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Gabby's Hair -- An Issue of Life and Death?

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
Gabrielle Douglas became the fourth American -- and first black female -- to win a gold medal in women's individual all-around gymnastics. Effervescent and attractive, Gabby stands to make millions of dollars in endorsements. But she has received criticism -- in the social media, via Twitter, Facebook and, according to The Daily Beast, several "black blogs."

It's about her hair:

"Gabby Douglas gotta do something with this hair! These clips and this brown gel residue aint it." "She needs some gel and a brush." "She has to 'represent.'" "My mama sitting (here) screaming at Gabby Douglas on TV because her hair not fixed." "i don't care ... 16 or 26, black or white ... gabby douglas' hair is ratch." (Ratch, according to Urban Dictionary, means gross or disgusting.) Dismiss these morons for what they are -- few in number and hardly worth the energy to become annoyed about.

But the issue of "black hair" is important for serious reasons: blacks and drowning and blacks and obesity. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, black kids ages 5 to 14 are almost three times more likely to die by drowning than white kids. Nearly 70 percent of black kids do not know how to swim, versus 40 percent of white kids, according to a USA Swimming survey. And, per the CDC, blacks are 51 percent more likely to be obese than whites.

This brings us back to Gabby Douglas' hair.

1996 Olympic gold medalist Dominique Dawes, a black female athlete, said:

"Unfortunately ... our self-esteem, many times, is wrapped up in our hair. I know a lot of African-American women, including myself -- when my hair was relaxed, I did not like working out when I was training for those three Olympic Games. I was constantly sweating. My hair was relaxed, so it would be dry and brittle because of the relaxer. I didn't want to get into pools, because the chlorine mixed with the chemical-treated hair does not make it look good whatsoever. And that's what people have been attacking little Gabby Douglas about. And it's sad that it's not on her achievement and her performance."

Many black women wear chemically treated hair, and water makes the hair revert to its natural kinky texture. Since treating the hair again takes time and costs money, many black women simply choose not to go into the water to avoid damage to the chemically treated hair. Why bother learning how to swim?

Couple this with the fact that 70 percent of black kids are born without a father in the home, and this often means there is no one in the home who knows how to swim and can teach it.

Fox's black sports columnist Jason Whitlock said: "We have a health crisis in the African-American community, and it's particularly acute with African-American women, and some of it is related to their hair. They're afraid to exercise because they don't want to sweat and hurt their hair. ... It's a $9 billion industry, straightening out our hair."

Dawes said: "It's what we call the 'creamy crack' (straightening out our hair). ... A number of women will not work out, because they don't want to sweat that perm out. They spent so much money. Nowadays, it's about $120-plus to get your hair relaxed. ... They don't want to sweat their hair out, so they're not going to work out, and they're not going to jump in the pool. And it's a shame because it really is costing us African-American women our health."

By the way, if it is true that some black women have insecurity on the issue of hair, they do not suffer a lack of self-esteem because of it. Studies show that black girls have higher self-esteem than white girls, in part because they are more confident about their bodies. White girls, on the other hand, reported more insecurity about their figures. White girls are more likely than black girls, for example, to hold up the Barbie doll body type as the ideal. Black girls were comfortable with varied, heavier body types.

And what Americans define as a pretty face differs from past standards of "white" beauty. A UCLA professor studied the faces of models during the last five decades of the 20th century. He found: "Today in American society the African-American female does not have to display Caucasian-like features in order to be considered beautiful. African-American models displayed fuller lips than the Caucasian models, who showed fuller lips than the average Caucasian. It now appears that the non-Caucasian face with fuller lips is now viewed more beautiful than the traditional thin-lipped Caucasian."

Gabby appears to be holding up quite well to the criticism. Gabby's mother described her daughter's reaction when she learned of the snarky tweets: "'Really?! I won two gold medals and made history, and my hair is trending?' So we laughed about it."

Now then, Gabby hair haters, think about this. In calling Gabby's hair "ratch," are you dissuading young blacks from protecting themselves by exercising or learning how to swim?

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