Commentary

Gabby Douglas' hair draws criticism

Updated: August 3, 2012, 7:52 PM ET
By Jemele Hill

Gabrielle DouglasRonald Martinez/Getty ImagesGabby Douglas' hair was in a ponytail for her gold-medal performance and came under fire.

On Friday, espnW intern Skylar Diggins, one of the NCAA's most accomplished college basketball players, shadowed me for the day to gain insight into the sports media profession.

But a considerable portion of our conversation wasn't about sports media, but electrifying gymnast Gabby Douglas, who won an individual gold medal in the all-around event and also helped the United States win the team competition. It was the first team gold for the U.S. since the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.

I wish I could say that Diggins and I simply gloried in Douglas' inspiring accomplishments, but unfortunately we spent a lot of time talking about Douglas' hair.

That's because too many people took to Twitter and Facebook -- and sadly, many of them were African-American women -- to denigrate Douglas because her hairdo apparently wasn't up to some people's standards.

"It's sad," Diggins said, shaking her head.

Instead of basking in the fact that Douglas became the first African-American woman to win the individual all-around competition, people on social media were making jokes about how this 16-year-old phenom was in need of a perm or, at the very least, a more kempt ponytail.

[+] EnlargeGabrielle Douglas
AP Photo/Gregory BullSocial media critics, who have taken issue with Gabby Douglas' hair, have somewhat lessened her triumph.

"It makes me absolutely sick to see these comments about Gabby's hair," said Swin Cash, the decorated Team USA forward who is in London for her third Olympics. "What sickens me more is that it's mostly people from our own community. She is a beautiful, talented young lady. I hope she ignores the ignorance because she's an Olympic gold medalist. Enough said."

Thankfully, the number of people who understood what Douglas accomplished outweighed those who attempted to channel the ghost of Madame CJ Walker -- the black woman who became the first self-made female millionaire by selling beauty products for African-American women. Douglas was congratulated by, among others, Serena Williams and former gymnast Dominique Dawes who, before Douglas, was the only African-American woman to have earned a gold medal in gymnastics. Dawes cried as she tried to put Douglas' accomplishment into perspective.

There's no question that African-American hair often can be a taboo subject. Comedian Chris Rock was criticized for his 2009 documentary "Good Hair," which I considered to be a thought-provoking look at the billion-dollar black hair industry.

Some black women didn't feel that way. They were upset with Rock because they believed he made African-American women look shallow, since he chronicled how many of them -- and I've done the same -- spend hundreds, and even thousands, on their hair.

The biggest downside to the hair obsession is the negative impact it may have on black women's health. Some may skip working out to avoid messing up their styled hair. Dr. Regina M. Benjamin, the U.S. Surgeon General and a black woman, chastised other black women at the famous Bronner Bros. International Hair Show last August in Atlanta for forsaking exercise to maintain their hair. Benjamin said 50 percent of black women over the age of 20 are overweight or obese, compared with 33 percent of white women and 43 percent of Hispanic women.

I do understand why so many black women are sensitive about their hair. I wore braids for years, but more than a year ago, I decided to give them up, in part, because I feared that it would prevent me from advancing in my television career.

When shock jock Don Imus launched an unfair attack on the Rutgers women's basketball team, he pointed out that they were "nappy-headed ho's."

But as hurtful as those comments were, some of us just proved with Douglas that we're capable of being as nasty and thoughtless as Imus.

For all of Douglas' critics, I wonder what their hair looked like at 16? When I was Douglas' age, my mother was still giving me home perms. I'm lucky to still have a scalp.

While I wouldn't go as far as to say that Douglas' extraordinary Olympic moment was completely undermined by the criticism of hair, the social media blowhards have certainly distracted attention from Douglas' triumph.

Shame on them.

Jemele Hill | email

ESPN.com, ESPN The Magazine

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