Gabby Douglas's Hair
A bizarre controversy that exposes how racism seeps into even the most seemingly innocuous activities. I personally never appreciated the extent to which hairstyle has been made into a huge deal for many women of color (although I was already aware about the “image problem” they have to endure in mainstream American society).
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 penaltyduring 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.