Gabby Douglas had me at the first release move.
The gymnast who would become the breakout star of the 2012 Olympics wasn’t even officially part of the American Cup all-around competition in March. She was an alternate beside the more accomplished Jordyn Wieber and Aly Raisman, only allowed to show her routines to gain experience. But when I saw Gabby perform on bars, she launched herself into the air, higher than any woman has ever done, her ponytail sticking straight up as though reaching for the sky. By the time she came back to earth, I was a fan.
Gabby has a history of beating low expectations. Even after she qualified for the Olympics and headed to London, legendary gymnastics coach Bela Karolyi picked the dependable Wieber to win at the Games, telling The New York Times: “Gabby is a flame, a beautiful flame that can shine and glow but can fade out.” When it was Gabby who stuck all four routines for the gold, America was not quite prepared for her to take on the iconic title of “America’s Sweetheart”—one that was first conferred to a gymnast when Mary Lou Retton won the women’s all-around at the Los Angeles Games in 1984. The fact that Gabby was black made her achievement both more momentous and destabilizing.
Gabby has already been part of controversies related to race, over her hair and statements she made about being bullied at her old gym. But the media haven't discussed what it means that after Gabby got the standard cereal box endorsement for Kellogg's corn flakes, it was Raisman who recently inked an endorsement deal for Poland Spring, the top-selling bottled water brand in America.
While Raisman did get a gold in the floor exercise, the all-around is much harder to win, and has traditionally been the most prestigious medal in gymnastics. Raisman reinforced the brand’s tag line when she said in the company press release: “Poland Spring is the 100% natural spring water that I have used as part of my training, recovery and everyday life.”
The company cites Raisman’s New England roots as a reason for the endorsement, perhaps to deflect a question that must be asked: Why didn’t Gabby get it? Poland Spring is associated with many qualities that Americans have come to expect from their sweethearts—pure, unspoiled, natural. Did the company feel that Raisman could embody those qualities better than the girl who beat her in the all-around?
This is not the first time that questions of race and product endorsement have come up. One need only to examine the profiles of Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova, arguably the two most visible female athletes in the U.S. prior to the Olympics. Williams is far more accomplished on the tennis court, but it’s Sharapova who has topped the Forbes list of highest-paid female athletes for the last seven years. Sharapova also endorses Evian Water and Clear Shampoo while Williams endorses Gatorade and Avon. The white woman’s brands are all about being pure and natural, while the black woman’s is all about using products to artificially boost one’s athletic and aesthetic potential. And as we’ve seen from the discussion of Gabby’s hair at the Olympics, “natural” for a black and a white woman mean entirely different things.
For those who somehow missed it, Gabby was criticized on social-media sites—primarily by other blacks—for her sloppy hair during her Olympic performances. The media went wild, publishing vigorous defenses in publications like The Washington Post, TIME, The Wall Street Journal, The Daily Beast, and Essence. Many pointed out that she wore the same messy bun as her teammates, and that the natural curls in her straightened hair began to reappear because she was sweating for the gold medal.
Monisha Randolph claimed in a highly-cited blog post that Gabby is under no obligation to represent her race, then added: “Okay, let’s go ahead and make her the face of Black America. She represents where we come from and the opportunities we now have because of our elders’ sacrifices. I respect that and all but someone please tell me what that has to do with how she maintains her hair while playing sports?”
What Randolph and other critics don’t account for is that if we accept Gabby as a positive symbol, we must also accept that her symbolic value extends far beyond her abilities as an athlete. It’s impossible to control what Gabby means to people, and she can symbolize slovenliness for some even as she symbolizes athletic prowess for many others.
Telling people not to care about Gabby’s hair because she wore it like her teammates masks the ugly truth that while a white girl in her natural state connotes innocence, a black girl in her natural state continues to evoke poverty, primitiveness, and dirt. This is why Lauren McEwen makes sense when she writes in The Washington Post: “It’s not healthy, and it’s not fair, but let’s not pretend like we don’t know where it comes from,” in reference to black people’s gibes at Gabby’s hair. The stakes are higher for black people when it comes to appearance, and pretending otherwise is comforting but can also cover up underlying and persistent dynamics of race in America.
We can never discount the possibility that there are also a large number of non-black people who see Gabby as less presentable than her white teammates. But there’s no way to determine if this is the case, in part because it’s no longer acceptable to express such thoughts with words. What Americans may do is disproportionately buy products endorsed by white women like Raisman, unable to fully embrace Gabby as their sweetheart, even though no other woman in her sport has flown higher.