The Washington Post

Gabby’s mom: Hair complaints ‘ignorant’

How is it that my soundtrack for the Olympics has become “I Am Not My Hair” by India.Arie?

The fact that Gabby Douglas’s ponytail has become a serious point of discussion that merited mention on NPR, in a Washington Post column and a Style story is a tale of modern media, the viral conversation and black women’s tortured relationship with our hair.

For those who have not been following the Olympics, Douglas is the double gold-medal winning gymnast who became America’s surprise sweetheart. As she did, black women on Twitter and in living rooms (and presumably beauty shops) ripped on her hairstyle.

My, my, my. We have a long way to go.

Gabby’s mom, Natalie Hawkins, spoke on the subject to Cheryl Wischhover of Hawkins said she started hearing complaints about her daughter’s hair earlier this year and specifically had Gabby’s hair styled before the Olympics.

“We put all this effort into getting her hair done and they still didn’t like it!” Hawkins told Wischhover.

It’s not surprising. Black women are infamously judgmental about one another’s hair from my experience. At the risk of throwing my grandmother under the bus, Big Mama has always been quick to criticize my hair. When I cut it off six years ago to get rid of the chemically-straightened look that I had grown weary of, she frowned at my short kinky hair. “What is that?” she wanted to know. This from my loving Big Mama, who is supportive of all I do and passes my articles around to her friends in Bay City, Texas.

I had to grow not to care. Embracing my hair was an exercise in self-acceptance, a quiet rebellion and a new beginning. There were times it didn’t look like much or wouldn’t lay flat or puff out how I hoped, but I went with it. Spending too much time worrying about my hair and pressing it into submission was not my priority. I was building a career and growing into the woman I wanted to be in my mid-20s. I look back at photos during that time, and I don’t often love my hairstyle but I’m happy with the life I’ve built.

I relate to much of what Gabby and her mom have said in recent days.

“At this level in her career, hair is somewhat secondary,” her mom said on Fashionista. “It was actually her coach who told me that. I was trying to get her into a hair appointment and I wanted to move her training schedule around and he said to me, ‘She’s beautiful. You don’t need to change her hair. We need to focus on training. Hair is secondary. We make time for that after training. Don’t mess with my training time.’”

Thank God Hawkins listened to the coach and didn’t worry about Gabby dragging her hair across tumbling mats and into foam pits or fret over messy pony tails and rough edges.

My hope is that the destructive conversation didn’t get into Gabby’s head and throw her off her game. She fell off the balance beam and missed a mark on the uneven bars.

If I could talk to her now that the Olympics are over, I would tell her to put India.Arie’s song on repeat and go with the flow.

I am not my hair

I am not this skin

I am not your expectations no no

I am not my hair

I am not this skin

I am a soul that lives within

It is an anthem all women should know.

Krissah Thompson began writing for The Washington Post in 2001. She has been a business reporter, covered presidential campaigns and written about civil rights and race. More recently, she has covered the first lady's office, politics and culture.

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