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Gabby Douglas & Simone Biles: Hop off their edges

The Internet can be a cruel and unusual abyss of half-cocked opinions and bargain basement analysis, especially when it comes to Black women. Little time is wasted on the opinions of those who don’t identify as Black or female but it never ceases to amaze how many of us who are both Black and female spend part time job hours speaking ill of other Black girls and women.

Four years ago Gabby Douglas had her figurative edges snatched by folks wondering about the quality of her literal edges. I know without surveying that 99.56789% of those engaging in this ‘conversation’ were Black and the great percentage of them were women, young and old. How do I know this? Black women tend to be the only ones who know about ‘edges’ and the only ones care about them. Ask a white woman what an edge is and see what she tells you.

Here we are 4 years later and Gabby’s edges are under attack along with the edges of her Black teammate, Simone Biles. Before Biles and Douglas are addressed together, let it also be acknowledged that Gabby has caught heat for her unpatriotic appearance on the medal stand for not having hand over heart during the singing of the National Anthem. It was not enough that she stood there wearing a whole USA sweat suit after competing (performing) in the name of a country that has historically disregarded and dehumanized those who look like her or that she too has to find ways to reconcile daily images of versions of herself being gunned down by the state without just cause. This is important because the concept of patriotism will be tied in with this hair thing shortly. Bear with me.

Firstly, Black women’s hairlines tell a story. The stories are all different but judged by a similar rubric. Our edges and our kitchens tell the story of lineage. They serve as silent confirmation of miscegenated roots and an escape from peasy kitchens (nape of the neck) and the ability to lay one’s hairline as smooth as a baby’s. Our generationally gifted hair standard lies in connections to white people or Native Americans and babies who are still womb wet or, as some are still wont to identify, that good hair.

In an attempt to disguise the hair follicle fail in the genetic crapshoot, Black women reach for all manner of lye and lye-like and lye-light products to whip and tame their hair into a personal hair apology. Madame CJ Walker’s hair advancements were based in meeting the needs of those deeply burdened by the kinks and coils that grew wildly from their scalps. And Black women rejoiced so much that we have burned our collective edges clean off with pressing combs, relaxer kits, and flat irons. Clowning a Black woman’s lack of edges is layered, and essentially laughs at the lengths she—or her mama—have gone to in order to apologize for the lack of slave master rape and Native American mixing in their gene pool. We have developed unhealthy hair habits in an attempt to meet a European aesthetic. Patriotism.

Black hair is a challenge, no matter what kind we have. It requires work in a way that those with straighter textures just can’t understand. In its kinky coily state, it must be kept moisturized, not washed too much so as not to strip the natural oils, and detangled, detangled, detangled. These things are time consuming and require a great deal of love. All that is before you even get to braids and the like that have mysteriously been renamed as protective styles. If keeping long hair isn’t desired, regular appointments with a GOOD barber are required. Locs, twists, extensions, and weaves require maintenance as well. No matter how we maintain our hair there’s something of a dance we do between our hair and our lifestyles. With anything other than a short cut, I planned club nights and anything that could potentially involve smoke around wash days. Wash day always came the day after whatever revelry so that the style destroying effects of sweat and smoke could be handled right away and get me ready for the next 2 weeks. As a dancer I had to find ways to work with the sweat so as not to be taken down by it and made to look raggedy all the days of my life. Sweat isn’t hair-friendly, no matter what kind you have, but certainly unkind to the type of hair that shouldn’t be excessively washed. This has lead to a great many of us abandoning exercise in favor of maintaining our fly.

Now that that’s out of the way, lets return to Gabby and Simone; and forgive me for addressing them by their first names as though I know them but I claim them for sure.

These 2 young women have lived between the gym and competition since the age of 6. That’s a lot of buckets of sweat between them. On top of that, it’s far more hours of commitment that they don’t have to give over to hair—assuming they care, because they don’t have to. But lets go a step further for a minute. Have you taken even a passing glance at the ‘look’ of gymnastics? And not to distract from gymnastics, but cheerleading and ballet have something in common here as well and it’s important to identify it. There are 2 hair options in these 2 sports and the 1 dance form: straight or straight-ish hair in a ponytail or straight or straight-ish hair snatched into a tight bun. Edges aside, have you paid attention to the bone straightness of the loose or hanging hair of Gabby and Simone’s ponytails? That’s not their natural texture and requires manipulation. Gymnastics has made no bends, pun certainly intended, to accommodate the Black aesthetic within the sport. It has not said that their very talent is in and of itself enough to compete on the national and international level without submitting to the required European aesthetic. Even from within a sport that continues to subtly invalidate them, Simone Biles and Gabby Doublas keep showing up in their red, white, and blue leotards—albeit to show out in their brown skin—for their country. Patriotism.

Through all of that, we have the gall to clock their hair.

So, before you speak or type another word about your discomfort with their hairline, I challenge you to count your Olympic medals, hell, even your ribbons from all that competing you’ve done in your life. Insert side-eye here. I challenge you to find your footnotes in history. I challenge you to reflect on what your own hair habits are rooted in and if even your edges are or have been tested by the aesthetic you subscribe to. I challenge you, whether you live inside or outside of the hair straightening reality, to apply the love you apply to your own tresses to those young ladies and thank them for sacrificing their edges to help balance the narrative of the various pathologized images of Blackness shared en masse internationally on a daily basis. They are carrying YOU on their petite backs, paving the way for your children, if not you, to stand up and BE GREAT at whatever you or they choose. And if all or any of those considerations are too much for you where you happen to stand in your truth today, I challenge you to simply shut yo ass up.

Disclaimer: this writer has had natural hair the majority of her life. She has also been an athlete and a dancer and has an understanding of the effects of these activities on Black hair. Even with that, this writer is not personally concerned with the individual hair choices people make as much as hoping those choices are made in full self acceptance and done in a fashion that is minimally damaging to hair, hearts, and minds.

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