I’m a vulture. Like the ones who busily pecked away at Gabby Douglas in spite of her historic achievement of becoming the first African-American woman to win the gold for all-round gymnast. Apparently, her hair was not on point.
I was outraged when I came across this bit of news about Gabby’s hair that was flying around Facebook, Yahoo and other internet media outlets. She’s playing a sport. She’s sweating. What did they expect? Then I was confounded when I watched her performance that night. What was wrong with her hair?I had expected to see tufts of hair flapping about. No. Her hair remained slicked back and tucked into a ponytail throughout the entire competition.
But I knew that the problem was the ugly beauty ideal that is still entrenched in the black community: Bone-straight hair that lies flat and close to the scalp. As one critic put it: “Jesus be a Hot Comb for Gabby Douglas Hair… Amen!” Gabby’s hair wasn’t straight enough. It wasn’t straight like the white girls.
Ignorance. Stupidity. I stomped and fussed. I took to Facebook to announce my unswerving support of this young woman and point out the foolishness of these hair critics.
A few minutes later, I was vocally admiring the “feminine bodies” of the Russian gymnasts. Why were the Americans always the one’s with the bulky muscles and thick, thick thighs? Did the female swimmers have breasts? I wondered, they looked so square and flat at the top.
I am like them, those vultures, picking away at women’s bodies, assigning value based on my perception of femininity. They picked at hair, I picked at legs, shoulders and chests.
A few months ago, I stumbled across this quote by Ashley Judd. She was responding to the ballyhoo that the media and public were making about her puffy face.
She describes this picking apart of women’s bodies as participating and upholding patriarchy:
That women are joining in the ongoing disassembling of my appearance is salient. Patriarchy is not men. Patriarchy is a system in which both women and men participate…This abnormal obsession with women’s faces and bodies has become so normal that we (I include myself at times—I absolutely fall for it still) have internalized patriarchy almost seamlessly. We are unable at times to identify ourselves as our own denigrating abusers, or as abusing other girls and women.
Women are as guilty as men of disassembling women’s bodies. Whether it is a woman we see on television or at work we secretly or publicly criticize her hair, clothes, figure, or anything that does not equal physical perfection or measure up to a certain beauty ideal.
By participating in the picking apart of women’s bodies I not only uphold a certain beauty ideal but support a patriarchal view that a woman’s body is made for public consumption.
That it exists solely for aesthetic reasons. That a woman is a piece of art that I can gaze upon and enjoy. And good art is a female body that is soft with just enough muscle to appear firm, a body waxed of unwanted hair, a young body, a body that men liked. Big muscles equal masculinity. Men do not like big muscles on women. Therefore, female athletes have to figure out a way to conform to this aesthetic while they perform actions that required strength, endurance and flexibility.
I started to unpack this narrow box that I had put female bodies in. And I was thrilled that the female body could build muscle. That it could be strong. Fast. Flexible.
I questioned what I heard, “She [a track and field athlete] had muscles like a man.” But if the muscles were built on a female body were they masculine? How many men did I know personally that had such powerful legs? Few. Were big powerful muscles masculine?
I looked at my own body. I depended on its functionality: eating, sleeping and breathing. That I could cry when I was sad. That my skin pulled tightly away from my mouth when I became angry. Its strength as I stretched and lifted during my Pilates exercise. Its natural rhythm when I learnt a new dance. That I could shake my bum and twirl my hips.
My body houses my soul, the very essence of my “self.” It gives me my intelligence, the ability to think, learn and apply. And I enjoy its beauty, the things I think are beautiful about my body: my kinky curly hair, my high cheek bones and small eyes, my long neck, sloping shoulders, and my shapely thighs.
Female bodies are more than pretty pictures to be gobbled up by the public gaze. Or picked apart because they do not resemble a particular beauty ideal. As I continue to watch the Olympics, I hope to focus on what these female bodies have achieved. I hope to celebrate the female body’s functionality, strength, resilience and beauty.
Patriarchy: The predominance of men in positions of power and influence in society, with cultural values and norms being seen as favouring men. Freq. with pejorative connotation.~ Oxford English Dictionary.