What’s Riding on a Pony Tail? At the Olympics, A Lot

Gabby Douglas's hairstyle was shared by the other American gymnasts. So why is she being singled out for critique?

  • Share
  • Read Later
Michael Regan / Getty Images

Gabrielle Douglas of the United States competes during the Artistic Gymnastics Women's Beam final at the 2012 Olympic Games in London, England, Aug. 7, 2012

Gabby Douglas made history by becoming the first American gymnast to win gold medals in both the team and individual all-around competitions, and the first black gymnast to win Olympic gold in the all-around. But the day after the she won her second medal, she discovered that a good bit of negative attention was being focused on her hair, which was described as messy and unkempt. A few days later, as the state of Gabby’s hair continued to be a trending topic on Twitter, Douglas’s mother said that these constant criticisms were impacting her daughter’s confidence before she had to once again compete on the uneven bars and the beam. Last night, Gabby lost focus and did poorly in both events, though it is impossible to know if “Hairgate” played a role or not.

(MORE: How U.S. Gymnast Gabby Douglas Became the Olympic All-Around Champion)

What has been lost in all this is the fact that she is being singled out for a look shared by the whole team. Yes, her hair was messy, but so too was McKayla Maroney’s, Aly Raisman’s and Kyla Ross’s. Indeed, with the exception of Jordan Wieber, who wears her hair in the more traditional highly groomed ponytail, McKayla and Kyla wear the intentionally messy pull-through ponies known as “slop knots.” Aly’s hair is longer and is in a very messy bun. When asked about the hairstyle, McKayla said that it was easier than pinning it up and that it showed team solidarity. Though not typically seen at the Olympics, their hairstyles are instantly familiar to any women with longer hair who finds herself in a goal-oriented situation; they get it out of the way easily so they can get down to business. However, with the exception of a few mentions of how low-glam the U.S. team looked compared to other teams, none of the other gymnasts have received notice. Why then all this negative focus on Gabby?

The sad fact of the matter is, though many of us believe that hairstyles are merely a personal choice not worthy of much notice or attention, far too frequently black people are singled out, treated differently and sometimes more harshly penalized for how they wear their hair. Gabby is not the only example.

(PHOTOS: Gabby Douglas’s Rise to Olympic Triumph)

Last year at a Catholic school in London, administrators went to court to defend their right to expel a 12-year-old boy who chose to wear his hair in cornrow-style braids. Though there was no evidence presented that this was the case, they said that the style represented gang culture and was a threat to the safety of other students. Schools in the U.S. have made similarly successful arguments and suspended students for wearing specific haircuts in schools.

And it’s not just schools that view black hair differently. Last month, Six Flags Amusement Park told a young woman who applied for a job with them that she was not eligible because she wore her hair in dreadlocks — a type of style worn most frequently by people of African descent. The company labeled the style “extreme” and said that, along with a partially shaved head and multiple variations in hair color, these styles excluded the wearer from employment. Air France, UPS and Safeway all have bans against dreadlocks and braids, and over the past decades, blacks have been fired from jobs with American Airlines, the Marriott Hotel in DC and the Regency Hyatt in Chicago for wearing their hair in braids. There are simply no corresponding styles regularly worn by other races that receive such negative attention.

Of course, it is tempting to say that blacks who wear their hair in ways that are attracting negative attention should just change their style if they want to attend school, obtain a job or compete in the Olympics. But the issue here is not with the hairstyle, it’s with how easily the rest of us pass judgment on and penalize those who wear certain styles that we just don’t like. When asked what she thought about all the attention her hair was attracting, Gabby asked, “What’s wrong with my hair?” Of course the question should really be, what’s wrong with us?

MORE: The Bias Against Sports Moms

24 comments
KTamara
KTamara

I think Gabby Douglas is an amazing gymnast, and people shouldn't be worrying about her hair. There was a reason why she was chosen to compete in the Olympics, and that was because of her skill, not her hairstyle. There aren't many people who can do what she does; a triple spin in the air, jump across the uneven bars, or do a back flip on the beam. Her hair has nothing to do with her performance.

If she wants to keep her hair to its natural texture, that is her decision to make. She doesn't want to fry her hair straightening it every day. I wouldn't. Her hair is her decision to make. If you don't like it, that's your problem. She made history! And still there are people out there who just cant leave her alone. Like people say, "Haters gonna hate".

SteveLott
SteveLott

If you think that the brunt of Hair Fascists is limited to Blacks you are dead wrong. In truest heritage northern Europeans and the founding fathers kept there hair from slightly to very long compared by common mode today. We did not keep short hair until the lice and typhus scare of the Napoleonic wars. But apply for a job with it and ignorant stigma may arise from the hirer.

That young woman has a right to her pony tail, without opportunity retribution, and so do I.

Whether it makes us feel we are honoring our heritage our we just darned well like it.

JadeG12
JadeG12

The author implies that this is a case of white people inflicting their criticism on black grooming.  Historically that has often happened, but isn't the case here.  It was black women who started discussing Gabby's hair online and on twitter.  They made comments that implied they were concerned with how Gabby would be perceived, saying she "needs to represent" and "needs some gel and a brush". 

It's no secret that black women have  an intense relationship with their hair.  There is a web site, SportyAfros, that deals with African American hair from an exercise perspective, trying to encourage black women to get out and get sweaty, despite what it might do to the hair.  Check out their coverage of this issue, which is better informed and more positive than the article by Rooks above.

mtngoatjoe
mtngoatjoe

Congratulations Ms. Douglas! You are an incredible athlete

and role model. All the hard work and sacrifice has paid off, and I really hope

you're enjoying the fruits of your labor. Thank you for being such a great

representative of our country!

 

Ps. Your hear looks great!

Cátia Borges
Cátia Borges

Is this journalism? Who cares how she uses her hair? Why feed this nonsence?  Why even bother to mention it? Common Time you used to be one of the best word news magazines. Lately I only see junk like this in my news feed.  Focous on he important things not on shallow news to feed mindless brains.

Alex Arthur
Alex Arthur

I never heard anything about "hairgate."  I wouldnt have even considered this had you not brought it up Noliwe. I would suggest a high-class athlete like Gabby steer clear of the small minds of Twitter. 

Neville Thomas
Neville Thomas

... "along with a partially shaved head and multiple variations in hair color, these styles excluded the wearer from employment" - there is nothing wrong with this policy. They're their regulations which you can choose to abide by or leave. They certainly do not target a single race. I can't see the point in your argument.

leftlite
leftlite

" They certainly do not target a single race."

Neville, as the writer of the article noted "There are simply no corresponding styles regularly worn by other races that receive such negative attention."If you have information to the contrary please present it. Black people have had to put up with all kinds of crap for too many years. Now we have this flap about Gabby's hair. As she herself pointed out, she has had made a landmark achievement and succeeded at the highest level and she is criticized for her HAIR!? Seriously? I can't recall a similar flap over a white gymnast's hair. Honour her accomplishments and leave her hair alone.

Jamie Loud
Jamie Loud

While I agree with everything that Noliwe M. Rooks has said here, the negative attention given to Gabby Douglas' hair was not about her choice to wear it "messy and unkempt" but in fact was her choice to wear it straight and not "natural." The controversy was about her "not representing her African heritage enough." This is a much bigger issue and that issue is that she is being CRITICIZED for making a decision about her own appearance. Maybe she likes the way it looks straight and messy, or, as I heard someone say in support of her, maybe the style keeps her hair out of her face best and therefore allows her to focus on gymnastics, which is what she was there to do. Seriously, leave the girl alone.

chippy1
chippy1

this is the usual racist  WASP drivel, turned on to downgrade people who wish to show their indivuality and/or their racial pride. remember the nappy haired whores? while Imus lost his job over it, there wasn't much outrage from other quarters. we all know what this is about, outright bigotry, jealously compounded by race, and the dirt ignorence that most of this country wallows in

ledavidson
ledavidson

The fuss is not so much about the hair it is really an unusual complex and recently discovered phenomenon I believe it is called “Racism” but I doubt any American has ever heard of it.

ledavidson
ledavidson

The fuss is not so much about the hair it is really an unusual complex and recently discovered phenomenon I believe it is called “Racism” but I doubt any American has ever heard of it.

Kim Richardson
Kim Richardson

Gabby go shine and do your thing.  Your right in answering "What's wrong with my hair."  People leave the child alone and deal with your own hair.  Everyone's a freaking critic but like Jesse Jackson said, "

Never look down on anybody unless you're helping him up."  Makes me sick to think it could've derailed her confidence.  What is wrong with us?  You got it right Time.

Lara Chapman
Lara Chapman

umm, you do realize that African Americans singled out Gabby for her hair. It wasn't because she was black. It was because some people didn't think her hair was "done" enough. Please please please stop making this a white/black issue. It's irresponsible. It's tacky. And quite frankly it gets OLD.

Talendria
Talendria

I was going to say something similar, but if you link to the other examples Ms. Rooks cited it seems that there's a general lack of understanding about African hair and culture.  While I'm not a big fan of dreadlocks or cornrows, I understand that African hair doesn't naturally conform to Caucasian hair trends, and I don't think anyone should be required to use toxic chemical relaxers or feel ashamed of their own natural beauty.  Since people of African descent represent less than 15% of the U.S. population and since most of their beauty icons do chemically treat their hair, I think we all simply lack appreciation for natural African hairstyles.  The fact that Oprah and Alfre Woodard have recently shown their natural hair in public might inspire other African-Americans to do the same, and we will soon come to regard these styles as normal.

PrinceHall
PrinceHall

She makes some very valid points actually.  I didn't see her as making it a black/white issue.  The fact of the matter is, blacks are singled out and judged based off of their hair a little more than other races due to misconceptions and prejudice. 

ledavidson
ledavidson

I think I believe you are right I also believe in Santa clause and the Easter bunny....not really I am Jamaican and know something about history. They also appointed some black people as "Drivers” and “Whippers” back in “the good old days”

Marjorie Nye
Marjorie Nye

Seriously, I don't know how anyone could say anything about Gabby's hair when Aly whipped her hair into that weird conehead thing on the back of her head.  Just saying...

Gary McCray
Gary McCray

Superficial media attention is probably a definition of Modern Media.

Much ado about nothing.

If your going to be in the spotlight, it's necessary to be able to ignore it and get on with your life. 

In the Olympics, one thing I have seen is prejudicial and capricious calls by judges that favor one competitor or country over another.

In some sports that doesn't work, but in all the ones where the judges or referees make the calls they are anything but fair.

They worry so much about the contestants cheating, but the judges are a bigger problem.

Gary McCray
Gary McCray

Superficial media attention is probably a definition of Modern Media.

Much ado about nothing.

If your going to be in the spotlight, it's necessary to be able to ignore it and get on with your life. 

In the Olympics, one thing I have seen is prejudicial and capricious calls by judges that favor one competitor or country over another.

In some sports that doesn't work, but in all the ones where the judges or referees make the calls they are anything but fair.

I don't know how to fix it, but that is what really needs to get fixed.

They worry so much about the contestants cheating, but I see the judges as a much bigger problem.

happydayfortennis
happydayfortennis

Foxsports of course criticized both Gabby's hair and unpatriotic leotard and Serena's four-second Crip-walk. Both of whom have won two gold medals for America. Not to mention that Serena is literally the only American singles tennis player other than her sister that has been able to win Slams and gold medals in years. From an article entitled "Serena Williams Deserves the Criticism":

"Obviously, I can’t read Serena’s mind. But my hunch is Serena got really fired up for her gold-medal showdown with Maria Sharapova, the thin white super model who just happens to be a terrific tennis player. I bet in a private moment Friday night or Saturday morning, Serena told her sister Venus, “I’m going to kick this $*%amp;-@$$ and Crip Walk all over this crusty-@$$ place.”

You can't make this stuff up. Oh wait, Foxsports can.

happydayfortennis
happydayfortennis

Foxsports of course commented on her hair (which looks perfectly fine, to be honest) and "unpatriotic" leotard. It also heavily criticized Serena Williams for mocking the "lily-white" courts of Wimbledon for her four-second celebratory dance rather than focusing on her double gold medal win. I mean, she's literally the only American, male or female, singles tennis player besides maybe her sister that can win Grand Slams and gold medals at this point. 

In an article entitled "Serena Williams Deserves the Criticism,"

"Obviously, I can’t read Serena’s mind. But my hunch is Serena got really fired up for her gold-medal showdown with Maria Sharapova, the thin white super model who just happens to be a terrific tennis player.

I bet in a private moment Friday night or Saturday morning, Serena told her sister Venus, “I’m going to kick this $*%amp; ass and Crip Walk all over this crusty-ass place.

It became a moment that overshadowed the brilliance of her destruction of Sharapova.”

You can't make this stuff up. Oh wait, Foxsports can.

Ruth Raynor
Ruth Raynor

Being excluded from employment for having your hair in braids? That's ridiculous. African type hair is  quite often very fragile/frizzy because of the open cuticle and doesn't always lend itself well to hair styles that other hair types can manage easily. I'd rather see an employee with their hair in neat braids than down and breaking, or worse, replaced by some skanky cheap weave where you can see it's synthetic hair.

What's wrong with having scruffy hair as an athlete anyway? Last time I checked this wasn't a beauty contest.