Take A Load Off, Family: Black Women, Hair, And The Olympic Stage

By Guest Contributor Jalylah, cross-posted from The Crunk Feminist Collective

The author on the move in Harlem.

I am no athlete. I have not won an individual sports competition since maybe the second grade. I recall Usaining all comers in the 40-yard dash but, as Kasi Lemmons learned us, “memory is a selection of images, some elusive, others indelibly imprinted on the brain,” and I might have photoshopped that one.

My middle-school basketball team dominated the Seattle Catholic Youth Organization league but that was due to the AAU players on my team: Megan, petite with Chris Paul’s smarts and speed; and June, a Russell Westbrook-esque scorer.

With high school came the freshman basketball team, aka junior varsity cuts. Public school competition and talent defections resulted in us losing every game of the season. Each timeout we, headstrong and skill-poor, loudly militated against the directives of our sweet coach Leo. My dad, a brief overseas basketball pro and former international basketball coach, spent most of my games in laughter and, quite possibly, shame on the loftiest bleacher next to his rugged white bud who my older sister and I affectionately called Mountain Mike. The other Mike, a black Chicagoan, was my dad’s barefoot-running friend.

These days, I, too, am something of a minimalist runner. I have been marathon training since my birthday two years ago and my lightweight racing flats have propelled me to eight and half minute splits on 30 plus miles a week although if 702 shuffles into rotation, I can break seven minutes. Of course, this feeble athleticism does not compare to the kinesthetic genius we are witnessing at the London 2012 Olympiad, particularly in track & field, which commenced Friday, and showcases athletes of the African diaspora. This heightened visibility has called my attention to the hairstyle choices of black women competitors. I know full well that the firestorm that has surrounded teen Gold-medal gymnast Gabby Douglas’ hair makes this a sore subject but know that my distress is rooted in love. I’m confused as to how heat-retaining, scalp-suffocating, and often weighty weaves lend themselves to peak performance.

My thick hair is hot on a warm day, let alone during a workout, and I can’t imagine sewing in more. I’ve never worn a weave, nor do I desire to, and, excepting about three years of my life, my hair has been relaxer-free. As a result, I have been able to vigorously c-walk (s/o Serena) to my heart’s content with little concern for root reversion. Madame C.J. Walker does occasionally call and on those occasions, I can’t front, I abstain from exertion for a week. You know how it is.

Beyond my skepticism about the practicality of a skull saddled with multiple packages of Indian Remy in elite competition (and a testament to our excellence is that we still slay), I am concerned about the witness it offers of our esteem, the invidiousness of European beauty standards, and the message our adaptations to them send young black girls interested in sport. I am saddened that so many of us equate looking our best with extension-assisted styles. Must we weave, wig, braid in extensions before we hit the pitch, track, mat, slough? I don’t buy that the ubiquity of yaki is about convenience. Show me the receipts. Only thing that accounts for our epidemic edge-sacrifice is history. We been making our way up the rough side of the mountain since the Middle Passage. Let’s have an honest conversation about what we do not because the world is watching but because we are, would-be Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryces and Sanya Richards Rosses. I’m not proposing a ban on sew-ins but having a conversation about our wholescale investment in them even in the most illogical of circumstances.

Tomorrow I’ll greet the sun with my pillow-dented ‘fro. If I’m feeling vain, I’ll spray bottle my hair with water to define the curl but, on most mornings, I’m not about that life. I’m about the thrill of coming on the Hudson from my Harlem home, arms pumping, legs kicking, neon lime kicks pounding the pavement to the sounds of Lloyd, Azealia Banks and yes, 702. Sweat beads on my scalp and dots my forehead. It feels good to go hard. The wind blowing through my hair feels even better and, as a bonus, gives lionesque body. By mile five, it’s right voluminous.

  • http://twitter.com/BWofBrazil BlackWomenofBrazil

    It’s a shame to me that athletes train so hard to get to the world stage of the Olympics and when they manage to get there, they still have to deal with something that has nothing to do with sports. Black women have to deal with hair issues everywhere and everywhere it’s the same; the closer to the European standard, the better. If you don’t happen to have straight hair or at least a looser curl, the world will let you know. There was a recent controversy in Brazil about a company whose scouring pad has always been associated with black women’s hair and its ad on TV. Black Brazilian women protested and had the ad removed. One black woman wrote a piece on her own struggles with her hair. Very poignant: http://bit.ly/Oo0Ezk

  • Montclair Mommy

    Actually, I personally have heard many a white woman (including my own mother) get criticized when her roots get dark…even though she is a natural blond and those roots are naturally darker than the ends of her hair. I also know the way that women with fake breasts (of all races) are generally viewed as shallow and as “stupid” and how “that will only attract the wrong kinds of attention” and not the attention of “the right” kind of men. Numerous magazine articles are dedicated to the scrutiny of women’s bodies (mostly celebs) to determine if different body parts are “real” or “fake.” The connotations of most of these articles is not positive. I have seen this is crappy mags that are in store aisles (like People), and I have also seen shows dedicated to that topic on TV. So maybe you see what you want to see in terms of criticism. That said, it doesn’t take away from the fact that black women are constantly patrolled re: hair and what is done with it. Pretty much you are damned no matter what the h*ll you do or don’t do to your hair. Its not cool and it goes along with our society’s general love of policing the appearance of women of all races.

  • Anonymous

    Excuse me, but I did not deny that Eurocentric beauty standards are not at all a factor in one’s choice of hairstyle. My point was that it is not the ONLY factor. Perhaps you should have read more closely.

  • Eva

    I think that we women should wear the hairstyle that looks best for the individual. Not everybody looks good with the weave, or natural, or relaxed, or braided, or permed. It took me years to find a hairstyle that’s right for my face and my lifestyle, for years it was short and natural, now it’s short and relaxed; I don’t wear a weave because I look silly with long hair, but I don’t begrudge anybody for wearing what looks right on them and what works. Life is too short and I’m too old (52) to worry about what other people might think of my hairstyle.

  • Pingback: Links of the Week 08/18/2012 | Pas Rose Societe

  • Anonymous

    I don’t want to post a whole essay here, so I wrote a response on Tumblr: http://ajoyner.tumblr.com/post/29562815805/black-women-hair-olympics-racialicious

    But right here, in short, I’ll say this: I wish we would stop assuming that a black woman’s preference of hairstyle is solely, or even primarily, a result of Eurocentric beauty standards. We really don’t know why Sanya Richards-Ross wears a weave. Although the author says she’s not “proposing a ban on sew-ins,” she is lending credence to the notion that black women should be questioned–or even faulted–if they decide to alter their natural texture or color. No other race of women has such a burden placed on them; it’s preposterous. And as for the notion that Sanya’s hairstyle is impractical: I think it’s a disingenuous complaint. What does the author say of sprinters with long dreadlocks? Something tells me she’s not decrying their choice of hairstyle.

    • Anonymous

      I would have to say that Asian women are too questioned when they dye their hair a European color, like blond or red. But not to the extent that black women are scrutinized.

  • RH

    I didn’t notice a thing about Gabby Douglas’ hair until I started reading articles about it. It’s pretty sad that this is what people notice about her winning a gold medal. (Also, the reference to ‘Eve’s Bayou’ made my day).

  • rosasparks

    I exercise a great deal; weightlifting and sprinting; and wear my hair natural. It is miserable during the summer because, when I’m outside, it’s unbearably hot and sweaty, and I have to keep it up and out of my face. By the end of a workout, I am an actual mess. I can understand why a black Olympic athlete would weave in more hair. It looks and keeps ‘telegenic’. It isn’t just about embracing a European standard of beauty, but being on TV and the fact that women, of any race, must be athletic AND attractive, for the world. Do I believe in that choice? Not really, but I do understand where the choice comes from.

    • Anonymous

      Yep, that’s true. It’s also why some women athletes wear makeup when they’re competing.

    • Anonymous

      I’m kind of annoyed by these discussions. As a black woman, I’m tired of being dissected and criticized for every single thing. We have people declaring as fact the idea that black women don’t workout b/c they wear relaxers (which some insist don’t keep when sweating although that was never MY experience) yet we see the best female athletes in the world winning and breaking records in relaxers (and yes, their hair looks the same the entire time). We have black women making history and one group of people complains that the hair is too nappy, another group complains that they are too relaxed, and another complains about the weaves (yeah, if wearing a weave made me as fast as Sanya Richards-Ross, I’d say “weave me up” and I’ve never worn one).

      I can say that one benefit to the relaxer, esp. if you have really thick and/or long hair, is that you can look more or less the same at the beginning or end of your workout. Gabby Douglas’s much maligned hairdo is more or less how I wore my hair all of the time when relaxed, and yes, it was pretty easy to pop on a scarf and arrive at work or school looking neat. Not read for a hair add, but easy to have a consistent look that was out of my face.
      My natural hair is quite a beast to handle…I keep it twisted up when working out and those twists are more or less drenched when I finish. They are still wet when I take them down to leave for work. There is no WAY I could have it out…it is so hot I would pass out.
      But the other thing that bothers me is that the criticism and scrutiny of black women’s hair, bodies, and faces is something that people of all genders and races feel comfortable engaging in. No one else gets so much abuse for the cosmetic choices that they make. White women bleach, weave, tan, tuck, peel, lift, and inject, and NO ONE accuses them of self-hatred or selling out.
      Why are black women not given the same agency in the choices that they make for themselves? Do colorism and internalized racism matter? Are they real problems for some of us? Yes, in both caess, but you can’t know why any individual black woman makes the choices that she does. At no time in my life have I ever liked the look or styling options of “white hair.” I never had or wanted pin straight hair, even when relaxed. Yet someone thinks that they know who I am b/c of how I wear my hair. But the white women who does so many things to her body is totally secure and full of self-love?

      Why can’t we agree that whatever it takes for you to be your personal best (esp. when it comes to exercise and perhaps even just making your life faster and simpler) is okay for you ? We don’t all need to make the same choices. No one else is held to this standard. Why do we attempt to impose it on ourselves?

      • Montclair Mommy

        Wait. Who says that white women are not accused of self-hatred or selling out when they bleach, weave, tan, tuck, peel, lift, and inject? Don’t get me wrong-white women don’t get near the level or scrutiny re: hair as black women, but women of ALL races are subjected to ridiculous beauty standards and endless analysis of their choices (and of some things that aren’t necessarily choices like body shape and type). Women are expected to be beautiful on the outside even when we are engaging in rigorous exercise. Women who have plastic surgery are told they are selling out and letting down their daughters, but women who “let themselves go” are told that they deserve it if their husbands cheat on them. We are supposed to be effortlessly thin and gorgeous at all times, but naturally, of course, otherwise it doesn’t count. Its a real shame, but I agree with the author that it deserves comment that these world class athletes have long, flowing hair. I will also note that most of the white women runners wear their hair up in a pony tail and I didn’t see any with flowing hair. I wonder if black female athletes feel more pressure to look “feminine” with the long flowing locks because they are so traditionally thought of as having “masculine” bodies and abilities (like that situation with the South African runner where she had to prove she was a woman–which is bullshit). I do think that its worth discussing those pressures and it doesn’t mean the author is hating on all weave.