Enter: U.S. Track and Field goddess Sanya Richards-Ross.
With her perfect, contagious grin, well-honed body and flowing locks, we couldn’t help but be drawn to the magnetism of the gold medal winner with the Midas touch. With amber and chestnut brown curls of waist length flying behind her from a French braid drawing back those curls like a crown, this was a sister and she was fierce as she ran.
But how did she manage to stay so fly in the midst of the most grueling athletic competition of her life? An even better question would be: why was it so important? Was it vanity, self-esteem or public pressure that made her and other black athletes take such care with their appearances? That made Carmelita Jeter rock a carefully gelled short cut? Or inspired Venus Williams’ red, white and blue braids?
TheGrio’s Marcia Dyson describes the motivation as “hairanoia.” I’ll take it even a step further and define it as the state of being in a constant state of obsession – or at the very least acute awareness – of our black hair. And that is not necessarily a bad thing.
We often don’t just throw it into a bun and keep it moving, not when the world is watching, no ma’am. We show up and show out, not because we feel better when other people think we look good, but because we feel better when we feel that we look good. Yes, the primary focus is to thrive and excel, but ever present is the understanding that we better represent while doing it.
Because, that’s what we do.
Denise Jackson, and African-American hair stylist, worked at the All Hair Types salon that was part of the set-up of services offered to athletes and related personnel during the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. Among her most special memories of that event was the salon being a hub of activity for Olympians and pedestrians alike.
“The opening ceremony was awesome; we saw all of our clients rocking their new styles like [we were] pleased parents,” Jackson told theGrio. “We made sure those athletes represented their countries with beautiful [hairstyles] no matter what country or village they came from.
“Now, we really wanted these athletes looking great, but they did take advantage,” Jackson added. “One girl from the Bahamas — a track athlete – received a cut, [blow-dry] and style, but immediately after went to track practice. Because the services were free, she could return at her leisure. I also cut [gold medalist] Michael Johnson’s hair. He gave me a $20 tip and said it was a lucky haircut. Our team was put together to give the best to the best, and that’s what we did.”
As Denise’s comments revealed, even black male athletes can take extra pains to look great. There is something in our culture that is captivated by coiffure. It has caused some controversy in recent weeks, but we need to look at the bigger picture.
Yes, there are some black Olympians who couldn’t care less about their hair and there are some women of other races who also make beauty a priority. Still, there is a global sisterhood that dictates: no matter what country, what continent, or what city we may find ourselves in, our athletes take the time and make the effort to look their best because our culture demands it — and enjoys it.
The London Games have simply been a reflection of all the games that came before them, and a microcosm of black hair culture worldwide.
Does that mean our sisters are victims of “hairanoia”?
Absolutely not. What it does say is that maybe we – the media, the Games viewers, and the critics – have perhaps delved too deeply into the culture of black hair at the Olympics, when what it boils down to is simple:
Our sisters came, they saw and they conquered. And they all looked damn good while they were doing it.
Follow Kirsten West Savali on Twitter at @KWestSavali.