Helmet Hair

Helmet Hair

Gabby Douglas made me think a lot this summer… I wrote this right before the Olympics wrapped… I suppose I finally have the guts to post it …5 months later… remember my procrastination problem…


Before my 1st communion in 2nd grade, I begged my mom for a perm. The other black girls in my elementary school had perms, and I wanted silky straight hair like theirs instead of my thick, almost unmanageable mane. Until then, my hair had been completely natural. For the first 5 years of my life, our nanny, Mary, would wash, blow dry and use a curling iron to straighten my hair with Vitapointe. Looking back, I wish that had been the case forever – I would have had the long hair I wanted… but natural. There is a photo of me with my brother on a “Slip and Slide” before my perm – my afro was large and in charge! How embarrassed I was to let the white girls at school see me like that. How proud I would be now.

...my afro was large and in charge...
…my afro was large and in charge…

As a child, I loved being light-skinned. I was comforted by the fact that I was closer to white. My hair, on the other hand, wasn’t quite there yet. My mother’s curly and easily manipulated hair straightened with ease, while mine broke, burned and everything else if not properly cared for.

As a child, I loved being light skinned…

So when I saw Gabby Douglas at the gymnastic trials in June, I got it. I didn’t need any explanation for her hair, nor did I think it was any of my business. I was thrilled to see she and Elizabeth Price (the other Black teen who qualified as an alternate) on the team! The last time I watched so much gymnastics, Shannon Miller and Dominique Dawes reigned supreme. It was wonderful to watch this milestone take place in the history books for so many young black girls and women (including my 5 month old daughter)! It was nice to be excited again about a sport I admired so much as a pre-teen.

I had my own Olympic hopes once, but as an equestrienne in dressage and show jumping. Not nearly as “hair-raising” as gymnastics, but nonetheless, a fine and decidedly “elite” sport. Even more misunderstood and still requiring training that can often be expensive. Unfortunately, my brother and I stopped riding before that dream could come true (or else my parents, like Gabby’s might have been faced with similar financial difficulties). I stuck with and excelled at more artistic things: ballet, singing, and the flute.

“I had my own olympic hopes once, but as an equestrienne…”

Remember the “kiddie perm” from 2nd grade? Well, I went swimming that summer – and my hair was badly damaged. My “large and in charge afro” – destroyed. By the time I went to band camp, the only option while away from home for so long was braids, so that my hair would stay in place and I could focus on my music. Feeling unsettled, I sported the braids and beads look that summer, around the same time as Serena and Venus Williams. But I wasn’t a tennis champion showcasing my fashion sense. I saw myself in the wrong body and I hated that style, as it did not fit my personality. I hated seeing my scalp and was so happy when a few braids in the back became unraveled and the girls in my cabin could see my “real hair”. I remember feeling so embarrassed, wanting nothing more than to have long flowing hair, preferably in the shape of a ponytail that swayed side to side like Abby, the blonde basketball playing twin a few years older than me in elementary and middle school  that I thought was “so cool”.

The few sprinklings of black children and teens I encountered in my “elite” activities were not interested in bonding. We glanced at each other, gave a little smile, but mainly preferred to remain the only speckle in our group of friends – shedding light on being black and embracing our race when necessary.

By the time I went to my all-girls Catholic high school, I was absolutely certain I was in the wrong body, and to emphasize how alien I felt, nicknamed myself “Oreo”, encouraging my white friends in my high school drama group to call me that (but somehow never letting my mother know).

The handful of times I sat at the black lunch table were both awkward and comfortable. I felt like I could fit in, but was afraid to fully embrace what sitting at the “Black table” meant… that I was Black.

But the one thing all of the black girls, oreos and non-oreos alike, had in common, that I was still not getting, was their hair. It always looked “tight”. Mine was usually worn in a bun, pulled back… rarely down. But when it was – I got a lot of comments… seems that my thick hair really straightened well (after I learned to take care of it). I, like Gabby, loved it long and flowing.

All of this changed, however when I went to college and encountered Blacks in a collegiate setting that made me fully embrace who I was in my natural state. I “transitioned” back to my natural hair in 2003. I owe my transition in part to Carolyn, a woman one year above me who transitioned and had the most beautiful spirals. I had no idea that’s what natural hair could look like. After letting my relaxer grow out a little bit, I realized that I too had the same spiral texture. I was scared to completely embrace something I had been trying to fry for the past 13 years or so, but I knew that who I was would only fully come through once I was less concerned with fitting into a mold that included straight hair and a keen nose.

Gabby Douglas is an Olympic champion who has so energetically broken down walls and made her country more than proud. But she is still a teenager, in predominantly white environments, trying to fit-in, trying to focus, not wanting to be bothered and doing what most of the other girls around her are doing, which in her case, means throwing her hair into a pony-tail that doesn’t really sway, but is good enough to please her surroundings and get her through the day.

When we look to her in 2016 Brazil, she will be 20, have a few endorsements under her belt and most likely a “make-over” of some sort. Her story will have inspired millions and her hair… well, we’ll just have to see…

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