiffed head are not limited to “unnatural” styles—cornrow braids sometimes mean enduring headaches when the hair has been pulled too tight.

Commenting on Douglas’ hair, one woman told a Daily Beast reporter, “I wish someone could have helped make it look better since she’s being seen all over the world.” The Washington Post reported that another tweeted, “gabby douglas gotta do something with this hair! these clips and this brown gel residue aint it.” Only other black women would notice that Gabby’s hair had too much gel and that hairpins are likely smoothing over a ponytail extension. It was clear to the celebrities who chimed in to Douglas’ rescue, including Serena Williams and Gabrielle Union, that these critics were holding Douglas to unrealistic standards. Come on. The gymnast is competing at the Olympic level—far away from home and sweating profusely. How could she possibly maintain a sleek look when chemically straightened hair frizzes when your body heats up?

Before blaming black mothers for needlessly putting their daughters through these hair-straightening ordeals, we must understand the importance of a well-kept head: Black girls face additional, oftentimes unfair scrutiny.  In a larger culture that undervalues black beauty, a neat-looking girl might be regarded more fondly by her teacher, or might enjoy a greater chance of landing a job. Consider that in 2009 the conservative blog Free Republic deemed then 11-year-old Malia Obama’s hair twists inappropriate for an official visit to Rome, and who can forget Don Imus infamously referring to the Rutgers women’s basketball team as “nappy-headed hos”?

I once saw a photograph of Coretta Scott King marching for civil rights in the rain with her husband. King, who was always impeccably styled, was wearing what amounted to a clear plastic shower cap on her head. Knowing that the rain would cause her straightened hair to curl up, she pragmatically protected her do. I was stunned that at such an historic moment she was worrying about her hair. But King knew that she represented all black women—a surrogate First Lady long before Michelle Obama came along.

And Douglas is now another first—the first African American woman to win the all-around gymnastics gold. The differences between King and Douglas are, of course, age and context and, fortunately for Team USA Douglas’ priority has not been her hair. Still, in every interview in which she has appeared since winning her medals, not only has Douglas sported her winning smile but has also faced cameras with age-appropriate, well-applied make-up. Like Mary Lou Retton before her, Douglas knows that it’s the spectacular combination of her athletic achievements and her appearance that gets one’s image on a Kellogg’s Corn Flakes box.

Black girls should have the freedom to work and play hard enough to muss their hair. Douglas’ mother had to let her leave home to train to become an Olympic competitor. And for her daughter to achieve her dreams, she also had to allow Douglas to be seen by millions with her hair looking just a little less than perfect.

Let’s hope Gabby Douglas represents a new generation of black girls, not just Olympic champions, but regular girls who dare, as Willow Smith sings, to “whip our hair” and “pay no attention to them haters.”

Photo of Gabby Douglas from NBC Olympics.  


  1. Black, white, or brown skinned women’s hair and appearance is always the main subject. How many times are we still hearing about First Lady, then candidate, and now Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s hair?

    This Gold Medal Armerican Woman joins a list of very talented women whose hair and body is discussed before their achieveents. We are all proud of her accomplishments and her hair, face, arms, legs, etc.

    Rhonda Tuman
    Girl Power Delaware
    Georgetown, Delaware

  2. beautiful post

  3. Spectacular take on this issue! Refreshing in that it doesn’t repeat the same clichés of other articles written about this topic. Very nicely contextualized and makes some interesting connections to broader sociological and historical pheneomena.

  4. Ben Mahnke says:

    Well said. Hear hear!

  5. What this article does so well is help readers understand the complicated history behind what at first glance seems like a trifling response to the state of Gabby’s ponytail. LaBennett humanizes Gabby’s critics, while heralding them to see the bigger picture instead of the misplaced bobby pins! Ms. magazine needs to give this sharp social commentator her own column!

  6. WHY should we care what some random people tweeted about Gabby’s hair….AND???? Did the media really need to blow their opinions up like that? Seems like the media is hating to me, especially when it’s obvious nobody else gives a damn. But go figure.

  7. Inyang Ebong-Harstrup says:

    Thank God for writers like you, with common sense. As an African, who has lived for the greater part of my adult life in Europe and North America, I was truly horrified, that African Americans (despite their history) could not for one moment, as amazing and historic as this, put the nonsense to one side and celebrate the enormous achievement of this young lady. She left home at 14, persuaded her mother to allow her to follow her dream, and turned herself against all the odds (including naysayers even in her training domain) IN TWO YEARS to become a world class Olympian AT 16, with greater determination and focus than most adults that I know; and all African Americans could comment about was her HAIR.!!!! The ones that did looked petty and silly. All I would say to them is get your priorities straight, and GET OVER IT.

  8. Funny, I had the same feelings and wrote a blog entry with the same title:

  9. This is a beautifully-framed piece. Others have written about this topic recently but I haven’t read another article that contextualizes the politics of hair as successfully, and in such an interesting way, as this piece.

    It is astounding that our society is so quick to find the slightest “fault” in appearance instead of embracing the patriotism that makes us so “exceptional.” Has genuine accomplishment taken a back seat to making one’s way onto reality television? Are the Real Housewives of Wherever more praiseworthy because they are more “put together” than a young athlete who has worked hard, sacrificed, and achieved a goal? Some reflexivity would be beneficial to our country, I think. Instead of outward criticism, perhaps our society could benefit from an honest self-assessment from time to time. Accomplishment is denigrated and idle idiocy is praiseworthy. What is going on?

    Oh, and a Fox News host recently “reported” that because Douglas’ uniform does not adorn the American flag that somehow this is indicative of a lack of patriotism? Come on! Back to the flag pin debates of the 2008 election! Is our national political discourse inevitably relegated to regurgitating the same stupid (as there really is no more appropriate adjective) motifs? Why are some in this country so intent on showcasing to the rest of the world that unless you’re vomiting red, white, and blue 24/7, you’re not a “patriotic” American?

  10. Malcolm X, Dr. King, Booker T. Washington, W.E. Dubois and other intelligent black males, no doubt, would turn over in their graves to hear their work for the advancement of African-Americans has been degraded to speaking about an Olympic champion’s hair. Willie Lynch, on the other hand would love it.

    Of all the comments that have been made about Gabby’s beautiful hair, few have looked at it from the perspective that black females are ignorant about the beauty and care of their own natural hair. We love paying compliments to women of other races by stating we want our hair just like theirs. Whose to say that black hair is inferior. To my knowledge, we are the only people that can wear our hair four ways: dreads, afro, curly a straight. Our hair isn’t nearly as kinky as our brains. We need to appreciate the beauty of our own hair and stop passing from one generation to the next that straight hair is the thing.

    Futher, more emphasis should be placed on getting African- Americans in sports where few of us participate or dare tread.

    What would be interesting is to see the women who commented on her hair. Nine of ten are probably fat and out of shape because they don’t want to get their hair messed up by exercising; thereby creating a bigger problem of obseity and other unnecessary health issues that plague the black community such as high blood pressure and diabetics.

    Black women really do need to get a grip and stop this foolishness about good hair, kinky hair, weave and concentrate on larger issues that would make us better parents and people; teach our daughters about lady-like conduct and raise sons that are fit to marry and can stay out of prison.

  11. Because the media and Ms.Mag. keep responding to insignificant comments about women’s hair, dress, makeup, looks, etc. just plays it up for prominence. How about highlighting the women’s accomplishments first and formost. I couldn’t believe people were concerned about Gabby’s hair and not her gold medal accomplishments. I read another hater comment on another blog about the photo of Candy Crowley that was used to promote her moderating the Presidential debate. The comments were regarding age of photo used, or photoshopping of photo as she is showing her age,wrinkles, fat etc. Too bad the focus wasn’t on her accomplishments as well, along with the issues that truely affect us Americans in this Presidential Election year. Shallow people with small minds …

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