take a load off family: black women, hair and the olympic stage

7 Aug

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 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.

23 Responses to “take a load off family: black women, hair and the olympic stage”

  1. Kalima Young August 7, 2012 at 7:36 AM #

    I feel you. I’m a big girl with heavy long dreds who does aerobics two or three times a week and lord…it sweats, it tangles, I have to put it in elaborate ponytails to stop it from slapping me in the face during v-steps but I wouldn’t trade it in for sewing in foolishness. My nappy is happy, sweat and all.

    • jalylah August 7, 2012 at 9:00 AM #

      Long hair don’t care, huh ; ) I love it! I’m actually trying to reincorporate aerobics into my training so any suggestions are welcome. But also, your comment has got me thinking about elite athletics and long dreadlocks. I don’t know if one sees locs of any kind in swimming because they wouldn’t fit under a cap and would, I assume, significantly slow one’s pace. I wonder if there are any distance runners.

    • AJ August 7, 2012 at 1:42 PM #

      That’s cute: my nappy is happy. I pretty much plan my fitness life around hair. But this time I through caution to the wind: as we speak I’m wearing a sweated out press and curl! I wanted to have my cake and eat it too, and I did. I feel so courageous right now, curly edges and all.

  2. Gene Demby (G.D.) (@GeeDee215) August 7, 2012 at 8:24 AM #

    yo…thanks so much for this. when i first started running a few years ago, it used to distress me that i was only black person doing my laps in Prospect Park. when i’d try to importune my friends to join me, the logistics of hair care would always, always come up.

    anyway: good luck on your marathon. (training for my third this fall.) our splits are in the same range. have you hit up Summer Streets in NYC? perfect for those long training runs.

    • jalylah August 7, 2012 at 8:53 AM #


      Three marathons? Hercules, Hercules! You are awesome! I’m really excited about the prospect of my first although I have not been lucky in the NY Marathon lottery these past two years. You know, I never thought running was for me although both my parents are athletes and I have had my gym rat phases but I experienced my body differently once I started running. I had no idea what I was missing.

      I haven’t hit up Summer Streets yet. I was going to join the Black Girls Run excursion on Saturday but I had too much work to do.

  3. crunktastic August 7, 2012 at 8:35 AM #

    Thanks for writing this, CF. I have been really annoyed by all those FB memes about how all the folks who said something about Gabby’s hair are haters. I can admit that I definitely have looked at it and wondered what is going on with it.

    I understand why some folks don’t want to talk about it, and in that camp, the only compelling arguments are that I don’t want to create self-esteem issues for a beautiful 16 year old girl, nor do I want to hear what white folks think about Black hair.

    But as you say, these concerns are raised in love. And frankly, I think the folks who said something are smarting at the pain of recognition and remembering the struggles of being a Black girl/woman trying to manage hair in these all white arenas.

    I did academic sports not athletic ones, but my teammates were mostly white. Figuring out how I would wear my hair was always a conversation. And for someone who is largely disinterested in a high-maintenance look, I’ve always found hair convos laborious. There’s a reason why I rock a fro, and it has everything to do with how infrequently I’m required to use a comb. Lol.

    I am sort of resistant to notions that rocking a weave means one is Euro-identified. At this point, the variety of styles sisters rock are culturally diasporic in more ways than one, and at best, the styles might be syncretistic.

    That said, I appreciate you for being honest. It’s a conversation we need to have and are perfectly capable of having in an intelligent and loving fashion.

    • jalylah August 7, 2012 at 9:22 AM #

      Yes, yes, yes! Thank you for this comment. I was nodding throughout. This insight in particular: “I think the folks who said something are smarting at the pain of recognition and remembering the struggles of being a Black girl/woman trying to manage hair in these all white arenas.” And although I agree there is a fruitful conversation that can be had, in love, I understand that shouldering the burden of representation would be hard to bear for anyone, much less a teenager. This is why I put my photo in those post as opposed to any athletes and tried to keep individual competitors out of it.

      As for your point that rocking a weave doesn’t make one euro-identified, I wholeheartedly agree. Style certainly informs those choices. We are a creative people and I love how hyperbole and humor shapes our bold and brilliant self presentation. But I don’t think it can be denied that predominance of weaves/wigs in our community at this moment on the Olympic stage or on the crosstown Harlem bus is a product of dissatisfaction and shame with the condition of what is coming out of our heads. That anecdotal evidence suggests many of us think we’re not enough as is. And I know that struggle and it hurts my heart.

      Oh and thanks for intervening my narrow definition of sports.

  4. sepiasoul August 7, 2012 at 9:09 AM #

    I have never worn a weave, but I do know that my mother’s curly short weave is one of the things that facilitates her everyday workouts and allows her to feel comfortable in suit at the office shortly after (her hair is natural underneath). Braids are another extension style that facilitates working out for many Black women. These hair choices are not so illogical for many women. Who knows what pressures gabby has on her to wear her hair in a particular way? What natural hair black gymnasts have we seen yet? Does anyone notice that now, post her athletic height/popularity, Domonique Dawes is natural? But during her participation in the Olympics, her tresses were clearly permed. Who knows what points they would take off for so-called unruly hair. Gymnasts dont have the creative freedom in appearance that some other athletes have. We also need to consider that Gabby lives with a white family in a white town, who knows what access she has to black hair care in the form of a hairdresser or even basic products. Additionally, most of the Black athletes in the Olympics are wearing some sort of straight style. If they can do it, so can many others. I am not a weave/perm enthusiast. I went natural in high school and now rock locs. I am just trying to be fair to other Black women who have not made the same choices as I. Why should I be concerned over choices that may actually seem very logical to them. I think sometimes we forget that straight styles still dominate black women’s hair across the world.

    • jalylah August 7, 2012 at 10:47 AM #

      Thanks a lot for your comment. My invocation of logic was specific to the elite athletic context and I raised it in hopes that it might surface the factors, besides self expression, that black women athletes negotiate when they choose competitive hairstyles. In your discussion of Gabby Douglas and Dominique Dawes, you rightly surface that the standards of self presentation in a specific sport may limit the styles a black women can wear if she wants to be successful.

  5. Monita August 7, 2012 at 11:15 AM #

    Great post! I, too, wondered how practical long weaves were for a runner while watching some of the track events. It just didn’t seem very conducive to the sport, but clearly Richards-Ross’s hair didn’t hold her back! Lol.

    I do want to say something about the Gabby Douglas comments that went around, though, because most of what I saw was not out of love. While I do get that black women might recall their own hair-discomfort in certain situations, Gabby doesn’t *seem* to be struggling with her hair choice for the games, as she states in the Huffington Post: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/05/gabby-douglas-hair-olympics-2012_n_1743897.html?utm_hp_ref=fb&src=sp&comm_ref=false. Might she be unaware of unsaid strictures in the sport regarding hair expectations? Perhaps, but she claims to be doing what’s most practical to keep her hair out of her face while she’s flying. When I first saw her, I was like, “Why does she have *so* much gel in her hair?” But if she’s comfortable with it, I think that’s a score.

    The conversation about the motivations to weave, wig, and perm is real and very important because those inclinations really aren’t formed in a vaccuum. On the other hand, I think there’s a lot to be said for creativity and style, as you point out, Jalylah. What’s the line between praising the plethora of choices we have for our hair and lamenting the possible weight of historically racist beauty ideals? I can’t call it. *sigh*

    • jalylah August 7, 2012 at 11:37 AM #

      Yes! Sanya did the damn thing and looked amazing doing it. I liked the braid and all that two toned hair cascading down her back although I wondered if she might have been able to shave a second off her time without it ; ) Also her entire family is beautiful.

      I have been trying to discipline myself in personal and professional setting to communicate in love whether written or verbal although I admit I falter. Many other folk faltered in the firestorm, as you note, and it is really unfortunate. I didn’t read any of the blogs but, amongst friends, I’d heard chatter about her hair since as way back as the trials. In the race to be funny, heard, seen, we can go in unnecessarily. I think this can be a teaching moment about both civility and difficult conversations. On the subject, I hope OWN replays that Lifeclass with Iyanla from Sunday. I missed it watching the Olympics.

  6. Kari August 7, 2012 at 12:25 PM #

    Monita, thanks so much for that article.

    I have to admit, I initially balked at her hair to when I first saw Gabby Douglas competing, and ashamed a heartbeat afterwards, for the same reasons Gabby stated. Yes, women’s gymnastics is a sport particularly sensitive to aesthetics in more ways than one, but hair really isn’t the focus of the event, nor should it be. I’m glad Gabby knew that and is completely indifferent to what her hairstyle is when she’s competing.

    I honestly had never thought about hair and sports until I started going to the gym myself recently, but just as in so many other social contexts, afro-hair styling and athletics is a topic that needs discussion. Thanks also for the post, really enjoyed it.

    • jalylah August 8, 2012 at 6:39 AM #

      Yes, thanks Monita for that article and Thanks Kari for this comment. Wondering, Kari, what thoughts you have had about hair and sports since you’ve been hitting the gym.

      • Kari August 9, 2012 at 12:53 PM #

        Well, mostly the thinking’s been reactionary to what I’ve perceived when I go.

        I wear my hair loose pretty much all the time. I like my natural hair texture a lot so I don’t comb out the tresses to make a symmetrical shaped fro – most times I just condition the hair and let it air-dry and however the hair looks when it dries is the style. My hair’s a 3c/4a blend and looks fun when it’s healthy (corkscrew tresses ^-^, but when it’s dried out it’s super frizzy. By the time I get to the gym at the end of the day my hair’s scrunched up and dried out, and a little misshappen because I have a habit of pulling my hair.

        I didn’t realize any of this until I noticed people furtively glancing at me at the gym. I guess I looked sort of crazy because of the misshapen afro? Non-African-Americans seemed to be wary of me, and African-Americans often frown a bit, as if to say “Can’t believe she came to the gym looking like that.” I’ve seen other African-American women with un-styled hair get the same looks.

        I get irritated that anyone cares at all, and that if they do, African-American women get the weird looks. If you’re exercising, I mean really pushing yourself, it’s not supposed to be pretty. You sweat, you grimace, you grunt, and hair gets mussed. Women shouldn’t be made to feel self-conscious about that, and African-American women especially shouldn’t be given greater criticism because of our natural hair texture.

  7. Kristel August 7, 2012 at 6:10 PM #

    Insightful as always. Long hair has always appealed to me. I remember watching Pocahontas praying that too could stand on a cliff as my long hair whipped across my face as I stared at the blue corn moon. But for whatever reason, I never got a weave. It made me feel good to say, “Oh no, I’ve never had a weave.” I felt that overcoming my longing for Disney hair set me apart from the rest. Now that I have a daughter, I am reliving the long hair obsession and I’m conflicted. She loves wigs, weave ponytails and long braided styles. But that should be her choice…right? So now I just try to make sure that she knows that she is beautiful no matter the length or texture of her hair because her beauty comes from within. I still struggle with my hair decisions everyday. I find straight hair to be more manageable although I love the full appearance of my wavy locks. My hair choices are important because they set a standard for my daughter. She needs to see me getting my hair wet or sweaty without complaint. I try to find ways to make that easier for me. While I know will never get another relaxer, that Brazilian blowout is calling my name ever so softly and it sounds eerily like Pocahontas…

    • jalylah August 8, 2012 at 7:18 AM #

      Great comments Kristel! Disney hair is a great way to put it. There is that sense that it will set one apart from the rest and isn’t that how fairy tales begin?

      “My hair choices are important because they set a standard for my daughter. She needs to see me getting my hair wet or sweaty without complaint.”

      Thanks so much for this! I think the discussion of parenting and hair is an important one with respect to modelling a healthy relationship to hair and the just plain simply taking care of a child’s hair. That’s a time consuming and emotionally involved task. My mom has carpal tunnel from masterfully braiding ALL of me and my sister’s hair, at minimum once a week sometimes more. My hair stylist, who is flat iron genius and does celebrity hair, subtly suggested me and my sister not book appointments on the same day because doing our two heads was the equivalent of 4-5 appointments. And still sometimes I look at old pictures and think, damn Mom, you dropped the ball that day. Many of us grown folks are just now getting a handle on how to do our hair much less someone else’s. Remember when I tried to comb out your freshly washed hair with a rat tail comb? My apologies.

      And no Brazilian blowouts! I believe they use formaldehyde and even if they don’t they’ll probably ruin your curl pattern.

  8. Siah Salma Bangai August 9, 2012 at 12:11 PM #

    Reblogged this on Diary of a Mad Reader.

  9. jalylah August 9, 2012 at 1:47 PM #

    Kari, thanks for your comment. I wanted to hone in on the point you made here.

    “Non-African-Americans seemed to be wary of me, and African-Americans often frown a bit, as if to say “Can’t believe she came to the gym looking like that.” I’ve seen other African-American women with un-styled hair get the same looks.”

    Your experience is distressing and I’m sorry you got to deal with those looks. I work out outside and since I’m running I don’t have to endure any funky faced joggers or bystanders for a half a second or two. I will say this. I am learning not to receive it or engaged it. I get a lot of looks when I run, even today, I felt the heavy gazes of a range of people pop. My first inclinations are generally to worry if my sunscreen has whitened with my perspiration, if my running shorts/pants are too tight, my bra not doing its job, my hair too wild, etc. I become concerned that I don’t look right. Although, these folks could and for certain are sometimes judging my appearance, they could be doing a host of other things and that’s has freed me up to more fully relax during my runs. I don’t say this to deny your experience but share strategy that has made my workouts more fun. And thank you so much for bringing up this issue of styled vs. unstyled hair. It brings to mind how normative straight and hair is in our conception of what makes styled hair. A flat ponytail or which is thought to be casual and lazy is actually not easy or effortless for me. My hair is super thick so to get a ponytail I paddle brush my hair in the shower after running leave in conditioner or aloe vera gel through it and then I secure it with a band. I then tie a silk scarf around it to lay down the cuticle until I leave the house. The effort required for women who don’t have naturally straight hair to get a simple & seemingly “unstyled” can be effortful. And while those with straight hair can wash and go, why can’t you?

    • M August 14, 2012 at 3:38 PM #

      “My first inclinations are generally to worry if my sunscreen has whitened with my perspiration”

      Oh lord. That’s a whole other rant right there, that is.

  10. M August 14, 2012 at 3:37 PM #

    “Must we weave, wig, braid in extensions before we hit the pitch, track, mat, slough?”

    Yes. Sometimes we must.

    I still have my martial arts medals, and apparently still hold some crazy track & field record from HS (which makes me think those girls aren’t training too hard /kids these days), some years after the fact.

    I still get my machine Pilates and arc trainer on 3x a week each (that’s six days) b/c bad congenital knees made worse by throwing of menisci here and there during more intense athletic and modern dance days.

    Yet and still, till the author and those who agree with her unreservedly pay my bills instead, I also need to conform, at least to some extent, to the dictates of a racist workplace that continues to insist, however tacitly, that my hair in its natural state is “unprofessional” — lest they stop handing over promotions, and even paychecks, in the midst of this recession.

    I added hair once I did the research and found out the relaxer was poisoning me. But I don’t judge those who relax. They’re doing them. I don’t know what they’re going through.

    (And I told Jason Whitlock the same after he got up there Uncle Tomming on Faux News over Gabby Douglas and her hair, when he had the nerve to shame not only the sisters who hated on Gabby without bothering to touch on those internalized Eurocentric “beauty” standards that underlie why they would have gone there, and going on, with his three-hundred-or-so pound hypocritical self, to go from there to “This is why black women are so overweight.” *smh*)

    We can’t all perfectly adhere to an African nationalist standard, because we (at least we Americans) live in the same racist culture, but we don’t have the same grade of hair.

    And anyone who has a problem with it and who thinks I’m not working out “hard enough” for their standards as a result? I invite them at any time to come sweat with me.

    • jalylah August 14, 2012 at 4:47 PM #

      Thanks for your sharp comments and athletic testimony. Shame and judgment are indeed for the birds and the forces exerted on black women to present themselves in particular ways (the “internalized Eurocentric “beauty” standards” and the dictates of so-called professionalism in the “racist workplace” that you rightly point out amongst them) are strong. Free-minded freedom of choice is what I’d like to see. Keep sweating!

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