Black Hair and Climbing Part III

Part III: Sports and Black Hair

   Do you remember the controversy around Gabby Douglas? Gabby Douglas: an accomplished Olympic gymnast who people only seemed to talk about her ‘unkempt’ hair.15 She has African hair that was slightly messy at times but when you are an athlete your hair is going to do what it naturally does when wet from sweat: revert back to a kinky/coily/curly texture. And for a nation so imbued in colonial beauty standards, the mainstream audience could see nothing else. It goes back to the rhetoric of Black people only being truly successful and worthy if we are toned down and a more palatable white adjacent version of ourselves which usually translates to perfection at all times, especially with hair.

   It almost comes down to control: people cannot control what skin color we are given or even the texture of our hair. But if we want to ‘pull ourselves up by our bootstraps’ we should do everything we can within our control to seem presentable: which means skipping gym class or sports16, pressing17, chemically treating, and ‘taming’ our hair. A true mind game that always keeps us running short of being the best we can be as a person because we will never be good enough in that race.

   Since then, competitors such as Raven Saunders and track stars Christina Clemons and Sha’Carri Richardson18 have all brought their authentic unapologetic selves to their sports. This renewed awakening of self expression has also brought about products that would accommodate our Black selves rather than try to conform them.

   The biggest example would be the Soul Cap: a swimming cap with extra room to accommodate larger hair, which in this particular situation is made for and marketed to Black people19. It was brought forth and proposed to be used by swimmer Alice Dearing, the first Black woman representing Great Britain in the Olympics for 2021. The International Swimming Federation (Fina) rejected the proposal to allow such caps expressing they “did not fit ‘the natural form of the head’” and to their “best knowledge the athletes competing at the international events never used, neither require … caps of such size and configuration”20. Well, no crap Sherlock! The first ever Black woman is telling you that she requires this cap to compete comfortably: she should be listened to. The fact that a larger swim cap would definitely create more drag and put the swimmer at a disadvantage would have been a better excuse. But the fact that they expressed it is simply not needed is deeply rooted in racism because it dismisses that Black people do have different needs regarding gear for sports. It’s a reality and really not that much of a huge request. After competing in the swim cap she did not want to, Alice did get the decision reversed for future competitors.21 In the end, this makes swimming more accessible and comfortable for Black people, in 2021. About a year ago: not that long at all.

   So what of climbing? Getting back to Chris Sharma after taking into consideration the struggle Black people have had with natural hairstyles such as locs, twists, braids, cornrows, fros, etc, it shows the insensitivity of the hippie movement appropriating locs. Some white people do have some lame rhetoric as to why they sport locs22, however, they do not hold up as empathetic. Some say that it is in their ancestry to wear locs. I think this is a selfish look at the issue. Specifically in the US, Black hair has been so policed that anyone not Black even attempting to emulate hairstyles, including locs, that were predominantly popular in the Black community really has no grasp on the history and gravity of the issue. Why would you want to sport something that others are persecuted for, even have their lives endangered for? The answer is power. With power comes carelessness and flaunting, especially in sports like climbing that have historically considered themselves hippie adjacent with their motto of “politics of no politics”23 aka complacency.

   Chris Sharma is not the only one to have taken Black hairstyles carelessly. Emily Harrington, Margo Hayes, and Paige Claassen were under discussion due to their film Slaydies. In Erin Monahan’s (she/her) article “Slaydies”… Just No: White Women We Need to Gather Our People24, she outlines why the name of the film as well as the hairstyles were appropriation and careless racism. In competitive sports we have also often seen two cornrows or ‘french braids’ on the heads of female athletes such as Brooke Raboutou. Not full on locs, but is it appropriation?

Works Cited

15. Martin, Renee. “The Real Reason People Keep Making Fun Of Gabby Douglas’ Hair” 03 Nov 2022

16.  Wilson, Sumiko. “How sports weaponize racist beauty standards against Black women” 10 Nov 2022

17. Chery, Samantha. “What happened to perm box girls? They’re wearing their natural hair.” 06 Oct 2022

18. Masona, Charlene. “What We Love to See: Black Women Olympians Doing What They Want With Their Hair and Nails 06 Oct 2022

19. Sutelan, Edward. “Olympic swim cap ban: What does ‘Soul Cap’ ruling mean for Black swimmers at 2021 Games?” 10 Sep 2022

20. The Guardian. “Swimming caps for natural black hair ruled out of Olympic Games 10 Sep 2022

21. The Washington Post. “Olympic Swimmer wins fight to reverse ban on cap made for Black hair” 10 Sep 2022

22. Lamberts, Sophie. “We Asked White People With Dreadlocks ‘Why’ 15 Sep 2022

23. Pruitt, Sara. “How the Vietnam War Empowered the Hippie Movement” The History Channel, 18 Mar 2018,, 27 Dec 2022

24. Monahan, Erin. “”Slaydies”… Just No: White Women We Need to Gather Our People 20 Dec 2022

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