Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Hair is a battlefield:
Gabby Douglas and the pate debate

GABRIELLE Christina Victoria Douglas, the 16-year-old African American gymnast wowing the London Summer Games, made history there last week, winning two Olympic gold medals, and becoming the first black American gymnast to win a gold medal for both team and individual all-around performance at the same Olympic event.

But to go by the hue and cry in the blogosphere, her historic achievement pales in comparison with the state of … her hair. A slew of complaints about Douglas’ coif, many of them from African American women, reveal the hangups and insecurities of black hair, not just as fashion statement but as the nexus for the tangle of politics, culture and history.

For African Americans, hair has long been an issue fraught with emotionalism, and one that doesn’t always lend itself to impartial — or even rational — discussion. Some of the frankly ugly comments about Douglas’ hair from African Americans made that point from almost the minute Gabby stuck the landing for her first gold last week.

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That’s when Alison Samuels of The Daily Beast distilled the crux of the issue: “The 4-foot-11 Douglas appears to have chemically relaxed natural hair, to which she has added a human-hair ponytail for height. She apparently then slicks her hair back with a heavy layer of gel to encourage it to stay in place during her high-energy performances.”

The flap over Douglas’ hair underscores a sub rosa narrative, one that many African American women have subscribed to: that by not paying full attention to her hair style, and to her own status as a proxy for all black American women, Gabby Douglas somehow “let us down.” No sooner had she first brought glory to the United States than the hating began with a torrent of remarks.

“I love how she’s doing her thing and winning,’’ says 22-year-old Latisha Jenkins of Detroit told Samuels. “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 representing for black women everywhere.’’

“Why hasn’t anyone tried to fix Gabby Douglas’ hair?” tweeted one complainer.

Somebody named DeAnt tweeted: “lmfao Gabby Douglas shouldn’t be the standout in those commercials until she get her hair done.”

And another malcontent heard from: “gabby douglas gotta do something with this hair! these clips and this brown gel residue aint it?”

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SOME AT least tried to put things in a historical, somewhat scholarly perspective. Tina Opie, an assistant professor of management at Babson College in Wellesley, Mass., told Vanessa Williams at The Washington Post that the Douglas flap resonates because “hair is identity.” To African American women who “see hair as a signifier of identity — of class, ethnicity, of gender — it matters. So when these black women see Gabby Douglas wearing her hair in a way they see as sub-par, they view it as a threat, something that will negatively impact how others view them as well. She’s a representative of the collective.”

For these people, it’s not enough to do what’s expected of you as a world-class gymnast; it’s not enough to represent yourself to the best of your ability. On your diminutive shoulders is the weight of African American women everywhere. That’s heavy duty to lay on a 16-year-old girl rightly preoccupied with athletic excellence on the biggest stage in the world.

Crazeecritter, commenting in The Root, was on point: “Hair? I was more entranced by the beauty of her face and smile, the power and skill of her arms and legs, the talent and stamina she brought to the Games. What fool was looking at her hair?”

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Much of what makes hair such a charged issue within the black community is the less than welcome reception to black hair outside the community. The majority culture’s generally uneasy relationship with black hair feeds the insecurities of African Americans, women in particular.

For many white Americans, it’s no big deal. Mosthind commented on Douglas’ triumph in The Washington Post: “As an old and cynical White guy I say, My God! She just won the Gold Medal in a REAL and DIFFICULT sport! She's smart and she's a very attractive young girl....leave her alone except to congratulate and thank her for representing our Country with honor and dignity!”

But contrast that with what was said at a women’s luncheon in the summer of 2007, when an editor for Glamour magazine presented a slide show on dos and Don'ts of Corporate Fashion" at Cleary Gottlieb, a Wall Street law firm, and said black female attorneys should shun wearing dreadlocks or Afros, “political” hairstyles considered unprofessional.

The Cleary Gottlieb matter isn’t ancient history. While the style and texture of black women’s hair has already been an issue in their own lives, black women have encountered other, similar workplace challenges to and discomforts with their identity, and how that identity is announced in everything from clothing to vernacular speech to their very names — all more recently seen, to one degree or another, as problematic to American corporate life.

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AND QUIET as it’s kept (in the current debate), this isn’t gender-specific; black men haven’t been exempt from this conflict of the latitudes of fashion and the insistence of identity. For years the afro was a baseline hairstyle for African American men, particularly in the heady days of the late 1960’s and into the 70’s, as a hirsute statement of racial empowerment.

When Jesse Jackson thundered “I am somebody!” in the early ‘70’s, he reinforced that message wearing an afro whose proud circumference had its counterparts among other brothers in the millions. 

Fast forward a decade or so; black men increasingly began to sport the shaved-head look; the style was said to be a bid for a look of polish and elegance, or it was called a low-maintenance option. But it was inescapable; as black men sought to achieve a place at the boardroom table, heads got cut

The shaved head or the close crop became a de rigeur fixture for black men (reinforced by events such as the roundly criticized ad campaign by the Nivea personal products company, which briefly produced ads in August 2011 casting the Afro hairstyle in an ugly, backward light, and calling on black men to “RE-CIVILIZE YOURSELF”).

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For African Americans, women and men, in the boardroom and the blogosphere, hair is a battlefield, More the pity’s that a teenage girl justifiably oblivious to the issue has been made this war’s latest accidental conscript.

Thank goodness: At least in the short term, cooler heads in (ironically) the corporate world are starting to prevail. The Kellogg Company announced on Friday that Douglas, hair and all, had secured that coveted spot in American culture: her picture on a cereal box. Douglas’ picture will appear on boxes of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes soon to be introduced at a store near you — apparently part of an endorsement deal Douglas has with the breakfast-foods giant.

Various media reports have said that Gabby Douglas stands to make up to $90 million in endorsement deals in the coming years. $90 million. That’ll make your hair stand up — regardless of race, color, or texture.

Image credits: Gabby Douglas: via dailypress.com. Tweets by their respective creators. © 2012 Twitter. Nivea ad: © 2011 Beiersdorf Inc. Gabby Corn Flakes box: © 2012 The Kellogg Company.


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