Black Women’s Hair & Gabby Douglas: Standing Straight in a Crooked Room

In the book, Sister Citizen, Dr. Melissa Harris Perry argues that many Black women in the US find themselves standing straight in a crooked room because of how we experience both racism and sexism. According to Harris-Perry, Black women are standing straight in a crooked room

when they are confronting race and gender stereotypes, black women are standing in a crooked room, and they have to figure out which way is up. Bombarded with warped images of their humanity, some black women tilt and bend themselves to fit the distortion…To understand why some Black women’s public actions and political strategies sometimes seem titled in ways that accommodate  the degrading stereotypes about them, it is important to appreciate the structural constraints that influence their behavior.

This is immediately what came to mind when I saw the conversations about Gabby’s hair, conversations, many initiated by Black women about who thought it wasn’t straight enough.

No Gabby’s hair does not look like the Black women on Love and Hip Hop Atlanta, and that is fine. The women on LHHA stay fried died and laid to the side and Gabby’s pony tail is the pony tail of a young Black woman Olympian. Full stop.

And just in terms of Black girl visibility politics, Gabby Douglass is a Black girl who had global media attention and she does not look like a well kept video vixen and she doesn’t have to. She is petite, muscular and brown with a high voltage smile. When was the last time you saw a Black girl like that getting mainstream attention? I’ll wait.

I know that some Black women felt that because Gabby was on a global stage she was “representing us.” My retort to that is Gabby belongs to herself, not to you.

Hair is serious for Black women because the mainstream standard for beauty in the US and arguably pop culture globally is long, preferably blond, straight, wind swept hair. If you think I am wrong, check out the magazine covers at your local grocery store check out stand.

I always find it peculiar when the ways when which Black women regulate on each other finds its way into mainstream media conversations. It is not that we don’t like each other. I think that socially women are not taught to like each other. Openly liking and being nice to women is a political act for this reason. The culprit in many ways isn’t Black women per se, but that many of us have internalized what White standards of beauty AND we tried to hold other women to these standards,we are also taught that the work that women do isn’t valuable.

But, let me tell you. #Blackgirlsarefromthefuture.

I also think it may may make some Black women uncomfortable to see another young Black woman who is so clear about both her purpose and focus. A young Black woman who is clear that her investment in being an Olympian is more important than having music video bone straight hair, at this moment. I am not talking about human beings here, I am talking about what happens when you encounter a spirit that is so clear you can see yourself in its reflection. It ain’t no joke. #ChangeJobs. #ChangeGods.

Gabby Douglas put herself first and her desire to be an Olympian. You can’t become an Olympic champion by being raggedy.

I also know that as Black women we are socialized to put our mothers, our children, our husbands, our wives, our girlfriends, our boyfriends, our step-children, our brothers first. But never us, and we suffer for that. Our lives are constrained in particular ways when we do that.

So Gabby, I see your gravity defying, futuristic Black girl self.

Gabby Douglas give you goosebumps?

Why is it so hard for people to acknowledge how White mainstream beauty standards figure into this conversation?


Subscribe to Blog via Email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 7,934 other subscribers


  1. msdailey says

    Great post! Very good point about women putting everyone ahead of themselves. I don’t struggle with the but definitely have to fight everyday to make it happen!!

    Gabby is awesome!! Happy for her and admire her determination to go for and achieve her dreams!!

  2. says

    Yes x1000! I was so saddened to see that there were almost as many critical comments about this girl’s hair from her _own people_, as congratulations. Gymnastics is an incredibly difficult sport–do you see the muscles on that girl? If she had worn her hair natural, people would have complained that it looked too frizzy and undefined. You can’t do that type of a workout without sweating, and honestly if I had Gabby’s athletic ability, sweating out my hair would be the last thing on my mind too!

  3. says

    I love this post and you got to the heart of the matter on several different points.

    To answer your questions-

    “Gabby Douglas give you goosebumps?”

    Hell, yes! I work crazy hours but I felt compelled to stay up and watch NBC’s delayed broadcast of the women’s gymnastics individual all-around because I wanted to see Gabby get her gold medal and take center stage which is where she clearly belongs. I cried when she got her Gold medal. There’s so much to her story that is powerful and sometimes overlooked- the fact that she (a young girl) knew herself well enough to go after what she wanted (to be a gymnast) and she believed in her talents and abilities to the degree that she was willing to leave home to get the training she needed to reach her potential-THAT’S SO DAMN POWERFUL! Like you said in your piece- Gabby is “clear about both her purpose and focus” and I think that scares some people, especially some Black people. The other thing I love about her story is that her mother and family loved and respected Gabby enough to help her fulfill that purpose (to be a gymnast) instead of blowing her off.

    Your next question -”Why is it so hard for people to acknowledge how White mainstream beauty standards figure into this conversation?”

    I had to really think about this and the only thing I can come up with is that people aren’t even aware or really conscious of “white mainstream beauty standards.” They think beauty is something that “just is.” So, there is no awareness of who has defined the beauty aesthetic in the U.S. or West.

    Years ago, I realized that some of my friends and acquaintances were always complaining about their bodies and faces (none of these people were overweight or had deformities). I started to question their thinking by simply asking “what’s really wrong with the way you look?” They would go on and about their nose, their hair, their needed to lose weight and it was also something. Then I would ask- “Who are you trying to look like? What’s wrong with looking like you? That usually got people thinking.

  4. kj says

    Gabby definitely gives me goosebumps! The first time I saw her, I was like, “who is that?!”
    She’s small and unassuming. Those qualities are a major portion of what makes her so great.
    First of all for her to make the Olympic team you know that she’s just not some Jane Doe off the street. With her being Black she had to not only be the best but beat the best. Insert comment about Black Tax here.
    When she was competing, some were trying to distract attention from how amazingly gifted she is. The media and others “affectionately” poked fun at her talent called her “The flying squirrel”. I didn’t appreciate that. Then further more, some people had negative comments about her hair. What was different about her hair and hairstyle than the other gymnasts? She’s an athlete she’s not a runway model. Get off her head.
    Regardless of all of that negativity, she still went on to single handedly win a gold medal and shut all haters down.