Why we should care about Gabby Douglas' hair

  • Article by: JASMINE L. HARRIS-LAMOTHE
  • Updated: August 7, 2012 - 6:40 AM

My critiques aren't meant to take away from her incredible accomplishments.

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U.S. gymnastic gold medalists, left to right: McKayla Maroney, Kyla Ross, Aly Raisman, Gabby Douglas and Jordyn Wieber

Photo: AP, Associated Press

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After getting my first glance of Gabby Douglas during the USA Gymnastics Olympic trials, one of my first comments was about her hair. I was critical of the styling, and given the venue and the amount of press sure to be taking her photo, I felt my criticisms warranted.

Three weeks later, with Gabby having won one team gold and one individual all-around gold medal, and with perhaps more to come, the critiques about her hair have sparked an outraged, confused and indifferent response.

As a black woman who battles her own hair daily, I feel it is important to say that my critiques of Gabby's hair have nothing to with, and are not meant to take away from, her incredible accomplishments as an Olympian. They are instead rooted in a mix of historical and cultural complexities within the black community.

Throughout history, light-skinned blacks, especially those with long, straight hair, have been viewed as more beautiful and more desirable than their dark-skinned, kinky-haired counterparts. Light-skinned slaves were generally regarded as more acceptable to members of the white community because of visual assertions of their white lineage.

They were entitled to more privileges, often working in the master's home rather than being relegated to the back-breaking work in the fields. They were taught to read; developed additional cultural capital, like nonaffected speech styles, and had access to "nice" clothing, regular bathing schedules, and even makeup and perfumes in some cases. They were more desirable to whites and therefore became more desirable to other blacks as well.

What developed in the subsequent hundred years is a black community that still places significant importance on looking -- and behaving -- like the white majority. We straighten, color and grow -- or more commonly, add extensions to -- our hair, completely changing it from its natural state, because of the social currency to which it is connected.

We critique one another, while simultaneously wrestling our own hair demons, because of generations-long assertions that black natural hair is not good enough. Such judgments perpetuate the racial hierarchy on which this country was built, rather than attempting to break it down.

I am proud of Douglas, of her accomplishments and of the statements she's made about the potential for black female gymnasts. Having won two gold medals certainly affords her social currency, just not the kind most of us are used to.

But before judging those who are outspoken in their critiques of her hair, we should look at the structural and cultural forces that created them.

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Jasmine L. Harris-LaMothe, of Eagan, is a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of Minnesota.

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