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Gabby Douglas historic win (and why some focus on her hair)

Gabby Douglas historic win (and why some focus on her hair)

Gabby Douglas is the first African American to win the women’s gymnastics all-around gold medal, which she won in addition to her women’s team gold medal.

Yet the talk of many has been on her hair.

Douglas Googled herself after her event to see the chatter. To her credit, Douglas has responded with class and proper perspective:

“I don’t know where this is coming from. What’s wrong with my hair? I’m like, ‘I just made history and people are focused on my hair?’ It can be bald or short, it doesn’t matter about (my) hair.”

Douglas uses gel, clips and a ponytail holder to keep things in place while she competes, a style she’s worn for years.

“Nothing is going to change,” she said. “I’m going to wear my hair like this during beam and bar finals. You might as well just stop talking about it.”

Tiya Miles, in a CNN op-ed, explains that focusing on women’s hair is nothing new in the African American community:

African-American women feel that we have to “represent” through physical appearance. We know that when we step outside our doors, people do not only see and judge us as individuals, they see and judge our entire community and racial group.

For our own self-esteem and for the dignity of our group, we strive to appear our best. And to do so, we have often tried to replicate the aesthetic values of mainstream American society — including straight hair.

These acts of replication have been internalized such that we often do not distinguish between mainstream standards of beauty and what might have traditionally been our own way of looking at and loving ourselves.

The public reaction to Douglas’ appearance shows that this preoccupation with hair in the black community has gone too far.

MIles goes through the history of thought and criticism of African American hair, including how celebrities have dealt with public perception.

She is clear, in the end, that those focused on hair are missing the point and the opportunity:

When we engage in petty talk of perms and gels in the wake of a great triumph, we diminish ourselves and limit the potential of our young women and girls by sending the message that how they look overshadows what they think, imagine and accomplish.

Instead, we should be telling our girls that beauty is as beauty does. So what if 16-year-old Gabby Douglas doesn’t meet an unrealistic black hair-care standard?

She can swing and flip on parallel bars as the best all-around woman gymnast in the world; she can leap through the air like a shooting star.

We should all aspire to lift our heads so high

In addition, Ebony magazine online has an op-ed by T.F. Charlton called “The Media’s Gabby Douglas Problem”. Charlton suggests that the media has exaggerated the focus on Gabby’s hair:

Articles claiming that Black women have fixated on Gabby’s hair have sparked the usual discussion about White beauty norms, hair politics, and internalized racism. But is it really Black women who are obsessed with Gabby Douglas’ hair, or the media?

The idea that sisters are paying “more attention [to Gabby’s hair] than her gold medal[s]” is exactly the image of dysfunctional, belligerent Black women that the media loves….

This story can be traced back to one blog post, quoting all of three disparaging comments, that Jezebel slapped a few more tweets on as proof of a trend. Everyone from NPR to the LA Times has since weighed in, all seemingly basing their analysis on the Jezebel piece and a small sample of tweets. Outlets have specifically searched for negative tweets about Gabby, probably overlooking many more celebratory comments. We should question whether the coverage reflects an actual trend, or confirmation bias creating a news story out of a few isolated fools being mean on the internet. It’s possible that the real viral story here is the original piece and the media furor it’s spawned.

So why has American media so eagerly seized on hair anxieties as a major part of Gabby’s story? The rapid spread of this myth is an example of how new and social media increasingly drive content and conversation in traditional media. As sociology scholar Tressie McMillan Cottom notes, this has particularly disturbing implications for girls and women of color. Sites focused on generating buzz, high traffic, and viral content often rely on the “reckless abuse of Black folks ([especially] women) to drive web traffic.”


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