Opinion: Why focus on Gabby Douglas' hair?
After her historic win, gymnastics all-around gold medalist Gabby Douglas faced criticism about her hair.
August 6th, 2012
02:20 PM ET

Opinion: Why focus on Gabby Douglas' hair?

Editor's Note: Tiya Miles is chairwoman of the Department of Afro-American and African Studies and professor of history and Native American studies at the University of Michigan. She is the author of "Ties That Bind: The Story of an Afro-Cherokee Family in Slavery and Freedom" and "The House on Diamond Hill: A Cherokee Plantation Story." She is also the winner of  a 2011 genius grant from the MacArthur Foundation.

By Tiya Miles, Special to CNN

When Gabby Douglas stood on the Olympic podium Thursday, a bright smile on her face and gold medal around her neck, she made history as the first African-American woman to win top honors in the all-around gymnastics competition.

Many African-Americans watching Douglas shared a flush of pride at the accomplishment, noting her joy, her poise, her grace and, apparently, her hairstyle.

I heard about this latter preoccupation from my sister, who swept into town for a weekend visit and opened with, “Have you heard that mess about Gabby’s hair? Type in ‘Gabby Douglas hair’ on Google; you’ll see.” I was dismayed to find a string of posts by African-American women and men debating Douglas’ hairstyle and the perceived imperfection that while her hair was straightened, parts of it had turned visibly kinky during her performance.

The fascination with natural African-American hair

Twitter and Facebook commenters and callers on black talk radio shows questioned whether her hair was too straight or too kinky, whether it was over-gelled or under-tamed, and what she should have done with that floppy bun. My sister, who thought this barrage of criticism was a “mess,” threw in the final comment: “All right, I admit if I was her mother, I would have put a headband on the girl, but really, who cares?”

A significant number of people, if the list my Google search returned is any indication. Why were some African-Americans fixated on hair at a moment that should have been set aside to savor a grand achievement?

For African-Americans and black women in particular, hair has long been troubled terrain. The natural kinkiness or curliness of most black people’s hair places it outside the bounds of mainstream American beauty standards, which emphasizes straightness, length and the bounce and flow of tresses in motion.

Reporter’s Notebook: Viola Davis keeps it 'real'

Historically, the difference of black hair texture has symbolized the inferiority of black people in the minds of some whites and even some blacks.

Naturally kinky hair was viewed as dirty, unkempt and unattractive into the mid-20th century.

In the 1960s and later, as blacks began to reclaim natural styles, Afros, braids and dreadlocks were associated with political radicalism in dominant American culture to the extent that some black women were threatened with the loss of their jobs for wearing braids to the workplace.

Over the years, black women (and men) have turned to numerous products and processes in an attempt to tame their locks into looks more fitting for American society – from twists and ties to pomades and gels to straightening combs and chemical relaxers.

It is no wonder that the first African-American female millionaire, Madame C. J. Walker, earned her riches from selling hair lotions and perfecting the use of the straightening comb.

For African-Americans, smooth, straight hair has been a symbol not only of beauty but of acceptance in broader American culture. And while black women wear their hair in myriad creative ways, one underlying orientation from this cultural history of hair oppression remains: the view that a black woman’s hairstyle is important and even symbolic, so she had better get it right. This is in part why Angela Davis’ Afro became iconic, why Beyoncé’s blond tresses are a signature of her look and why Nicki Minaj made a splash with a twirling carrousel of cotton-candy colored wigs.

Praise pours in for Viola Davis' natural 'do

African-American women feel that we have to “represent” through physical appearance. We know that when we step outside our doors, people do not only see and judge us as individuals, they see and judge our entire community and racial group.

For our own self-esteem and for the dignity of our group, we strive to appear our best. And to do so, we have often tried to replicate the aesthetic values of mainstream American society — including straight hair.

These acts of replication have been internalized such that we often do not distinguish between mainstream standards of beauty and what might have traditionally been our own way of looking at and loving ourselves.

The public reaction to Douglas’ appearance shows that this preoccupation with hair in the black community has gone too far.

In the black culture, a richness of hairstory

After her stunning win, tweeters who publicly demanded “why hasn’t anyone tried to fix Gabby Douglas’ hair?” and charged “gabby douglas gotta do something with this hair!” distracted the nation’s attention from what really mattered in the moment.

Defenses of Douglas posted by black women emphasized salient points: that she was an athlete who necessarily worked up a sweat, that sweat naturally affected one’s hair and that she had just accomplished something none of the “haters” could even dream of. A Facebook page called “I Support Gabby Douglas and HER HAIR” has collected 220 likes.

But overall, the chatter about Douglas’ hair has been insensitive and unproductive. Instead of criticizing this teenage girl for her appearance, black women and men could have been using those 140 Twitter characters to celebrate the skill of an Olympic champion.

The wise black feminist author Alice Walker spoke and wrote about the constraints of hair and beauty ideals in black culture in an essay titled “Oppressed hair puts a ceiling on the brain.”

When we engage in petty talk of perms and gels in the wake of a great triumph, we diminish ourselves and limit the potential of our young women and girls by sending the message that how they look overshadows what they think, imagine and accomplish.

Instead, we should be telling our girls that beauty is as beauty does. So what if 16-year-old Gabby Douglas doesn’t meet an unrealistic black hair-care standard?

She can swing and flip on parallel bars as the best all-around woman gymnast in the world; she can leap through the air like a shooting star.

We should all aspire to lift our heads so high.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Tiya Miles. 

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Filed under: Black in America • History • How we look • What we think • Women
soundoff (883 Responses)
  1. Samantha

    I am tired of hearing all the criticism regarding "African American" women talking about Gabby's hair...somebody read some stupid website in which a few black women commented about her hair and have judged all black women to be fickle and vain! Just stop with the criticism! Most black women did not think there was anything wrong with this girl's hair...the media told you that the people complaining were black women and people have just ran with it....I am black and beautiful and I think Gabby is too...the majority of black women are not criticizing this kid's hair and honestly I think she knows that!

    August 29, 2012 at 10:23 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Alkebu

    Gabriel is 16 and performing under the worse personal conditions possible and all people can do is nit pick her hair... People please get a life.... Let's see if you can win Olympian Gold and look any better... Let see if you can make it through the day and look any better. What no takers I thought not...

    August 28, 2012 at 12:24 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Beer immediately

    Congrats to Gabby Douglas! Outstanding example of what hard work and dedication will get you. Forget all these D.A. people with the crab in a barrel mentality. Only those people would focus on something as petty as ones hairstyle.

    August 27, 2012 at 10:08 am | Report abuse |
  4. belinda

    I am enraged that Insensitive People, are judging this Lovely,Gifted,Hard working young lady for whatever. That Gabby is Gracious,Thoughtful and Intelligent should mean way more, than these insults, coming from small minded people.

    August 25, 2012 at 6:26 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Ali

    There we go again. Insensitive and fake media. Appearance is everything, success is nothing in this country. This is why millions suffer from anorexia and millions have self image problems. Can't you people just enjoy her success and be supportive for this young girl and be happy for her. And where ever this bs come from please try to flip in the air 4 times and fall on your feet with the speed of free fall and look at yourself in the mirror what you look like. Of course her hair will be like that. And all those successful young girls have the same hair style. Why she is the one getting judged by? Sometimes it is very hard to understand people.

    She is beautiful and she is successful. Don't be jealous people. Were you successful like her when you were at her age? Did you accomplish what she just accomplished? Yeah thats what I thought. So people. Shushhhhh. Just be supportive. She made a history. Conrats Gabby Douglas!

    August 16, 2012 at 5:40 pm | Report abuse |
  6. L82Court

    Why should a talented and beautiful young woman worry herself over something so petty? Black women do not need to imitate white women to look beautiful. They should be proud of who they are – show some pride for god's sake. Most of those tweets were probably from middle aged harpies; they spent their youth obsessed with making their hair look like Jacqueline Smith. Gabby Douglas projected nothing but strength and confidence throughout the Olympic meet, but these holdovers from the disco age could only see her hair? Pathetic.

    August 16, 2012 at 12:37 pm | Report abuse |
  7. James

    "Why focus on Gabby Douglas' hair?"–Because the Media has nothing better to do, is completely insensitive to anyone feelings or the just don't care/–take your choice.

    August 16, 2012 at 10:07 am | Report abuse |
  8. Columbia 54

    Middle aged white male here. LOVE ME SOME GABBY DOUGLAS! Who CARES about the hair! People, black and white, need to concentrate on what really matters.

    August 15, 2012 at 4:41 pm | Report abuse |
    • sharon

      Thanks for your comment!! I agree with you, she has spent years in getting to this level of gymnastics why would you constantly worry about your hair. She has reached her top and we all wish her GOOG LUCK in maintaning it. Professor stop the hair debate. Why would anybody worry about her hair!!!!!

      August 15, 2012 at 6:37 pm | Report abuse |
      • Linda

        Why is there such a debate over Gabby's hair AFTER she wins a gold medal? She has worked SO VERY HARD to get that platform for anyone to even think about about her hair. Her hair goes with the fact that she is her own person with a personality, feelings, etc.

        When my kids were young, I taught them that everyone is their own special person. I guess not everyone learned that same lesson, given to the adults in their lives when they were young!! That is, if the parents taught them to not be racist and/or stupid.

        August 15, 2012 at 6:43 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Lori

    Women of all colors and ethnicities must learn to accept that there is no such thing as perfection. We must embrace the good with the bad. maybe gabby has "bad hair" but guess what, she's got a strong athletic physique and beautiful skin that won't wrinkle. and bonus round: it looks like she'll have a lucrative career ahead and can do whatever she wants with her "imperfect" hair!

    August 15, 2012 at 10:12 am | Report abuse |
  10. Just Call Me Bob

    Having to put up with relentless comments of "Awww, she's just as cute as she can be" coming from my wife, I can honestly say that neither my wife, nor I, noticed anything wrong with Gabby's hair. The kid's gorgeous, does what 99% of us will NEVER do, and accomplished this before she turned 18. People just need to leave her alone.

    August 15, 2012 at 9:20 am | Report abuse |
  11. Flugerio15

    If your hair is relaxed, white people are relaxed. If your hair is nappy, they're not happy.

    August 15, 2012 at 9:02 am | Report abuse |
    • shootmyfood

      I"m a white person who has nappy hair – and "black" straightening products don't do a thing except break it. No-one has ever faulted my accomplishments because of my hair. As if any of us have a choice about our genetic inheritance. Foolishness!

      August 15, 2012 at 4:39 pm | Report abuse |
      • bright

        Sure you do.

        August 17, 2013 at 7:53 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Brandi

    Gabby, you are a winner...Ignore the ignorant. They will be wishing they were attached to your hair when the money starts rolling in

    August 15, 2012 at 8:08 am | Report abuse |
  13. cashmeremafia

    SHE IS A WORLD CHAMPION!! Why in the h*** are people talking about her HAIR??? It doesn't change or diminish one iota the fact that she is among the best gymnasts in the world, and embodies the American spirit of hard work!!! GO GABBY, WE LOVE YOU!!!

    August 15, 2012 at 7:53 am | Report abuse |
  14. danita

    yes, this is a waste of time... Gabby is an awesome person and has been taught to be very professional... She might not have straight hair, but she's got her own... She's got the gold and she feels great about herself. I'm glad to see this young lady not hiding under fake hair. Awesome sweet person.

    August 15, 2012 at 7:43 am | Report abuse |
    • Brandi

      That's right!!!!!!!

      August 15, 2012 at 8:09 am | Report abuse |
  15. cranky john

    The whole of the US should be praising and congratulating and putting Gabby on a pedestal for her achievements in the world class of olympic achievements NOT CRITIZING HER HAIR GABBY PLEASE DO NOT LISTEN TO THESE IGNORANT IDIOTS You are a credit to the USA

    August 14, 2012 at 5:28 pm | Report abuse |
  16. TX lady bug

    Ms Miles, and you are perpetuating the useless debate. WHO CARES?? I didn't even think about her hair until you said something. Don't even go there...ignorant people are going to say whatever, the most important issue is that the rest of us lover her no matter what. She is such a gift from God, don't give people a platform for their ignorance and jealousy!

    August 14, 2012 at 5:25 pm | Report abuse |
  17. TX lady bug

    true that!

    August 14, 2012 at 5:21 pm | Report abuse |
  18. Tony in STL

    I just hate that the haters received enough attention to turn this non-issue, into a bigger non-issue. I'm quite sure that the majority of black americans could care less about her hair, and are very proud of her!

    August 14, 2012 at 5:54 am | Report abuse |
  19. Carmen

    It is petty to talk about her hair, but worse was Gabby mother comment that it was "the white family "that did not know how to work witj black hair, the white family gave Gabby free room and board, treated her like a daughter, the mother drove her all over, at 16 she should know how to comb her hair.
    The mother that gets for years "long term disability" should thank the family that took her daughter in.

    August 14, 2012 at 5:22 am | Report abuse |
  20. KPJ

    Put focus on her deeds, her drive, her accomplishments, her medals........not her hair, cmom people be human for once.

    August 14, 2012 at 2:58 am | Report abuse |
  21. Rachelle

    This is such a shame that black America instead of honoring that girl for her accomplishments choose to focus on her hair. She did not win this metal for her hair. No one has ever won any metal for great hair, and believe me weave wearing chemically straightened hair would not be at the top of the list. When will people ever stop being ignorant!

    August 13, 2012 at 10:10 pm | Report abuse |
  22. jane

    Get off of it CNN. THis is crap journalism.

    August 13, 2012 at 3:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • Sarahplace

      I have locked hair and everybody loves it.... This type of reporting is SICK... please report on scholarly matters.

      August 28, 2012 at 4:47 pm | Report abuse |
  23. Amy

    I didn't think a thing about her hair. She had it up just like the other girls on her team. I don't see why it should be different b/c she is black. Maybe I am just not understanding something.

    August 13, 2012 at 3:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • Randi

      I don't understand it either. I'm black and didn't think anything about her hair until I saw this artical. :-/ People are just wierd like that, huh?

      August 14, 2012 at 3:12 pm | Report abuse |
  24. Linda

    Who cares about her hair? She has a head full of hair, just like the white athletes. So what? What matters is that she did something that the ones "hating" on her can't, couldn't, or just plain won't do. Plus, she got a medal out of her very hard work. She ranks up there with the rest of her team...outstanding!! Keep doing what you're great at Gabby! We love you!

    August 12, 2012 at 9:28 pm | Report abuse |
  25. knittytwit

    Who cares about her hair??!! That girl is an amazing gymnist and should be so proud of herself. People always have negative things to say. Just tell them to shut up. 🙂 Hang in there Gabby-girl!

    August 12, 2012 at 11:39 am | Report abuse |
    • Richard T NYC

      I don't think that this is a race issue at all. Women, on the whole in America have become so totally overwhelmed with themselves that it's a huge JOKE.They need to stop picking on themselves and others when they feel that they don't measure up. Things such as hair, nails and the latest shoe style aren't really ALL THAT IMPORTANT.

      August 14, 2012 at 2:02 pm | Report abuse |
  26. Mercedes

    Who cares about her hair? She's an athlete, she doesnt have time to worry about her hair. Shes worried about being successful and accompling things in life! Something that other people havent even done for themselves in life. We should be happy about who she is and what she has accomplished, not many teens now in days accomplish what she has. Many are worried about going to parties smoking drinking and looking cool. Society now in days is freaking ridiculous, its sad we live in society like this. Im glad that at her age she accomplished ALOT in such a short period of time.

    August 11, 2012 at 4:56 pm | Report abuse |
  27. nikki73

    Gabby.......you make American's PROUD!!!!! You are a very beautiful and talented young lady, head to toe. You concentrate on your accomplishments and not what a bunch of idiotic morons have to say. Keep that beautiful head up and a smile on your face.

    August 11, 2012 at 1:08 pm | Report abuse |
  28. julie

    who cares about this childs hair? she could be bald for all i care, and still be more talented and a winner in my book. wow what this world is coming to... i'm shocked this drama was started by her own people, black women. now thats really sad...

    August 11, 2012 at 12:31 pm | Report abuse |
  29. R. Henderson

    CNN, shame on you for even putting this B.S. on your site. You all are responsible for starting this mess in the first place when you had Isha Sesay report on this. With everything happening in the world right now, do you really consider scrolling through Twitter posts to be journalistic research? Do you realize that on any given day,there are millions of people who randomly talk about any and everything? Some random tweets about hair is not worthy of being reported on a global news network. Maybe this is one reason why your ratings are so low. Get back to reporting on real stories and maybe your ratings will improve.

    August 10, 2012 at 10:59 pm | Report abuse |
    • kevin

      As long as we are expressing opinions: I don't think yours has any merit. CNN.com has many departments and this article is appropriately placed. I learned something from the article and from people's responses to it. Just because you can't relate, doesn't mean others can't.

      August 13, 2012 at 11:51 pm | Report abuse |
  30. GeneK

    This is just bizarre. She's an athlete, not a fashion model. Does her hair interfere with her performance? Is it getting caught in the equipment? Are the judges deducting score points for hair? Jeez.

    August 10, 2012 at 6:55 pm | Report abuse |
  31. Ashley

    REALLY! I know we can talk about some petty stuff here but her hair.... and I thought we couldn't get any lower. Lets the tables be turned and she had a full weave put in, people would talk about that. She is in a sport that is majority white, she came in a did the best job IN THE WORLD and we are going to sit and talk about her hair. This little media bit is outragous and they need to focus on the positive of this young, beautiful, hardworking, determined, all around – best gymnist in the world, young women. What happened to if you have nothing good to say, don't say anything at all! Go ahead Gabby, you did great!

    August 10, 2012 at 6:16 pm | Report abuse |
  32. Leslie Dillon

    I am an African American Woman whose history isnt tied to my hair. I was taught that my history is tied to Integrity, Self-respect and intelligence. I suggest everyone who has this "HAIR Hangup" to listen to indie arie "i am not my hair." Now that's Words of Wisdom.

    August 10, 2012 at 1:05 pm | Report abuse |
  33. christiem8

    Seriously?? Her hair?? She is a beautiful, hardworking AMERICAN. I didn't see black or white. I saw Gabby. white people get perms, black people get hair straightener.... the grass is always greener on the other side. 🙂
    I love the natural look of curly or straight. Natural is best, but good heavens, who cares?The girl flipped and twisted herself to a gold medal!

    August 10, 2012 at 10:34 am | Report abuse |
    • whilly

      this is what happens when people don't remember their history..like when people of color from the US didn't even know what the uneven bars were.....by all means lets find something to tear down this incredibly hardworking your American girl because god forgive her, her hair was not neat enough for the couch potato do nothings in America. God bless you Gabby and thank you for making the USA Proud.

      August 10, 2012 at 10:57 am | Report abuse |
  34. mique

    Petty issue. Way to go Gabby.

    August 10, 2012 at 8:26 am | Report abuse |
  35. Sue

    Hair is a problem for everyone – unfortunately African girls have a curl root problem. God Bless them – they are stilll GORGEOUS!

    August 10, 2012 at 12:42 am | Report abuse |
    • TX lady bug

      what?? "hair is a problem for everybody"?? speak for yourself. And since when the issue is about a curled root?? and why you call it a "problem"?? I love curls, big or small. It is just the way people perceive it. Stop making it a bad thing or a problem!

      August 14, 2012 at 5:32 pm | Report abuse |
  36. Sue

    Gabbyis precious, adorable, an example to ALL young girl son this earth

    August 10, 2012 at 12:39 am | Report abuse |
  37. Sue

    Gabby is totally adorable – who cares about her hair – she was Born with the Africnan hair – so wha! She is the most precious of adorables. Who the he- cares about the hair!

    August 10, 2012 at 12:37 am | Report abuse |
  38. Guy123

    Honestly the media has done a great job of propelling absolute nonsense pretty far into the public realm of concern but this one is pretty amazing. Stop attempting to connect everything with race and don't promote menial useless topics such as this one on a national news channel. By doing so you give validity to divisive and convoluted notions that only ignorant and racist individuals care about. My wife is African American and it really doesn't matter what her hair looks like. This girl was doing flips in the air and your gonna sit there and comment that she is trying to deny African American culture by straightening her hair. Maybe she just likes her hair straight. Maybe there is nothing behind this but everyone else wants to make it an issue. Everyone needs to come together and get over dividing each other by what certain races should do or shouldn't do. Its ridiculous. Please report actual news, thanks.

    August 9, 2012 at 3:50 pm | Report abuse |
  39. Eusoubra

    I returned to write another post after seeing a group of 3 young Black girls (looked around Gabby's age) on the subway comment on how "nappy" her hair was in response to a magazine cover she is now on. I am 46 years old and long for the pre-perm 60-70's. Blacks for a short period accepted their texture and color and even had their own hair & lots of it! Even educated black women have a fixation on FRIED, DYED and LAID to the side FLOWING hair to their detriment and to such a degree that they don't have any as a result a la Naomi Campbell. Black people talk a great game (Al Sharpton) about pride but are so full of self hatred.

    August 9, 2012 at 3:46 pm | Report abuse |
  40. kmsmaine

    Really people, you are worried about this amazing girl's hair over her gold medal, give me a break. I am white and sit at a desk all day and can't keep my hair from being straight, wavy, curly and frizzy all at the same time. She's doing slips and flying through the air. When did our society get so focused on image that it now outweighs people's accomplishments and who they are? When you can go flip around and do gymnastics and win a gold medal, then you can start talking about her hair, until then, shut your mouths and get a clue. She's beautiful, talented and she's a child representing our country to the best! What are you doing for America?

    August 9, 2012 at 12:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • BLP

      Seriously, I am so with you on this one...this girl is amazing! I think it's just jelousy...i can only wonder what they would say about me and my frizzy hair! People need to get over themselves, petty...so petty EH!The person who started all this is probably some fatso sitting on the couch and can barely move their arm to shove another fistful of chips in their mouth...

      August 9, 2012 at 1:59 pm | Report abuse |
    • micjey1313

      Agreed, it is sad that people over look her acomplishments and talk trash about her hair, that is not bad at all. Amagen if she had an afro what all the haters would say.

      August 9, 2012 at 11:12 pm | Report abuse |
  41. Sharon

    What is wrong with all of you who focus on such meanial stuff. People need to focus on Gabby's ability, her determination, her hard work and everything else that she has done to accomplish and achieve what she has at the Olympics. I am proud of her and what she has done representing the United States. I am not an African-American female but I am an American female who thinks that Gabby is one beautiful young woman with a beautiful smile! There was and is nothing wrong with her beautiful hair. Keep it up Gabby!!!

    August 9, 2012 at 10:34 am | Report abuse |
  42. headBANGER

    First of all that is a child & the GROWN folks should be ashame. Like Gabby said in one of her interviews she over there winning GOLD MEDALS & yall over here talking about her hair. People get a LIFE! read a book, go take a drive, do something with your life.

    August 8, 2012 at 1:57 pm | Report abuse |
  43. Sherri

    Why is CNN even putting this on their web site? IF the stupid media would stop giving it attention, noboby would even be thinking about it. Shut up .

    August 8, 2012 at 12:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • imnme

      So why leave a response? Its not going to change the fact that its out there for people like you to inadvertently respond to!

      August 9, 2012 at 3:29 pm | Report abuse |
  44. Lucia

    16 years old? This is the age during which most young people do seek approval from their peer. This is the age at which some teenagers develop eating disorder when they are criticized to be fat! At this age (16), most, it not all teenage are hyper sensitive to any criticism regardless of the source!
    Obviously, the assault launched at this young woman, Gabrielle Douglas, by multi billion dollars news media is directly responsible for her poor last performances. THERE ARE young people BEING TAKEN TO COURT AND JAIL FOR BULLYING OTHER KIDS. The recent case was in New Jersey. The assault on Gaby's hair by the news media was a colossal BULLYING event intended to permanently erode this young woman's self esteem in gymnastics;And the outcome is unmistakable. The media participating on this saga is now pretending that the onslaught was started by African Americans! Since when does major media take cues from ignorant African Americans, particularly, when it intends to assault a young person whose only crime is to excel in a particular sport? What exactly is the motive of ganging on 16-year old kid from a poor family?

    August 8, 2012 at 12:33 pm | Report abuse |
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