The brouhaha over Olympic gold medalist Gabrielle Douglas' hair qualifies neither as a case study in African-American self-loathing (based on some black folks' embrace of white standards which scorn our naturally kinky hair) nor simple hateration (the spiteful tearing down of high achievers by less accomplished, usually envious individuals). The controversy (which was never as huge as the media reporting made it seem) was not about natural hair vs. straightened hair, nor was it about overlooking Gabby's athletic heroism. It was about making a positive impression.
A lot of the black women who hopped on social networking sites to vent about the history-making 16-year-old gymnast's ponytail and "kitchen" did so out of sisterly or motherly concern. Many of the sisters did not speak from malice or the misguided, outdated notion of so-called "good" hair. They were proud of Gabby's unprecedented accomplishments, but they were also disappointed that no one had seen to it that "our" all-around gymnastics champion looked her best when she went out to compete on the world's biggest stage.
Of course, the conversation over Gabby Douglas' hair was only a small part of the round-the-clock online chatter about this amazing young athlete. (Most news stories and columns on this controversy quoted the same four or five messages.) The majority of tweets, Facebook posts, blogs and message board conversations have focused on Douglas' joyful confidence, her fierce-but-friendly competitiveness, that lucrative Corn Flakes deal, her tight bond with her mother, sisters, Iowa host family and her dad (who Skyped with her regularly from the battle zone in Afghanistan) and her record-setting triumphs inside the North Greenwich Arena. It really hasn't been all about Gabby's hair.
Commenting on a gymnast's appearance is not as cuckoo or out-of-line as some of Douglas' defenders have suggested. Like it or not, gymnastics is one of those sports (like figure skating, dressage and synchronized swimming) where aesthetics count. While the judges do not score competitors on grooming, a neat, polished appearance and a certain degree of glamor have become the standard for women gymnasts. That explains all of the eye shadow, lip gloss, rouge, glitter, besparkled leotards and so on. In that context, it was logical for people to express opinions about Gabrielle Douglas' 'do' which, let's be honest, could have looked a tad nicer.
Unfortunately, in this age of the Internet, a lot of people feel compelled to express all of their opinions in the public square. And to express those opinions in snarky, deliberately insensitive terms. Social networking sites can be a wonderful and very effective tool for quick, direct communication. But far too often, people use these sites to verbally knock others in an effort to show how witty, sarcastic, or even cruel they can be in the semi-anonymity of cyberspace.
Two of the most-frequently quoted Tweets about Gabrielle Douglas' hair are: "Gabby Douglas gotta do something with this hair! These clips and this brown gel residue aint it" and "Gabby Douglas needs to tame the beady beads in the back of her hair." But there were also more compassionate messages like the Daily Beast post by 22-year-old Latisha Jenkins:
"I love how she's doing her thing and winning. But I just hate the way her hair looks with all those pins and gel. I wish someone could have helped her make it look better since she's being seen all over the world. She is representing black women everywhere."
That isn't hating on Gabby. And it certainly isn't hating on natural black hair. That's a big sister offering constructive criticism. And that's perfectly OK.
I'm guessing that one day soon, before Douglas starts her media and public appearance tours, Team Gabby will bring on a stylist who knows how to accentuate the unique beauty of black hair in order to develop a look that will fully reflect the exceptional athleticism and spirit of fun that defines this awe-inspiring young champion.
Thanks for listening. I'm Cameron Turner and that's my two cents.