Although I don’t remember much about 1996, I do remember the Summer Olympics. I didn’t have much interest in Swimming or Track and Field. Rather, I was transfixed by the Women’s Gymnastic Team.
The Magnificent Seven, as they were dubbed, consisted of Kerri Strug, Dominique Dawes, Amanda Borden, Amy Chow, Dominique Moceanu, Jaycie Phelps, and Shannon Miller. I was in awe of their discipline, strength, and endurance. The ability to twist and contort the human body was more than a sport; it seemed like an elite artform, magic powers for only the chosen few.
To an eight-year-old black girl, Dominique Dawes was a revelation. The whole team was an inspiration, but nineteen-year-old Dawes provided a reflection of myself. Black girls could not only do gymnastics, but they could make it to the Olympics. Writer Morgan Jerkins noted on ESPN that Dawes “showed them, as well as the rest of the world, how black women could move and excel in traditionally white spaces, even if they had to take flight to do so.”
Naturally, critics hid their racism behind euphemisms. A 1995 LA Times article reported that people worried that Dawes didn’t have the “right look,” that her legs were “bowed,” her knees were too “knobby,” and her “hair was too askew.” In other words, Dawes was too Black. Fortunately, Dawes defied her critics and made Olympic history. She was the first Black woman to win a gold medal.
There have been other gymnasts that have broken barriers since Dawes, namely Gabby Douglas and Simone Biles. Douglas became the first Black woman to win gold in the individual all-around category. Watching her in 2012 brought back memories of the fascination and pride cultivated while watching the 1996 games. Unfortunately, Douglas was not spared from racism and discrimination. In a Vanity Fair profile, her mother, Natalie Douglas, is unflinching about the racially motivated hostility and vitriol that has followed her daughter’s luminous athletic career. She told the magazine that the parents of other gymnasts were unwelcoming and that they “looked at her as a pariah, an alien, a single black bank employee making around $45,000 a year in the midst of affluent white families headed by doctors and lawyers.”
The racism didn’t stop as Douglas dove into her training at Excalibur Gymnastics in Virginia Beach. Douglas said that other gymnasts stole her clothes out of the locker room and made derogatory comments, such as calling her a “slave.” She was teased about her nose. A gym staff member criticized the “flatness” of her nose and advised Douglas to get a nose job.
When she competed at the Olympics in 2012, social media was buzzing not just about her incredible talent, but her hair. For Black girls and women, natural hair is more than a sore spot. It’s not “just hair.” If we are as “colorblind” as we are to believe, why is Black hair such a source of derision? Even those who claimed to support her weren’t without strong words of disapproval for Douglas’s seemingly “unstyled” hair. Speaking to The Daily Beast, twenty-two-year-old Latisha Jenkins said, “I love how she’s doing her thing and winning. But I just hate the way her hair looks with all those pins and gel. I wish someone could have helped her make it look better since she’s being seen all over the world. She representing for black women everywhere.”
Assuming that Jenkins is a Black woman, I understand her point about Douglas acting as an official representative. On the other hand, I find it extremely disappointing and frustrating that any time a Black woman is the first in her field and/or the only Black woman in her field, she’s forced to take on the role of spokesperson of her race. Even achieving something as extraordinary as Olympic gold is not enough to cause her athleticism to be judged solely on her skills. Instead, something that should be minor, such as her hair, becomes the basis for how she performs a display of acceptable, complimentary blackness.
As a Black woman who took cheerleading and gymnastics for years, I didn’t find any fault in Douglas’s gelled and pinned ponytail. When you’re flipping your body around the floor and attempting to land difficult tricks, you don’t want to be worrying about your hair. You want all of it out of your face. Making sure that your ponytail is pretty is the last thing on your mind.
Douglas’s 2016 teammate, powerhouse Simone Biles, has recently faced the same sort of admiration and backlash as Douglas. Biles is the first female gymnast to win three straight World Championships. In a New Yorker profile, writer Reeves Wiedeman echoed the sentiments of Biles believers, confessing, “I felt as if Isaac Newton had written a different set of laws on her behalf. She flew higher, spun faster, and landed more firmly than anyone else.”
Yet in a sport such as gymnastics, it seems that there is no real way to “transcend” race, to borrow a well-loved phrase from white supremacy apologists and naive fools alike. Last year in Belgium, Biles became “the first woman of color to win an all-around title at world championships.” Most likely motivated by bitterness, jealousy, and racism, an Italian gymnast vented her frustrations to the Italian media. Eighteen-year-old Carlotta Ferlito said, “I told Vanessa [teammate Vanessa Ferrari] that next time we should also paint our skin black, so then we could win too.” It’s not hard to read between the lines. Ferlito’s ignorant remarks remind me of white people who complain that affirmative action is racist against white people. Yet by attacking Biles, Ferlito only exposed her own racism and, by extension, the racism within the sport. White bodies in gymnastics may be nit-picked and harshly appraised. However, many people regard them as the standard, regulating Black bodies to the undesirable Other.
Whether it’s books or movies or sports, representation matters. Being exposed to Dominique Dawes at a young age encouraged a subconscious appreciation for the beauty of my body. With enough practice and patience, maybe I could bend gravity to my will. Like Dawes, maybe I could grasp such athletic glory, to defy the expectations attached to my short stature and compact build. It’s disheartening to see Douglas and Biles make headlines for instances of racism, but their presence is important, providing a beam of hope and light for all the Black and brown girls watching them take the world by storm.
About Vanessa Willoughby
Vanessa Willoughby is an editor and freelance writer. Her bylines have appeared on, but are not limited to: Vice, Hazlitt, The Toast, The Hairpin, Bitch, The Billfold, Bookslut, and Book Riot. She is Creative Director for Winter Tangerine and Promotions Manager for Apogee Journal.