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?

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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?

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