How 'Aesthetic Violence' & Social Media Caused a Fuss Over Gabby Douglas' Hair
Focus on the 16-year-old gymnast turns sour
Gabrielle Douglas made history at the 2012 Olympics Thursday when she became the first African American to win the Women’s Individual All-Around gold medal. Earlier this week, she helped usher the U.S. Women’s Gymnastics team to its first gold medal win since 1996.
In most instances, these kinds of victories -- especially when achieved at the ripe age of 16 -- would unleash an unending chorus of praise. And while Douglas has certainly become a fan favorite, she has also faced a wave of criticism - one that her counterparts (teammates McKayla Maroney, Aly Raisman, Kyla Ross and Jordyn Wieber) have managed to avoid.
A quick search on Twitter reveals that Douglas' hair has proven to be a pain - not in her side, but in others'. While most of us can pat down a pesky flyaway at a moment's notice, those watching the Olympics from their couches are annoyed by Douglas' "edges," "hair clips," and "brown gel residue."
Ironically, many of her critics are of color themselves.
Ingrid Banks, Associate Professor of Black Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said, "Black women have the right to 'criticize' their own on a number of issues, but I view the criticism of Gabby Douglas' hair as a form of 'aesthetic violence' that occurs within black communities [and] has deep historical roots dating back to the late nineteenth century [when] black people equated 'proper grooming' standards as a weapon in the fight against segregation. The criticism of her hair is historical in nature, yet it illustrates, in a painful manner, how black people continue to hold on to outdated ideas that are no less problematic today as they were in the past."
The cynical reviews are only magnified by the modern-day power of social media, especially virtual 140 character bully pulpits like Twitter.
Alexandria Williams, co-founder of Sporty Afros, said, "We live in a society where everyone feels the need to comment and add their two cents in. Unfortunately, we often are more negative than positive [but] there are more important things to focus on."
Williams also raises another dilemma that African American women reportedly face: the tug of war between their fitness and their fresh 'do. Sporty Afros aims to be a more positive social platform, one dedicated to exercise and effective hair care for black women. And as women of color are beginning to choose fitness over frizz, more are jumping on board in search of a solution.
Earlier this year, actress Nicole Ari Parker, a busy mother of two and current star of the Broadway revival of "A Streetcar Named Desire," announced her creation of the moisture-wicking Save Your Do Gymwrap.
"[The idea] came to me last year when I noticed a common excuse emerge among busy everyday women (myself included) about why they couldn’t work out: their hair," she wrote on the Save Your Do website. "Hair is a serious issue for most of us women because after spending a ton of time and money to have it washed, blowdried, flat-ironed and curled, none of us want to sweat and mess it up all over again. I could not have predicted what happened next. During that summer, the Surgeon General issued a statement saying ‘Women have got to stop using their hair as an excuse not to exercise.’ "
Perhaps what many of Douglas' armchair critics failed to notice was that her "unkempt" hair could likely be attributed to her (award-winning) athleticism - like, say, catapulting herself over a vault.
In her article The Gabby Douglas Hair Controversy…Unwrapped, Monisha Randolph, author of "Running Revelations," addressed those who claimed Douglas wasn't "representing" properly for her race.
"Putting more focus on Gabby’s hair and not her athleticism proves many of us are still missing the point on where true beauty, strength, and health lies," Randolph wrote. "Some of us are sitting up right now with our hair done but suffering from high blood pressure, borderline diabetes, obesity, and/or a lack of energy. Oh, but the hair is on point. I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that she considers her health and fitness level to be a little more important than her hair staying in place."
No matter what feats Douglas remains to achieve, perhaps her crudest commentators would never find any satisfaction with the medal toting gymnast?
Corynne Corbett, Beauty Director of Essence Magazine, said, "If she focused on her hair, she would not necessarily be winning gold medals. And if her hair was on point and she lost, what would we be saying then?"