I wanted to talk to you about our little one Gabby Douglas. At sixteen years old, Gabby has become an Olympic Gold medalist, ranking her a world-class gymnast. The online support for her has been wonderful. The #GoGabby hashtags during competition and the many gifs of the Virginia native in truly impossible poses are enough to make me want to attempt the splits…Don’t worry, I’m not.
The problem is the other chatter.
There’s an ongoing conversation taking place, both online and off, about Gabby’s hair. Apparently some find it ‘unkempt’ and are displeased. Even more surprising is that this discussion isn’t taking place amongst white people, or fellow gymnasts or even young men trying to see what’s good – but instead, the majority of the criticism is taking place amongst other Black women.
A simple twitter search of Gabby’s name produces a mixed bag of commentary, with a great majority of negativity generated from other women of color, complaining about Gabby’s need for a perm. It would be easy to simply say it’s a matter of taste, but really there’s a bigger issue here, that as we continue to grow as a culture, we are going to have to address. We are not our hair.
I’ve always had thick, long hair but as a child it was wild and hard to manage. I can recall the ‘great hair decision’ of ’86, when I was given a perm without my father’s permission. It sparked outrage, changed the texture of my hair and began a cycle of chemical dependency that would last until 2004 when – as an adult – I decided I didn’t want the chemical treatments anymore. It took me two years to grow it out but what was left was a healthy head of hair. On my best days, I can do anything I want – flat iron straight, loose curls, tight ponytail – but humidity is my kryptonite. Muggy summer days narrow my options to the natural fro or a high bun pinned to the top of my head. Recently I’ve been on two-a-day workouts, averaging 4 hours of intense sweating has meant I don’t get to wear my hair down as much as I’d like.
The irony is, I’ve been having conversations with my own style team about weave, being heavily encouraged to get a sew-in. Now, I’ve worn weave years ago, so there’s no judgment against it. But as I listen to the people on my team – who truly have my best interest at heart – I can’t help but think of Gabby.
Do we really believe that the only way to be beautiful, as Black women, is to have a perm or a weave? And in 2012, when we’re doctors, lawyers, Olympians, aren’t other things to take pride in besides our hair?
The relationship between Black women and our hair stretches all the way back to Africa, but the current sub-cultural standard of straightening took root in post-slavery days when we began to adapt European standards of beauty as our own.
I applaud Madame CJ Walker, but aren’t we advanced enough as a people to finally ask: my hair is not long enough for what? Gabby’s hair isn’t straight enough for what? I am Black and I’m proud of that. But my pride in that fact can’t begin or end with my hair. And if it does, then what does that say about our prioritizing?
Black women account for 41% of revenue for the hair care industry, totaling $9 billion in 2011. But we only account for 12% of the fitness industry, largely in part because of the complications vigorous workouts cause to our hair. So there should be no surprise that 1 in 4 Black women will develop diabetes by the time they’re 65.
Listen, every culture has its vanities. But confusing them with our values only sets us up to fail. Yes, you should always look your best, especially when the world is watching. But ‘best’ is subjective. And just because Gabby’s hair isn’t as you would like it, doesn’t mean she isn’t at her best. And let’s not forget she’s competing at the Olympics, not Bronner Bros.
There’s a lack of clarity in our communal value system. Instead of encouraging our sisters, daughters and friends to take pride in their talent, their abilities and what they’ve been able to accomplish first, we’re sending the message that your medals don’t mean as much if you don’t fit into a standard of beauty that was never meant to serve us anyway.
At some point, we will have to either reclaim ourselves and begin to set our own standards that include more than our hair, or we will continue to grow ever frustrated with how we’re portrayed in a society that is taking their cues from us. And you cannot be upset with how we’re depicted if you’re not even sending the right message to ourselves.
Am I telling you to ditch the box perms and pressing combs and go full on Angela Davis afro-chic? Not at all. I love my pressing comb. Rock your perms, straw sets, naturals, braids, locks, and anything and everything else we can come up with. Hell, I may even actually get a weave. But do so understanding that your hair is not what’s on your head that makes you regal, it’s who you are that makes you worthy to be called Queen.