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Posted at 10:55 AM ET, 08/06/2012

Gabby Douglas and her ponytail: what’s all the fuss about?

UPDATE, Aug. 6: Douglas responded to the hair nonsense, saying what we’ve all been saying: What is the big deal? According to USA Today, the teenage Olympian said, “I just simply gelled it back, put some clips in it and put it in a bun. Are you kidding me? I just made history. And you're focusing on my hair?”

ORIGINAL, Aug. 2: Gabby Douglas’s hair has been the topic of a ton of e-chatter for the past few days. After the 16-year-old Olympian sported a gelled-down ponytail – much like the hair styles of her fellow gymnasts – black Twitter lit up with comments from both men and women, complaining that her ‘do looked unkempt.

Gabby Douglas competes in the floor exercise event during the final round of the women's Olympic gymnastics trials. (Jae C. Hong - AP)
A young, black woman qualifies for the Olympics, wins the gold, and the main focus is…her hair? It’s upsetting, but shocking it isn’t.

When the Williams sisters made their professional tennis debut in the mid-1990s, there was much talk about their love of bead-and-braids. They were criticized for their functional, but unfashionable ‘do. Kudos to them for only giving up the beads when they started to impact their game.

Fortunately, the negative comments about Douglas’s hair have been met with robust opposition. Writer Monisha Randolph, tried to bring some perspective in a piece for Sporty Afros .

“The last time I checked when you play a sport, you sweat. I know I do,” Randolph wrote. “And when a black woman who has chosen to wear her hair straight begins to sweat, her hair will (not might) begin to revert back to its natural coily, curly, or kinky state. Does Gabby need to stop every five minutes to check her hair? No. When one experiences back-to-back intense workouts, that person learns what works best on their hair.”

Not that it has anything to do with her performance, but I’m amazed that her hair held up that well after such intense exercise. That little scrunchie would have been no match for my hair.

But the criticism may not stem from an intentionally negative place. For example, one tweeter wrote “My mama sitting [here] screaming at Gabby Douglas on TV because her hair not fixed.”
Gabrielle Douglas is all smiles after she won the artistic gymnastics women's individual all-around final during the 2012 Olympic Games. (Gabby Douglas reacts to winning gold. | AFP/Getty)

When I stumbled upon that tweet, the insecurities that would lead a middle-aged black woman to hiss her teeth at the thought of a black female Olympian with less-than magnificent hair became so easy to understand.

They are the same insecurities that cause my (usually very enlightened) mother to act like a wrinkled shirt is the end of the world. She doesn’t want me to go out in the world (read: in front of white people) looking messy. Not only does she want me to perform well, she wants me to look good doing it – to leave no room for the criticism that she feared growing up in the 1960’s.

[For another perspective on Gabby Douglas, read Tomi Obaro’s essay.]

Some of these Twitter critics were looking at Gabby’s performance with pride. Some only tuned in to watch this 16-year-old black girl from the States stick her landing. They felt she represented them, and lovingly – yes, I said lovingly – wanted her to look and do her best.

It’s not healthy, and it’s not fair, but let’s not pretend like we don’t know where it comes from.

One thing is for certain. I sincerely hope that Gabby never becomes aware of how big all of this hoopla has gotten, and if she does, I just want her to look at her gold medals and head back to the gym to practice some more.  

Lauren McEwen is a contributor to TheRootDC

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By Lauren McEwen  |  10:55 AM ET, 08/06/2012

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