Gabby Douglas: No Poland Spring Girl

(AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

Gabby Douglas performs in the floor exercise event during the preliminary round of the women's Olympic gymnastics trials.

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.

Comments

I too was surprised that Gabby didn't get this endorsement! She is the All Around Champion and the excuse they use for choosing Raisman is that she's from New England ? So let me get this straight, people who don't live in New England don't drink Poland Spring ? Screw them, I won't be buying their water anyway! Nothing against Raisman but I think it says a lot about this company that they didn't choose the Champion. I think they're a racist company and for the record I'm WHITE!

While this wasn't mentioned as it contradicts the point this article is trying to make, it would do well to Aly Raisman, was not only the team captain, but was the most decorated American gymnast to leave the London games.

Raisman was chosen team captain because she was the oldest not because she was the supposed best let's be clear! Gabby was seen as the underdog the whole time. They never thought she would make it past qualifications and she proved them wrong! She came out on top and for that she deserves the choicest endorsements that come with being the champion! That is how it has been in the past! This country is still so racist and sometimes I can't stand being white!

Don't be white anymore, chose another race to be.

You're absolutely right. Aly's individual achievements were noted in an earlier draft of the article but it got lost during the editing process. I did intend to point it out, and am going to add a sentence to note it.

That said, points in Aly and Gabby's favor can be made on both sides. Aly won more medals, but the all-around is more prestigious, harder to win, and traditionally what people most focus on. Aly was the captain, but Gabby was the only one to compete all four events in the team final. I'm not arguing that there are no other factors or that the racism is overt and clear-cut. I just want to point out that it's important for all of us to think about how we perceive athletes we admire and whether race plays a factor in our perceptions.

Also Gabby was only allowed to exhibition at the American Cup because it was a FIG world cup event and invitations were based off FIG rankings. It isn't like Jo and Aly were selected ahead of Gabby, like in the Olympic AA there is a two per country rule. Gabby at that point was ranked the third best American.

Now it's officially on record you are hiding your racism. Good job cracker. It's amazing how the left can turn anything around to their viewpoint whether it is true or not. I see the author has slaves in the Phillipines who knit for her so she can make an obscene profit. Right on! This is actually fun, just say what ever the hell you want, don't worry about the truth. Damn I'm a democrat and didn't know it.

You seriously have to be the biggest idiot I have ever seen write comments in an article.lol

New England has always supported New England athletes and Gabby is not from here. You are obviously too stupid to understand facts.

You are not white. What you are is a liar.

I am going to the store today and buy 8 24 packs of water just to counter your stupidity.

First of all, "people" are not raising the question, you are.
Second, maybe it's because Raisman uses the product, and Gabby doesn't?
Third, I saw Gabby interviewed twice, and I don't like her personality. I found her haughty and egotistical. I'm sure the water company has research data saying I'm not alone.
Blame sexism, not racism, for the Sharapova-Williams deal. Sharapova is hot: Williams looks like a linebacker (black and white linebackers run about the same size, I've noted).
So what EVIDENCE exactly do you have that this is about racism. Because McEwen says so? This article is silly, small, and beneath the dignity of this publication.

Hey, hey—it's a valid question to raise. And what was the evidence that she drank Poland Spring water in the first place?

I have none, but why assume it's racism (with zero evidence) and not that she drank it (with no evidence)?

"Haughty"-- is that kind of like "uppity"?

Is Kelloggs anti-Semitic because they aren't putting the captain and most decorated American gymnast on their cereal box alone?

Gabby and her agent have both said that they are fielding HUNDREDS of offers. Poland Springs AND Aly AND her agent was able to act fast. These girls have has a ton on their plates and it seems that the media is trying to make this more of an issue.

I agree that if anything its more about sexism than racism.

Are you serious ? Traditionally, Kellogg's or Wheaties always contracts with the All Around Champion so WTF ??? This is definitely a RACIST move on the part of Poland Spring!! There is zero evidence that Aly Raisman drinks Poland Spring!! Gabby should have gotten that endorsement and I think they didn't give her the deal because she is African American and she is not your traditional Jewish American Princess where as Aly is!!!

OMG. This article made me realize that Nike and Coke are racist, too! They signed Shawn Johnson over Nastia Liukin! Racist against Russians. Poor Russian girl only got Subway to sign her up.

What a crock. I hope Tiger, and Deion, RGIII, and Cam don't read it. In America one tends to get what they have earned. Gabby was good but let's not automatically elevate her to Michael Phelps status; that would be racist.

This is ridiculous! And by the way, the last time I checked, Aly Raisman was/is Jewish. Articles like this are helping to make Gabby a polarizing figure. There are plenty of endorsement deals to be made, however Gabby needs some media training STAT, if she wants to secure more endorsements.

Speaking of "racism" Gabby's agent Sheryl Shade and her husband just lost a 4 year battle in court in a case brought by their former black nanny. If you want to read the story, Google "Sheryl Shade Nanny Lawsuit" to read about the racist names Ms Shade's husband called the nanny, how he physically assaulted her & they didn't pay the wages she was owed. Now THAT is true racism!

Gabby did not get this deal because she comes across as a cocky spoiled brat , ignorant, arrogant and obnoxious. That is the same reason no one likes Serena Williams.

I don't see Gabby getting many deals at all if she continues to act like the self entitled jerk. It's just the way it is.

The only people making racists comments at this article are the black people calling white people crackers. The writer of this article is obvious racist himself which is why he find it okay to call a white person a cracker.

Time to get over it. Gabby is a jerk and if she continues to act this way no one will ever hire her for any endorsements.

Beyonce is a star and she comes across as a very gracious humble down to earth person. That is why she is a huge name. That is why she stars in television commercials. Last time I checked she was black.

This is the same reason Shawn was the star from 08 and Nastia was the who won again girl? One was arrogant and obnoxious that treated her teammates badly, called them fat and ran around saying they stole her world AA medal. That comes across every time she tries to sell something where as Shawn is a sweet, down to earth kid and she stars in the coke commercials because of it.

What I find powerful about this article is that the author isn't making any simple claims as to whether Poland Springs is or isn't racist, but rather the ways these nationwide endorsement choices reflect race-related bias among the American public, a bias that often passes unrecognized. I'm grateful to the author for bringing up the point that this affects us across the board: white and black people (and people of color in general) are beholden to unspoken realities about what black signifies in our society. What seems to me the most significant line here is: "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." The point being, all the controversy about Gabby and her race reveals more than racism and specific perpetrators; it reveals racism's far-reaching effects even within the black community which must find ways to salvage its own dignity while living within its pervasive and inevitable embrace.

Don't worry folks, Gabby is getting plenty of endorsement deals. You will be seeing her a lot in the future.
@Gym Mom - You definitely don't have your facts straight and must be one of those people that believe what they read online. Sheryl Shade and Matt Mazer won and feel vindicated after 3 years of litigation and 8 days of trial. The jury deliberated and found that Mr. Mazer did not make racial statements, did not physically strike Ms. Francois, did not commit battery, so they dismissed her claims of battery and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The jury found both Ms. Francois and Mr. Mazer at fault with respect to the assault claim (which means they were both engaged in a verbal argument). You did, however, fail to mention that the nanny is an illegal immigrant, has never paid taxes, has the same SSN as 3 other people, has not worked in nearly 4 years, her blurry vision is caused by hereditary glaucoma not by Mr. Mazer and she had no proof of any of her allegations. She basically was going for a big pay day in court. Fortunately the jury saw through her lies. Sheryl Shade represents Gabby a wonderful young black woman, Coach Chow from China, Coach Bela Karolyi from Romania along with many wonderful American athletes . . . . . that's hardly a line up of someone that's supposedly a racist.

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