Gabby Douglas got a fantastic hair makeover this week from celebrity stylist Ted Gibson, who tamed her tresses with a middle-part and soft curls. Gabby tweeted her happiness with the transformation, and though, we’ve all agreed nothing is “wrong” with her hair, we’ll all be watching with glee as she continues her media appearances, likely looking increasingly more polished with each one. This is what happens when the unknown become known, we’ve seen it time and time again.
I’ve mostly wanted to abstain from the great Gabby Douglas hair debate, firstly, because it’s stupid, and secondly, because I try not to write about things that everyone on the web is writing about unless I have a unique vantage point. When it came to Gabby’s fly-aways, there just wasn’t much I felt I could add to the conversation–and then it hit me.
I’m from Chicago, born and raised. It’s a city that many fabulous, fantastic Black female icons call home, and we’re pretty intense about our hair. Conversations like, “When Andre started doing Oprah, he stopped doing my hair,” and “I go to Charles, you know he does Juanita Jordan?,” happen all the time. “Where does Desiree Rodgers go? Have you been to Van Cleef?” In Chicago, powerful women create powerful hair stylists, who attract more powerful women, and these become the masters of our manes. Why does this matter? Well because of one very famous Chicagoan who has become the most recognized and widely accepted cultural icon of Black womanhood today–Michelle Obama.
I know you may all want to forget this, but back in the days pre-White House, Michelle had a hair “issue” so to speak. That is to say, the beautiful, glossy, perfectly placed hair she sports regularly these days was not happening in her pre-FLOTUS days. In 2007 as Michell O. began to campaign more visibly alongside her husband, Black women of Chicago whispered, “who’s doing her hair?” And they weren’t saying that in a, “Because I want to go there too,” kind of way.
But as far as I can remember, no one knew who was responsible for Michelle Obama’s unimpressive do’, and the Black women of Chicago were not feeling it. There was the Condoleeza-esque flip situation, those awful thick headbands, and if we’re going there, some of those outfits were a mess. We liked her because she kept it real on the stump, saying things that scared the right-wing and inspired us. But by and far, she sometimes looked like a disaster and there are photos to prove it.
Then somewhere down the campaign trail, (likely, when it became clear Barack Obama stood a chance) Michelle went through a transformation. Suddenly the flip was gone, the outfits were tailored and her hair was flowing. It had begun. The great celebrity makeover machine was in full effect. New hairstylists are found, designers are brought in, image consultants called and poof, you’ve got the first, First Lady since Jackie O, to be recognized as a true style icon.
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There are some overwhelming differences between Gabby Douglas and Michelle Obama. Arguably, Michelle chose to enter in to a public life that would be full of scrutiny and criticism. Gabby, on the other hand, is just a teenage kid who loves gymnastics. But, the cultural politics of becoming a Black woman in the public eye have always had quite specific guidelines. We expect our women to be kept up a certain way, and in the event that they aren’t, we will enlist the best of our community to come in and “fix” them. Enter Ted Gibson.
While I found the Gabby hair controversy to be shameful, it’s just nothing new. Black women talk about hair–a lot. This is not a stereotype–this is a fact. We talk about our hair, your hair, kids hair–we talk about hair. No one is safe, not Michelle Obama, not golden Gabby Douglas. If you pop up on TV, (unless you’re on the news as a relative to a victim), we want your hair done laid. Ask Royce Reed, she finally got some tracks in this season after much chatter about her childish ponytail.
African-Americans have a deep and long-rooted history in policing each others appearance. Historically, our culture lived in a nation where we were invisible. The long standing lack of our images created an environment that forced every Black image to become incredibly valuable and symbolic. Once we were finally allowed to be seen, we cared so very deeply about how we were seen. For many Blacks, being “presentable” at all times became as fundamental as religion. Being “clean,” or “sharp,” was a sign of status, but at minimum, we were expected to be presentable, especially when the ‘others’ were watching. I can’t even remember how many times my mother told me to “go upstairs and change my clothes,” because I looked like, “I didn’t have parents who loved me.” As Black and proud as many of us profess to be in 2012, when we see images of ourselves that aren’t as “presentable” as we think they should be, we get mad. There are so many more sociohistorical reasons for why this is the case, but does it really matter? All these years later, this is still what we do.
Back in 2007, when we were all wondering how long it was going to take before Michelle got her butters’ whipped, Twitter was not a part of everyday life, and Facebook had just become open to the masses. It was a time before the everyday musings of everyday people were published, searchable and repeatable. I would like to think that we wouldn’t have assaulted the soon-to-be First Lady’s tresses in a public forum, though we may have done so over the kitchen table. But even so, she is an adult, one who had chosen public life and all of its lay-people criticisms.
Unfortunately for Gabby, her stardom came at the tender age of 16 at height of the social media age, making the scrutiny of her hair particularly cruel. Somehow the once private cultural dialogue of Black hair became a trending topic on twitter. Grown women took up the topic on their Facebook pages. Mainstream media reported the conversation prompting Black women everywhere to begin screaming in outrage and Gabby and her mother were forced to respond. Now she’s got a Hollywood makeover. Oh, the drama.
So Gabby got her makeover and presumably all will be well. Does anyone ever say anything about the First Lady now other than how fantastic she looks? Nope. Those busted days of 2007 are long forgotten. Now all we can say is, “Michelle looks gooood.” Yep, with all those “o’s.”
Whether or not we’ll walk away from the Gabby hair debacle with an increased cultural appreciation of our tresses is yet to be seen. I can only hope that we, at least, learned to keep “shop talk” in the shop and off of the internet. But mark my words, one day there will be another ordinary Black woman who rises to the prominence of the public eye, and if her hair isn’t fly, we’ll force her to get a makeover too.
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