To me, the silliness over Gabby Douglas’ gelled, less-than-perfectly-permed edges is symbolic of a larger issue.
It’s symbolic of how too many of us focus on shallow things, and, in the process, wind up setting unnecessary limits for ourselves.
I won’t fill too much space taking everyone back here, but we all know how Twitter was abuzz last week with chatter about how the 16-year-old gymnast’s hair wasn’t as tight as her tumbling.
Sniped one tweet: “So, for real, nobody wanted to go to London to do Gabby Douglas’ hair?”
Said another: “Gabby Douglas is cute and all, but that hair on camera…”
Gabby, of course, didn’t care about that cattiness. She just kept tumbling her way into Olympic history by becoming the first black woman to win individual all-round champion in gymnastics, and the first American to win gold in both the individual all-around and team competitions at the same Olympics.
In a way, I think some of the reaction to the criticism of Gabby’s hair was overblown. People say silly, thoughtless stuff on Twitter and Facebook all the time, and it’s possible that the people criticizing her hair admired her accomplishments.
Yet I hope the tongue-lashing that pundits dealt to her detractors, as well as the breathtaking photos of Gabby soaring into a stratosphere above it all, helps to thrust black girls and women into another mindset; one in which we begin to realize that by worrying about our hair so much, we wind up cutting ourselves out of other opportunities and joys that life has to offer.
Like enjoying a swim or a good night’s sleep after a long run or a vigorous workout. Or the chance at a life free of diabetes, high blood pressure or other problems that come when we protect our hair more than our health.
From what I can tell, a lot of this confusion starts early.
Many black girls around Gabby’s age, girls without the guidance of a determined, adoring mother, look in the mirror and don’t see themselves as a gymnast, or a swimmer, or a tennis player or track star.
Instead, thanks to the influence of reality television and music videos, plus lingering ideas of black inferiority which feed the good hair versus bad hair mentality, many girls won’t ever envision their esteem being tied to how they handle themselves on a balance beam, but by how closely they can get their weave to resemble Beyonce’s, or whether their edges match the straightness of the rest of their hair.
That’s not hair that they intend to get wet by sweating, or, God forbid, by swimming.
They’re missing out.
Recently, The New York Times cited a U.S. Education Department report which found that among high school sophomores, black girls had only a 40 percent rate of participation in sports, compared to 51 percent for white girls.
It gets worse at the intercollegiate level. Black women are underrepresented in all but two sports: basketball and track and field. Virtually none participate in lacrosse, swimming, soccer and softball.
Now it’s true that suburban white girls get exposed to a variety of sports at an early age, while many black parents struggle to commit time and resources for their girls to participate. That may explain much of that disparity.
But most high schools have pools and softball fields, and I’ve encountered enough black girls who’d rather protect their ‘do than do sports that could ultimately earn them a scholarship or maybe a spot on an Olympic team.
I’ve seen black mothers spend too much money on high-maintenance hairstyles for their daughters, and admonish them not to ruin it by sweating or getting wet – which feeds an anti-exercise, anti-sports mentality early.
That mentality is what’s coming out in the tweets about Gabby’s hair.
I hope the sight of Gabby soaring through the air, toes pointed and the power of her physicality on display, cause more black women, especially black girls, to begin to value the beauty and strength of their bodies more than whether their ‘do is tight.
Most of all, I hope her accomplishments persuades more of us to allow ourselves to be defined by broader, more substantive things.
And to realize that hair is not one of them.
Tonyaa Weathersbee is an award-winning columnist based in Jacksonville, Fla. Follow her on Twitter at tonyaajw@.