If Gabby's Got The Gold, Why Flip Over Her Hair?

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Gabby Douglas stands with other competitors during the playing of the national anthem during the final round of the women's Olympic gymnastics trials, Sunday, July 1.
(AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
Gabby Douglas stands with other competitors during the playing of the national anthem during the final round of the women's Olympic gymnastics trials, Sunday, July 1.

Gabby Douglas, the 16-year-old gymnast from Virginia Beach, Va., won another gold medal Thursday. The first was won with her team earlier this week. She was the only member of the team to perform in all four rotations. So, why are some black women obsessed with her hair? Writer Monique Fields has this perspective.

Never mind how she flies like a raven on the balance beam. Or flutters across the floor. Or soars on vault. Or swings on the uneven bars.

On Twitter and Facebook, black women shared their disapproval of Douglas' ponytail, the same hairstyle all of her teammates sported. It appeared unkempt to some, didn't have enough gel for others and a few demanded a chance to make over her style.

The criticism started on social media, but hair bloggers and even Jezebel defended the gymnast. This is the Olympics, where world-class athleticism is on display. It is not a hair show.

Make no mistake, though, the matter of hair is as serious to some in the black community as losing a tenth of a point on the balance beam.

Douglas, some feel, isn't just representing herself, her family and all of the sacrifices they made to get to the world stage. She is representing black people, who take a certain pride in their appearance. She is representing a race of people who have been taught over and over again that they must be better than everyone else just to be on an equal playing field. She is representing a history of hurts and wrongs.

But Douglas is a gymnast. It is not her responsibility to represent black people, or more specifically, black women, and prove to the world how talented and beautiful we are. It is not her responsibility to defy stereotypes.

What she is is a role model. Douglas has accomplished a feat that is unattainable for most of the population. When viewers are distracted by a trivial matter that doesn't affect a performance, we are teaching our young people that style is more important than substance. Little girls are watching Douglas flipping her way across the floor, noticing that she looks a lot like them, and dreaming of one day following in her footsteps.

I've never met Gabby Douglas, but my best guess is being the best gymnast she can be is more important to her than her hair. We all are more important than our hair, and we need to stop tearing down black women for how we look.

Even though I know the results, like many Americans, I will go home and watch the taped competition. I will relish watching Gabby win another gold. And it is my hope that by the end of the games, viewers will focus on her strength and poise — not her hair.

Monique Fields teaches at the University of Alabama and blogs at Honeysmoke.com.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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