Black Female Olympians Are Worth More Than Their Hair

With the conclusion of the 2016 Olympic Games, Team USA has a lot more medals to speak of – and some of the most beloved were won by the most diverse team of young women ever to flip, fly and vault their way to the top.

Between Gabby Douglas’ groundbreaking gold medal wins in 2012 and Simone Biles’ gravity-defying entrance onto the scene this year, black women are newly proving their prowess in a sport that has failed to represent this demographic until now. But why is the media so obsessed with their hair?

Whats Natural About Good Hair?

We like to imagine that serious athletes have more pressing matters to contend with than maintaining consistently perfect, elaborately coiffed hair. They’ve spent more hours training than most of us spend awake – and our female gymnasts in particular were some of the most visible competitors during the Rio Olympic Games.

Douglas and Biles both compete with their hair styled the same way as their teammates. For Douglas, the strategy is to pull it back and clip in some barrettes to keep it out of her eyes and out of her way while she turns handstand over flying leap between the uneven bars. Jewish teammate Aly Raisman follows the same basic technique to pull her (super-long) locks away from her face. Meanwhile, Biles and blonde Southern belle teammate Madison Kocian sport similar petite ponytails pulled back with patriotic ribbons.

The key difference, of course, is that Biles and Douglas are black. Their hair – unlike their teammates – is naturally textured, and for some reason, spectators have a problem with that.

Black female olympian, Simone Biles.
Simone Biles.

The Social Media Problem

Douglas was the first black female to win an all-around gold medal in gymnastics, and she did it when she was only 16 years old. But her victory during the 2012 London Games didn’t stop the first slew of online critics from targeting her natural hair – defined by Curl Centric as hair styled without the use of corrective chemicals like relaxer.

Biles is, of course, the all-American darling of the Rio Olympics. Her superhuman strength doesn’t seem to detract from her bubbly, bouncy and outgoing personality. Douglas is quieter and more introverted than the rest of her teammates. But it’s clear all five young gymnasts are close. That makes it even more painful to see how many poisonous tweets and social media messages have been piling on.

In 2012, Douglas responded to the criticism with a simple question: Whats wrong with my hair? She couldnt believe it, she said. “I just made history and people are focused on my hair?” Apparently, yes – and this year, they’re still more concerned with uneven edges than incredible athletic skill.

When it was clear that making fun of Douglas’ hair was quickly becoming passe, they found new ways to drag her down – for not being patriotic enough, for not looking happy enough, for not congratulating her teammates enough. “What have I done to disrespect people?” she asked in tears. “What have I done to disrespect the USA?” She hasn’t done anything wrong by standing at attention during the national anthem (for example), but that didn’t stop online bullies.

What Now?

The Rio Olympics have come to a close. The Final Five left the Village with a gold medal for their team – and several other medals for individual teammates. The message is clear: The Olympic judges were clearly focused on their talents. Let’s celebrate these incredible young women for their accomplishments – not for the way their hair looked in the process.

Melissa Thompson
Melissa Thompson writes about a wide range of topics, revealing interesting things we didn't know before. She is a freelance USA Today producer, and a Technorati contributor.