By Elizabeth Wellington
When I was a little girl, I loved to run fast and splash big. But these quintessential kid activities were frowned upon. That’s because I was a child of the hot comb.
Every other Friday, my mom washed my hair and braided it into sections to let it dry. The next morning, she pressed it straight so it would be appropriate for church and school.
My mom didn’t have anything against natural hair. In fact, she wore an Afro into the early ’80s. She did, however, know to follow the strictest of fashion rules for all well-groomed black girls, which clearly state that, without exception, the hairline (which, from this point, I’ll refer to as edges) should be smooth and, if need be, brushed down and secured with plastic barrettes.
Because it was such a chore to get my hair done, I, like many African-American girls, grew up with the belief that all water — rainfall or mist, pool or perspiration — was a mortal enemy. There wasn’t much swimming. And playing high-intensity, sweat-inducing sports daily was generally out of the question.
Enter this summer’s stunning Olympic performances by gold-medal gymnasts Gabby Douglas and Simone Biles, as well as swimmer Simone Manuel.
I don’t doubt that these young ladies have had to face criticism — although powerful, Biles’ and Douglas’ physiques aren’t the svelte ideal — let alone racism in their careers.
The history of discrimination against blacks in public swimming pools is so real that as recently as 2009, members of the Valley Club in Huntingdon Valley, Pennsylvania, decided black and Hispanic children were not welcome in their waters.
In order for these women to get this gold-medal good, they also triumphantly worked through hair issues — whether we want to admit it or not. It takes years of practice to master one-handed vaults and lightning-fast sprints in the pool, and damned if these champions were going to let a silly thing like imperfect edges stop them.
Unfortunately, there are still many women — mostly African-American — who hold onto the myth that silky straight hair doth a great life make.
Last Tuesday, shortly after our Final Five took home the team gold, Twitter was aflurry with criticism over Biles’ and Douglas’ hair. Douglas took the brunt of the nastiness — after all, wasn’t this her second rodeo?
Douglas should know better, especially because, during the 2012 Olympics, in which she took home two gold medals, the then-16-year-old got the same social-media finger-wagging because of her fuzzy edges.
This time around, the beauty-bullying, along with accusations that Douglas was unpatriotic during the medal ceremony and unsportswomanlike during her teammates’ performances, moved her to near tears. Luckily, many people have her back. The hashtag #loveforgabbyUSA began trending Sunday.
“I’m like, ‘Did I choose my hair texture? No,’” she told the L.A. Times on Monday. “I’m actually grateful for having this hair on my head. Sometimes, when you read hurtful stuff, you’re like, ‘OK, wow.’”
It’s one thing when the world knocks you down, but when your own people do, over this kind of ridiculousness, that’s a special kind of hurt.
Besides the fact that people who can’t turn a cartwheel should avoid criticizing those who can do a double back tuck, I’m convinced that these salty, armchair-fashion critics are tweeting and meme-making out of fear.
Yes, there was a time when the only hair a black woman could have was straight, but those days are mostly behind us, and thankfully so. Are we still so afraid that unstraightened hair will mean we won’t get the job, the friends or the lovers we want that we project this fear on to people who have long gotten over it?
Maybe. But I think it goes even deeper.
I would bet this hair drama has stopped many black women from pursuing their own athletic dreams.
It stopped me — for a time.
When I reached high school, I was interested in running track. But I also wanted to be cool. I wanted boys to like me. I wanted to be popular. In the ’90s, that meant wearing an asymmetrical bob that later evolved into the signature Halle Berry haircut. Both looks required pristine edges. By then, I was old enough to relax my hair, and the no-humidity rule still applied.
I never even tried out for the team.
Eventually, in my early 20s, I decided enough was enough. I stopped the relaxer and grew out my own hair — similar in texture to Douglas’ — and I started locking it.
I began running 5Ks and half-marathons. At 30, I took classes at the YMCA to learn how to swim laps properly. My chances of earning a track-and-field scholarship were over, but I was still having fun.
When I see Douglas, Biles, Manuel or Michelle Carter, who threw the gold-medal winning shot put, or Torie Bowie, who won the silver in the 100-meter sprint stand on their podiums to represent America as champions, I don’t see nappy or straight edges.
I see dreams that have been realized.
Elizabeth Wellington is a style columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Column courtesy of the Associated Press.