Do you see anything wrong with her hair?
Gabby Douglas, being a champion. Photo: Getty images
US Olympic gymnast Gabby Douglas moved interstate away from her entire family when she was only 14 for training. She’s been on the cover of Time magazine. And last week at 16 years old she won not only a gold in the women’s team event, but also became the first ever person of colour to get the gold medal in the individual all-around competition. So with all those towering achievements and the great sacrifices she made to accomplish them of course what everyone would be discussing would be... her hair.
After her performance the trolls swiftly came out from under their bridges to tweet mean comments like “Gabby Douglas gotta do something with this hair” and “Why hasn’t anyone tried to fix Gabby Douglas’ hair?” So, do you see anything wrong with this girl’s hair? Of course not, especially since it’s the exact same style that the rest of the US women’s team wore. Douglas herself was baffled saying in response to the controversy, "I don't know where this is coming from. What's wrong with my hair? I'm like, 'I just made history and people are focused on my hair?' It can be bald or short, it doesn't matter about [my] hair."
Douglas is part of a bigger conversation that is currently happening about what is deemed “acceptable” hair. Online there have been blogs and YouTube channels sprouting up as part of a growing natural hair movement, a trend towards women with afro-textured hair rejecting chemical treatments and weaves and instead embracing their natural texture. At this year’s Oscars best actress nominee Viola Davis went sans wig showing off a stunning auburn crop and this month Oprah did her first ever O magazine cover shoot with her natural hair (and you know when Oprah does something it’s officially ‘a thing’.) Someone even photoshopped this rather spectacular but completely fake image of what Michelle Obama might look like with natural hair (answer: seriously amazing.)
Celebrities celebrating their natural hair
Who, in the history of makeup-free holidays has ever looked this good after a swim? As if this were not enough, Beyonce's hair in all of its wild, untameable magnificence is blowing free in the topical breeze. We’re not sure where this is but obviously we want to go to there!
So why is hair such a hot-button issue that can incite such fervent discussion? For a long time straight hair was considered the last word in looking professional and elegant, much to the relief of GHD shareholders everywhere (the last time curls were in vogue was back in the eighties, but those gravity-defying perms could hardly have been described as natural.) Even those of us without afro-textured hair would be familiar with this preference for straight hair. I have friends who always get a blow dry before any big event and I’ve been known to break out the hair straightener before job interviews even though my personal hair preference is best described as “finger combed”.
But the natural hair movement is questioning why pin straight hair is considered any more professional or pretty than curly or kinky locks – after all the revolutions per strand of what’s on your head don’t have any bearing on how well you do your job. This perception of curly hair as unkempt or messy does still persist as shown by the tweets at Douglas, and can result in the rather ugly consequences of leaving some women thinking that the natural texture of their hair is unattractive or unacceptable without intervention. The more Gabbys and Violas and Oprahs who wear their hair whatever way they feel like it, the more options all of us will have to present ourselves however we want without this being considered some sort of external marker of our inner selves as “messy” or “unprofessional”.
It’s strange that there are so many stereotypes that certain superficialities can communicate deeper truths about a person. Think of the dumb idea of fat equalling lazy (because no-one at all knows any skinny people who would never set foot over the threshold of a gym.) Or the idea that tall women are somehow less feminine. Or the eternal punch line of blonde women being gullible idiots. This discussion about hair is good one to be having because it forces us to look at why our appearance is so heavily scrutinised and harshly judged, even to the point where it can overwhelm such high flying achievements as in the case of Gabby Douglas.
I’ll leave the last word to Ms Douglas who is as poised in dealing with the hair haters as she is in the gymnasium. "Nothing is going to change," she said to The Associated Press. "I'm going to wear my hair like this during beam and bar finals. You might as well just stop talking about it." And hopefully one day the conversation about what is “good” hair is one we’ll no longer need to be having as well.