I first started taking note of the black hair Olympics scene during the Parade of Nations at the Opening Ceremonies when I noticed lots of relaxers, weaves and braids and very little natural hair. I was disappointed to say the least because after Jasmine Breidburg’s gloriously curly debut, I was ready to come back to the blog and report back that YES! Natural hair had arrived on a global level!
But alas, that was just not the case.
As I watched The Games over the next two weeks I continued to see very little natural hair, not just from the US, but from all participating nations. I saw many athletes show up to their games, races, matches and competitions wearing foundation, lashes, eyeliner and carefully applied glitter; I couldn’t imagine that their physical appearance wasn’t at least somewhat on their mind. But why was it that so many of these athletes were opting to wear straight styles instead of natural hair?
I decided to call and get the opinion of the one person who would be qualified able to speak to this: my mom. My dearest mother not only has a relaxer, but as a former All-American, Big 10, college basketball player, she also knows what it’s like to be a competitive athlete and deal with the unique challenge of maintaining her hair as a black woman. She explains: “I think a lot of black women athletes succumb to weaves, braids, and relaxers because it’s easier to deal with. It’s more of a default style than anything else because it allows them to focus on the sport and not their appearance. I also think there’s a pressure to wear long hair because of the media and sponsorships. Long hair may be considered to be more ‘feminine’ and it takes the edge of their more athletic build. If not, then they may run the risk of being ‘unfeminine’ and being labeled ‘butch’, which may jeopardize sponsorships.”
We’ve all heard the argument that natural hair is not fit for the workplace, so maybe same concept goes for professional athletes as well. The fact is that many world-class athletes have to compete against each other not only for their titles and medals, but they are also vying for competitive sponsorships and funding. These Olympians are the faces that brands will place on multi-million dollar campaigns on television, websites, and social media. Sponsoring brands have to make sure that their identity is being well-represented by their athletes and athletes need to make sure that they are alluring to brands. In addition to their athletic performance, an athlete’s appearance and behaviour both on and off the playing field matters to these brands. It’s why Michael Phelps lost his Kellogg’s sponsorship when he got busted for smoking pot. Is it also why not seeing more natural hair, that it doesn’t align with a brand’s ideal identity? Perhaps as we see natural hair becoming more widely accepted and its haircare practices understood, we will too start to see more and more top athletes with natural hair.
When relationship between black hair and athletes hits mass media, there always tends to be a lot of controversy. (Remember the time Venus Williams lost a break point in a match when some of her signature beads fell out of her braids at the Australian Open in 1999? Thank heavens Twitter wasn’t around then or who knows what might have happened!) Much of the ensuing discussion, however, fails to acknowledge why black hair is such a sensitive subject matter unfortunately. I appreciated this article from the Minneapolis Star Tribune titled “Why We Should Care About Gabby Douglas’ Hair“: it’s not the critique of her hair that matters at all. It’s the years of institutional racism that made the critiques possible to begin with that we should be worrying about.
The bottom line is that for athletes, the ends justifies the means, meaning that what ever it takes to win (unless it’s performance enhancing drugs!) they should do! If it means weaving, braiding or relaxing because that’s what their intense training lifestyle demands then that’s fine. I just hope that more of them come to realize the benefits of natural hair!