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Why are people being mean to Gabby Douglas?

August 03, 2012|By Alexandra Le Tellier
  • Gabrielle Douglas is all smiles after her Olympic performance.
Gabrielle Douglas is all smiles after her Olympic performance. (Los Angeles Times )

Kellogg's Corn Flakes has immortalized Olympic gold medalist Gabby Douglas by placing her image on its cereal boxes. But will the 16-year-old gymnast, arguably London's breakout star, continue to court the attention of companies who want to use her image to sell their products?

The Atlantic's Lindsay Abrams points out that female athletes are underrepresented in advertisements. How bad is it? Abrams writes: "Not a single female athlete appeared on the 2011 Sports Illustrated list of the 50 highest-earning U.S. athletes, a fact that's highlighted in a forthcoming study in the Journal of Brand Management. A Turner report found that, of the sports figures featured as endorsers on 11.9 percent of television commercials, only 3 percent are women."

It's not that advertisers aren’t willing to attach women to their products; it's that female athletes simply don't sell products as well as their male counterparts. Abrams continues: "For an endorser to be successful -- according to a well-established branding model -- he or she must follow the pillars of 'Familiarity, Likability, and Similarity.' Researchers John Antil and Matthew Robinson, who conducted a series of focus groups on the topic, found that female athletes are lacking in all three."

PHOTOS: Gabrielle Douglas wins gold

Yikes. Abrams suggest that advertisers "humanize our Olympic heroines rather than flaunt their superhuman physiques" as a solution. But as Douglas has unfairly learned this week, showing one's human side also has its drawbacks.

While many saw a young athletic wonder dazzling us on TV, others saw imperfect hair and took to Twitter to air their grievances. "I know every black woman looked at gabby douglas’s hair and asked Why? Just why?" tweeted one person. "On another note, gabby douglas gotta do something with this hair! these clips and this brown gel aint it!" tweeted someone else.

In a rebuttal to the disparaging comments, author Demetria L. Lucas wrote on Essence's website: "I challenge anyone to explain to me that Gabby’s focus should be on something as trivial as her roots when she’s focused on a dream that many aspire to, but few accomplish. You really want her sitting up in the Olympic Village thinking about a hot comb or some lye right now, with all that’s on the line?"

Exploring the issue for NPR, Monique Fields explained that "the matter of hair is as serious to some in the black community as losing a tenth of a point on the balance beam." She continued: "Douglas, some feel, isn't just representing herself, her family and all of the sacrifices they made to get to the world stage. She is representing black people, who take a certain pride in their appearance. She is representing a race of people who have been taught over and over again that they must be better than everyone else just to be on an equal playing field. She is representing a history of hurts and wrongs.”

Add to that burden her gender -- another recent study shows that we’re all hardwired to objectify women -- and you can't help feeling for Douglas even as you cheer for her. "We all are more important than our hair, and we need to stop tearing down black women for how we look," argues Fields.

It remains to be seen whether Douglas, as a black woman, can secure long-lasting lucrative endorsements. But from my perspective, it’s a kick in the gut every time I hear people tear down accomplished women on such trivial and peripheral issues. Douglas doesn’t deserve it. And, subsequently, she’ll especially have my vote at the checkout counter (even if I wouldn't dare eat Corn Flakes).

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Follow Alexandra Le Tellier on Twitter @alexletellier. Follow Opinion L.A. on Twitter and Facebook.

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