Don’t Touch My Pride: Douglas, Williams, and Media’s Criticism of Their Hair

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by Shannon Jay

Venus Williams and Gabby Douglas have a lot in common -- they’re strong, black women who have come out on top countless times in traditionally elite, expensive, and white sports. They’ve also suffered from plenty of media scrutiny. Whether it’s through these women’s hair, unfair application of rules or norms, or stereotypical assumptions, the Williams sisters and Douglas are too often marginalized by critics in ways that overshadow their historic accomplishments and countless contributions to America’s greatness.

Overt coverage of these athlete’s hair in particular work to maintain white beauty standards and attempt to make these women feel bad about their black pride.

At 15 years old, Gabby Douglas left her first Olympics as the first African-American woman to take home the gold medal in the all-around individual title. Instead of this historic victory that earned her praises from the president and her face on cereal boxes, the media was focused on her hair. Twitter was abuzz with criticism, and her hair became one of the micro-media site’s top 10 2012 Olympic controversies. In her article on the social media response to Gabby Douglas, Kathleen McElroy found most hairy criticism did not come from whites, however, but from “Black Twitter.”

The usually strong support system that actively acts “as a public space and subject of the white gaze” was the same that ripped Douglas down, showing that beauty standards and the unfair practice are upheld in our sweatiest, hardest working athletes. Particularly upsetting is that this should be the community that’d be the proudest of her accomplishments and the most understanding of her hairy dilemma.

Douglas’ mother told Fashionista that the family made jokes to diffuse that situation and uplift the gymnast’s spirits to keep her focused. “How ignorant is it of people to comment on her hair and she still has more competitions to go," she said. "Are you trying to ruin her self-confidence? She has to go out there and feel good about herself.”

Black America risked a historic shining star’s success to note her napiness, but why? McElroy said what played out was the voices of African American women who were “once stifled by their hair choices [are] now liberated and uniquely qualified to scold black women to get in line.”

Unique hairstyles don’t just skew success and lower self-esteem only when it comes to beauty standards, but can sometimes affect women’s scores. At the 1999 Australian Open, Venus Williams lost beads from her signature hairdo. In accordance with the controversially interpretive Hindrance Rule, she was docked a point due to the “distraction.”.  In her post-match interview, Williams said she had not been warned when beads had fallen out in past games. Her opponent Lindsay Davenport even revealed that “it’s not a distraction, a little annoying, maybe,” but “it’s the rules.”

However, this unprecedented incidence usually applies to the flailing of larger, louder, easily seen objects such as loose balls or the hat that Davenport had lost points for in a previous match. The fact that no one had said anything about Williams’ beads flying in previous matches, writer Sarah Projansky suggests this is “an unfair and racist application of a rule that was written without Venus or, potentially, other African American players in mind.”

With this in mind, Projansky begs the question in her book “Spectacular Girls: Media Fascination and Celebrity Culture” -- what if it was a clip or barrette that fell out of a white player’s hair? Furthermore, was Davenport really that “annoyed” at a single bead, or moreso Venus’ presence and her place as a fair opponent, as a black woman in a white world?

Keeping in the stereotype of “angry black women,” LA Times said Williams “lashed out” during “bead-gate,” qualifying that she “did not go ballistic and start crying, the way she did at Wimbledon,” painting her as overly emotional and erratic in multiple instances. Meanwhile, they praised Davenport’s “businesslike performance,” who herself said she’s “a different player” than Williams, citing her confidence and smartness on the court as deciphering factors.

Commenting on the rest of Williams’ disoriented performance, Davenport said, “you have to be a little tougher, [and] not let that bother you.” But, it’s hard to not be bothered when you know the cards are stacked against you, even when you’re one of the best. It’s tough to not be thrown off your game when an instance occurs where this disadvantage is so apparent. You’re already defeated when no one else sees that, and think they’re better than you because of it.

For these women, the political will always be personal. Being docked unfairly, criticized trivially, and given no empathy in the face of tragedy doesn’t stop these women, who have defied their scenarios to be the best. Imagining them being any greater without these restraints is hard, but it’s a road we deserve to earn for them, for the amazing ways they’ve represented America on the world stage.

Their inclusion in these spaces is only the beginning of the work that needs to be done, and the analysis of the nuances that halts this change will always be necessary to provide personable progress. For all the time, sweat, and tears they’ve devoted on and off the field for us, we need to work always to earn them the respect they rightfully deserve.