Gabrielle Douglas, who brought home the gold in the gymnastics individual all-around competition a couple of weeks ago, is one of the many Olympians coming home to great fanfare this week.
While the world will remember Gabby's phenomenal skill and poise, a few people decided to focus on something that had nothing to do with her competition...her hair.
A handful of negative tweets about the Olympian’s hairdo initiated a heated debate online about vanity, ethnicity, and hair texture that carried over to mainstream media.
How does hair play into cultural identity in the African American community? A visit to Hairplay Salon in San Francisco brought up some heated opinions.
I personally come to the salon once a month to get my hair in a double strand twist, a style that lasts a couple of weeks. You see, my hair is...in transition. It’s been pressed, weaved, braided, dreaded and straightened over the years. Right now, it’s naturally curly at the roots and chemically straight on the ends. It kind of reminds me of Olympian Gabby Douglas’ hair – that’s why when everyone started talking about her hair, it got my attention.
Fritz Clay, the owner of Hairplay Salon says, “We are hard on each other about our hair. That’s the crown. It symbolizes stature and are you taking care of yourself, if your hair looks good you can wear anything.”
Fritz describes the salon as a place where hair and culture come together. Women come in to get every kind of hairstyle from twists, weaves, natural afro styles with tight curls to straight relaxed hair that’s chemically processed.
In fact, Margarite Brown comes in once a week just for a wash and deep condition.
“I had an afro wig in the 70s with my dashiki and buffalo sandals,” she laughs. “I’m almost 70 so my hair is much thinner. I actually had a boyfriend who poured water over my head when we were in the hot tub and he said, now and he said leave it like that he liked it better natural and I realized that he was right.
The natural vs. processed hair question is a big one. There’s even an entire documentary about Black Hair produced by comedian Chris Rock, where he talks about the psychology behind what it means to have “good hair.”
For some women, getting a relaxer helps transform what they consider, "bad hair" to "good" by straightening out the natural texture. It’s a chemical process, that if done well can last around 60 days but when it doesn’t go well it can leave open wounds on the scalp. It sometimes includes chemicals like lye lithium or potassium hydroxide.
Unfortunately the pressure to get your hair relaxed can start early, sometimes as young as six years old says stylist April Clay.
“We’re taught that our hair is nappy, kinky – it’s not pretty unless its straight and ever since we’ve been born grandma’s in the kitchen pressing your hair for Sunday school. When you are old enough to get a relaxer get it straight and that’s what pretty is, straight hair and that’s what we’re taught.”
April says that she doesn’t agree with this opinion but it’s something many young girls are brought up to believe.
At the salon, the hair talk starts to fill the room and now other women start chiming in. It doesn’t take long for Gabby Douglas and her hair to come up.
“I think it’s deplorable that any black woman would treat a child that way. She’s 16 years old and by the time she’s 20 she’ll figure her hair out,” said Margarite Brown. “If I could get my hands on the person that said that I would give her a piece of her mind,” she continued.
I asked Ms. Brown, why we are so crazy about our hair?
“Because we want to look like white people, I guess, I don’t know...” she answered.
Keitha Pansy is in the salon getting her hairwashed and styled. She’s been coming twice a month for 11 years now. She’s a runner with chemically relaxed hair and can relate to having to find a hairdo that works with her lifestyle, but can’t relate to all the commotion about Gabby’s hair.
She said that she heard the comments about young Gabby but dismissed them.
"It’s ridiculous I didn’t think it looked unkept, it didn’t look any different. I run I only wear my hair down two days after Denise does it and then the rest of the time it’s pulled back in a bun."
Pansy says she exercises every day and doesn’t have time to wash it and blow dry before work. The comments about Gabby online had her enraged.
“She didn’t look unkempt,” Pansy argued, “She looked like a 16-year-old girl who was having the time of her life.”
Sacrificing the hair is actually a real issue for many black women. Earlier this month the surgeon general of the United States Dr. Regina M. Benjamin judged a hair fitness competition at the International Hair Show in Atlanta. Stylists competed to showcase styles that could withstand a work out. It was meant to encourage women of color not to use getting their hair done as an excuse not exercise.
Chinwe Onyeagoro sits in the salon waiting for her hair to be pressed, she says the chatter around Gabby’s hair really stems from a lack of self-esteem in the African American community.
“I think there’s a certain level of envy that manifests itself in really negative and debasing comments instead of congratulating and praising and really showing a sense of pride as to what Gabby brought to our community. What people do is their fear is that any spotlight on Gabby takes away from them and their own personal sense of self esteem,” says Onyeagoro.
Next to the shampoo bowls, stylist Stacey Stokes offers Gabby or any woman who gets criticized for such things a bit of advice.
“She’s going on to bigger things,” he said. People have to beat you up, so you fight. She can stand with her head high and walk fly because if she doesn’t want to comb her hair she doesn’t have to. She’s my sister, my little sister, I’m the older prettier one but she’s still my sister," he said.
That seems to be how many people see Gabby Douglas. Perhaps their little sister, their best friend at school, their daughter, or… themselves. People feel like they have something in common with her, so they either criticize her or defend her passionately.
Today, I ask Victor, my hairstylist, to shape my hair into double strand twists, as usual. I must admit, I have used hair as an excuse not to work out. My hairdo costs $85 a month, so it’s a lifestyle choice. Do you want to sweat out your hair? Is it worth it? Well, for Gabby Douglas it was, she walked home with the gold.
Listen to the full story above.