In the summer of 1984, I was flipping and jumping over everything in our house. My parents had just enrolled me in gymnastics camp for the first time. Over 2000 miles away in Los Angeles, another young lady was on her way to making Olympic history. Becoming the first US woman to win gold in the Women's All Around, Mary Lou Retton was a role model for most girls in the US in the 80s. Her iconic American flag-inspired leotard was seen on little girls all over the country for several years, myself included. Retton inspired a generation of gymnasts.
Now Gabby Douglas will inspire the next generation of US gymnasts. Her years of hard work and sacrifices have culminated with winning a gold medal in Women's All Around. Her achievement also marks the first time an African-American woman has accomplished this feat. Yet rather than celebrating Douglas' accomplishment, some black women in the US are criticizing and obsessing over her hair. Many of them are complaining that she should have styled it differently and that she recognize that she is representing ALL black women from the US.
These comments enrage me.
First, Douglas is a 16-year-old girl who is part of the US Olympic Women's Gymnastics team. As a member of the team she is required to wear the same leotard and style her hair in a similar way as her teammates. She has done that. Douglas has supported her fellow teammates, while striving to give her best performance in each event.
I think that it's time for black America to move past having only one representative. Yes, Gabby Douglas is a young black lady from the US, but she does not, and cannot, represent an entire culture. We can all celebrate her success and be inspired by her dedication and diligence, yet it is unfair to place the burden of an entire race on her. She is one of many success stories in the African-American community. We need to learn to celebrate all of the successes.
Additionally, the comments about Douglas' hair show why African-American women are in such poor health. Too many African American women in the US refuse, or limit, their physical activity because of their hair. Oh no, what if I sweat too much? What if my curls fall? How will my hair hold up? These questions have crossed the minds of many African American women, myself included. Even the Surgeon General has stated, "Women have got to stop using their hair as excuse not to exercise." Products, like Nicole Ari Parker's Save Your Do, aim to help women manage their hair and exercise. However we first must change the mindset of black women and make exercise a priority.
I think back to my younger self flipping and jumping around in gymnastics camp. Why did I stop? Did my hair play a role that decision? I can't be sure. What I do know is that young girls, especially African American girls, need role models like Gabby Douglas. They do not need to hear her criticized for superficial reasons such as her hairstyle, because such criticisms are likely to damage their own self-image and discourage them from athletics. They do need to see this strong, active young Black woman who is able to achieve such an amazing feat as winning a gold medal--regardless of how she styles her hair. Indeed, the magnitude of Gabby Douglas's achievement highlights the pettiness and small-mindedness of her critics.