Gabrielle Douglas waves to the crowd after winning the gold medal in the… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)
The comments started before Olympic gold medalist Gabby Douglas made history. Haters turned to social media, but not to criticize her performance — that was golden. It was to trash her hair.
Slicked back in a high ponytail with half her mane tucked into an elastic band, her style seem to blend in with her teammates'. Hair clips pinned the stray hairs in place as she vaulted into the history books as the first African American to win the women's all-around in gymnastics.
Still, that simple style threatened to overshadow her golden moment.
What would have normally been private living room chatter spilled into the blogosphere, where it garnered national attention.
What was she thinking? many asked. Was her look part ponytail, part bun? they quipped. Shouldn't Gabby have spent more time smoothing her edges since she knew the world was watching?
Worst, many of the hurtful comments were coming from African American women who know the struggles we face with our hair.
Unlike our white counterparts, our hair frizzes up when it is exposed to moisture, like the sweat that beaded on Gabby's forehead from her intense floor performance. And it often takes a lot of gel and patience to get that perfect chignon.
The debate raged on in hair salons across South L.A. Some stylists in one breath agreed that Gabby's hair was unkempt but in the next breath excused her look due to her strenuous workout schedule and upbringing — noting how Gabby, who was born in Virginia Beach, Va., moved to Iowa to live with a white family while she trained.
"I'm just proud to say she's a world champion," said Thomasina White, a stylist and owner at Creative Visions hair salon. "And all we can do is talk about her hair?"
Throughout the controversy, Gabby maintained her poise.
"I don't know where this is coming from," she told reporters in London. "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....
"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."
With the spotlight on Gabby's hair, I couldn't help but confront my own painful hair issues.
I was convinced that I was going to stop applying the dangerous chemical treatments that give me super-straight, shiny hair. Instead, I was going to wear my natural hair.
That changed once I started exercising several times a week. I got a slight taste of what Gabby endures.
My hair was a frizzy mess after each workout. In the mornings, I faced a daily battle to slick my hair back, but by noon it looked frayed and poofy. I would stare in the mirror after work, trying to figure out how my hair had morphed into a fuzz ball. The look was far from professional, I told a friend.
Just days earlier, we had a hair party at her place. We washed and deep-conditioned our hair, chatting about life like we did when we were in college.
Then, without warning, my friend stood in front of her bathroom mirror, picked up the scissors off the counter and started chopping off her locks. Her straight black hair landed in her sink. I was speechless.
After five minutes of cutting she ran her fingers through her short curly afro. The style brought out all her beautiful facial features. I applauded her bravado, and secretly envied her carefree spirit.
When I complained to her about my own hair, her reply was simple: Cut it off.
Instead, one day without warning, I chemically relaxed my hair. I hate to admit it, but I instantly felt prettier and more secure within myself.
Now, after I sweat my hair out during my hour-long boot camp class, I can easily brush my hair into a bun without the edges sticking up, creating a more polished look.
And it seems that Gabby may have buckled under the pressure as well.
Last week, as she went on a publicity tour to celebrate winning not one but two Olympic gold medals, she revealed a new look. Long dark brown extensions flowed past her shoulders. Her hair was parted down the middle and curled in loose ringlets.
A celebrity stylist had been commissioned to give Gabby her new hairdo. And though her hair looked different, Gabby radiated the same smile she had when she won the gold.
"She was so gracious and strong the way she handled the situation," said Tonja Holden, as she sat in a salon chair at Hairtivity in Inglewood.
Holden, who is also an avid exerciser, recalled the scrutiny local tennis stars Serena and Venus Williams, who grew up in Compton, experienced when they first hit the court. Critics said the sisters' braided hair adorned with beads was too ethnic.
Both Holden and her granddaughter, a 9-year-old gymnast who trains at the same facility as Olympic gymnast McKayla Maroney, make weekly visits to the salon.
Like Gabby, the 54-year-old hopes her granddaughter will be judged for her performances and not her hair.
"Her hair doesn't matter," interjected stylist Carolyn Todd. "She could've cut her hair off bald and she will still be Golden Gabby."