Black hair and the Olympics: Musing on the good, the fab, the pretty — and black hair obsession as a cultural fact

OPINION - Our sisters came, they saw and they conquered. And they looked damn good while they were doing it...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

Beauty for African-American women has always been a top priority, with hair being the Olympic pinnacle of appearance considerations. In most instances, if a sista’s hair is right, her outfit can be sub-par and the weather can be bleak, but she will still walk with pep in her step and a sparkle in her eyes that reads confidence.

The 2012 London Olympic Games proved to be no different as an arena for black beauty. As our black queens — ranging from Allyson Felix and Gabrielle Douglas, to Serena and Venus Williams — shattered record after record, black women in salons and in homes across the nation not only celebrated their achievements, but also debated their beauty regimens – after all, they represented us — with hair being the primary topic of conversation. The same was true even among the athletes.

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U.S. track phenomenon, Kellie Wells, laughingly talked about getting her “hair done” during a press conference that was otherwise rife with tension, as she and fellow team mate Dawn Harper criticized the media for focusing on their colleague Lolo Jones, rather than their own compelling stories. Hair talk was even a priority during that moment of scandal.

Sixteen-year-old Gabrielle Douglas also had to weigh in on the hair debate as over-zealous “Keepers of the Black Hair Grail” did their best to chip away at the young girl’s self-esteem with their twisted fascination with the lay of her follicles. She should not even have had to say this:

I don’t know where this is coming from. What’s wrong with my hair? I’m like, ‘I just made history and people are focused on my hair?’ It can be bald or short, it doesn’t matter about [my] hair. Nothing is going to change. I’m going to wear my hair like this during beam and bar finals. You might as well just stop talking about it.

But there is something delicious about the story of black women’s hair at the Olympics in the fact that she did. Despite young Gabby’s decision to tell everyone to “runtelldat” over her locks, her mom (perhaps feeling the need to defend her daughter’s Black Beauty Card anyway) laid all the blame on her daughter’s host family for the state of her pony tail.

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Natalie Hawkins told the press, “I don’t think people realize sometimes that she doesn’t live with me,” in defense of her daughter’s style. “She lives with a white host family and they don’t know anything about taking care of her hair. And there’s no black salons in their area [in Iowa] – not one. We had to work really hard to find a stylist to come and do her hair.”

Ah, the humanity. Seriously, this is a moment all black women can identity with: struggling to style, even in a black salon desert.

While Hawkins may have had to find someone to come do her daughter’s hair during her training years, Procter & Gamble Salons in the 2012 Olympic Village offered extensive services, ranging from manicures to highlights, and U.S. Virgin Islands sprinter, Allison Peter, took full advantage. After a disappointing finish to her quest to run in the 100-meter event, Peter said that she immediately went to the salon.

“I don’t normally let just anyone cut my hair, but it was in the Village and it was free,” she said. “I guess it’s one of the perks of being an Olympian.”

As much as the Douglas Hairgate played up the superficial aspects of black women’s fascination with hair, we cannot forget this sense of stillness and self-care that can also be provided by heading to the salon.

In the midst of a world spinning at 1,000 miles per hour that Olympic athletes face, getting your hair done is a chance to relax, focus and gather strength in an environment that simultaneously soothes and stimulates most black women. Even Olympians.