Fashion Bytes — Gabby Douglas

Last Thursday, Gabby Douglas became the first African-American to win gold in the all-around gymnastics competition, not to mention only the second black woman to make the American gymnastics team in history. This is an unbelievable accomplishment, even more so when you take into account that Miss Douglas is only sixteen years old. So, like many, I was extremely surprised to learn that all Twitter seemed to be able to focus on was her hair. I hadn’t noticed her hair at all, I was too busy being amazed by her performance.

Apparently many other people were surprised. Monica sent me a Yahoo! piece entitled “In Defense of Gabby Douglas’ Hair“, and many others have weighed in in defense of the Olympian including The Huffington Post, The International Business Times, The Free Detroit Press, and The Washington Post, as well as many others. The fact that the amount of time and attention being paid to Miss Douglas’s hair — even in her defense — is more than the amount of press being given to her accomplishment seemed out of proportion and confusing until one commentator pointed out the historical political subtext of natural black hair. Black hair, historically, has stood for difference.

The politics of black hair are not unusual in academics. Cheryl Thompson wrote for the University of Michigan Feminist Studies department about it, pointing out that for black girls, their hair can dictate how they are perceived and judged by teachers, peers, and society. An undergraduate thesis by Abby E. Brisbon for the University of Pennsylvania entitled “Good Hair, Bad Hair: African American Hair Relations in the Early 20th Centuryexamines the history of political connotations of black hair, and in the prologue recounts the author’s own struggles against peer- and societal pressure to straighten her hair to conform. “Hair Matters: African American Women and the Natural Hair Aesthetic“, a master’s thesis from Georgia State University by Brina Hargro, looks not only at the historical, but also the contemporary view of natural black hair through the examination of hair care advertisements. However, the issue only rarely makes it into “mainstream news”.

A 2009 New York Times opinion piece summed up the issue nicely. Quoting Ingrid Banks, Associate Professor of Black Studies at UC Santa Barbara: “For black women, you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t … If you’ve got straight hair, you’re pegged as selling out. If you don’t straighten your hair you’re seen as not practicing appropriate grooming practices.”

What is your opinion of the situation? Does all of this press about her hair denigrate Douglas’s athletic achievement? Are the critics out of line, or do they make any valid points? Is the mainstream press equally at fault for giving the debate so much attention, rather than giving it to Douglas herself? Has Gabby Douglas’s performance brought the politics of black hair out of academics and into the general public? What changes might come about from an open discussion? Will they be positive or negative? Or is this proof of the ignorance of mainstream society of the more subtle prejudices faced by minorities? Are attitudes shifting towards more acceptance and appreciation of natural black hair, and (hopefully) greater equality for African Americans? Are there any other ways in which minorities and subcultures are subtly judged for their appearance by mainstream society that should be addressed?

Please share your thoughts.

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  • jacqueline | the hourglass files August 08, 2012 12.30 am

    The sport of gymnastics is quite interesting to examine because artistry and performance is a component of the events. Same with figure skating and synchronized swimming, dress plays a part in the overall presentation. And when I say dress, of course I mean the total alteration of the body for aesthetic appeal.

    These are all athletes who use makeup (especially glitter in the case of the gymnasts) and apparel to increase the aesthetic nature of the performance. For figure skaters and synchronized swimmers, hair is also important.

    But for some reason gymnasts from most countries and of all races seem to not pay much attention to their hair. I thought it was very curious that Gabby was singled out when so few of them did much more than pull their hair into a “lazy bun.” I wonder what it says about the culture of gymnastics that makeup and glitter is so popular, but presenting “polished” (I use this word understanding it is loaded, especially in light of the discussion of black hair) hair is not.

  • Brenna August 24, 2012 10.52 am

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