Mirror, Mirror: Forget the hair, focus on fitness

African American women's what-to-do-with-my-hair-after-a-good-sweat dilemma went national last week as controversy surrounding the ponytail of Olympic gold medalist Gabby Douglas swelled faster than a hot-combed do during a marathon.

After some black women took to social media to scold Douglas for her tousled bun held in place with silver clips, many defended the 16-year-old gymnast's look.

That debate, however, wasn't merely a few women airing their issues. It proved that the natural-hair movement has progressed beyond the black-is-beautiful politics of the '70s and the fashionable neo-soul trends of the 1990s. This affects our health.

Today's beauty landscape may be dominated by fake hair and processed locks, but many black women are realizing they need to stop fussing about fuzzy edges and hit the gym. If their after-workout hair isn't perfect - which it can't be unless they plan to undertake another wash, blow, and curl - so be it.

The Douglas chatter was the loudest of the conversations in the blogosphere and on talk shows, but it's not the only natural-hair discussion going on.

The September issue of O magazine hit newsstands featuring the usually sleek-haired Queen of Media unapologetically wearing a big, bushy mane. Headlines referred to the cover photo as "controversial."

"I like wearing my hair this way on the weekends and on vacation; it makes me feel unencumbered," Winfrey wrote in her monthly column "What I Know for Sure."

"But it's hard to manage daily, because it needs to be braided every night or cut shorter in order for me not to look, as Gayle says, 'like you put your finger in a light socket.' "

Even Oprah goes through it.

And then New York magazine columnist Kevin Roose wrote that investing more than a million dollars in a natural-hair website wasn't a good idea.

"What kind of genius decided to throw $1.2 million at NaturallyCurly, the 'leading social network and community for people with wavy, curly, and kinky hair'?"

Following a host of attacks and a strongly worded article on Huffington Post, Roose cleaned up his statement, calling the cash infusion a bad idea because niche websites are a long shot.

But it's niche websites like Curly Nikki and UrbanBushBabes that have helped black women find the courage to train for triathlons and marathons despite their post-workout hair and endure the comments from well-meaning friends more concerned about image.

The issue was on the mind of Delaware mother and marathon runner Tanishia Drew when she started a Facebook page - two days before the Douglas story hit the news - called Gym Hair Solutions.

"There had to be a better way," said Drew, who once wore her cropped hair straightened, but has switched to braids as she grows out her relaxer..

"I started really thinking about my hair. Why don't I like what I have? What's wrong with my natural hair?"

Absolutely nothing, says Alexandria Williams, 29, a Dallas-based triathlete and cofounder of Sportyafros.com. When a blog post defending Douglas' hair was posted last Wednesday, more than 100,000 hits per hour crashed the website for two days.

"This is a health issue for black women," she said. "It's about not being afraid to work out hard because you want to maintain a look."

Simply put, black women have a different standard when it comes to hair. While some white women could carelessly pull their hair back in a ponytail after a workout and consider their tousled look cute, black women don't like to see other black women's hair out of place, whether you're wearing it straight or natural. I wear my hair in locks, but even I have been teased by girlfriends about the fuzz around my roots a few weeks, and workouts, after hitting the hair salon.

Gladly, more people are getting the wake-up call.

Last August, Surgeon General Regina M. Benjamin let the cat out of the bag in Atlanta when she said black women don't work out as much as they should because they are worried about their hair.

That acknowledgment, coupled with Michelle Obama's toned arms and willingness to slick her hair into what we like to call a "snatch-back ponytail," show that the sands are starting to shift.

"Mrs. Obama hasn't been afraid to sweat in public," said Sophia A. Nelson, author of Black Woman Redefined: Dispelling Myths and Discovering Fulfillment in the Age of Michelle Obama. "Every time Mrs. Obama does that she says it's OK to have different hair, curly hair, and not to worry about sweating your perm out."

The hair police might blame the media for bringing it up. But it wouldn't make a difference. Even after the Douglas blowup, people picked on runner Sanya Richards-Ross for her hairstyle - a single cornrow over a wavy mane that blew behind her as she crossed the finish line to gold in the 400 meters.

And then as if two wrongs make a right, an angry-black-woman image of gold medalist Serena Williams - her fist balled up, ponytail blowing - began circulating on Facebook with "Now Say Something About My Hair" PhotoShopped over it.

We black women can be the biggest detractors and the biggest cheerleaders. So to the next woman who wants to work out but is scared about the backlash, remember these words from Douglas.

"What's wrong with my hair?" Douglas asked the Associated Press this week. "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."


Contact fashion writer Elizabeth Wellington at 215-854-2704 or ewellington@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @ewellingtonphl.