Black Hair and Climbing Part VI

Part VI: Jaylynn Ayanna

   I sat down and had a chat with a Seattle local youth climbing competitor: Jaylynn Ayanna (she/they). Jaylynn is 18 years old who is a Black person and I wanted to get their point of view having been competing in local competitions for the last 5 or 6 years. “I usually do local comps and every year I go to regionals and then divisionals and hopefully this year or next year, 2023, I will go to nationals. That’s what I compete in…I was on the Seattle Climbing team [at SBP] for 2 or 3 years. And then that stopped because of quarantine. And then I had private lessons with my coach for a little bit after.”

   I would describe Jaylynn’s hair as kinky coily, and indeed a crown it is! Having observed Jaylynn in the gym and on social media, they cycle between braids to an afro and everything in between like the average Black person sporting their natural hair. I wanted to particularly know what she does during competitions. “At least for me; before comps I usually get my hair braided or have it up in some way. In comps you’re usually surrounded by a bunch of parents of kids and sometimes they might make comments about my hair so I would rather have it in braids. I had my afro during ropes regionals or divisionals and, I don’t know, I just feel like I got a bunch of stares probably because I am the only Black person in the gym at that moment but also I see them looking at my hair if it’s all just, big.” This is such a familiar story that I also explored in Hip Hop in Climbing where we talk about being a Black woman/non binary person in climbing spaces, which can largely translate to being the only one at times.

   And of course I then had to ask: How does that make you feel? “I feel a little sad. A lot of times I try to ignore it: it’s been so long, I have been in the competition scene so long that, I don’t know, I just got used to it. I’m a bit scared for this year because I’m trying to live my true self so I am wearing my long braids and I’m gonna try to have my afro out every big comp like regionals and divisionals. I am definitely not going to get my hair straightened because it’s very damaging to your soul and to your hair. Definitely when my hair is in braids or I blow dry it I feel like people treat me a little bit better; or like, they are just nicer: at least in the gym. Like, they compliment my hair more or they’ll smile at me or something. My hair shrinks up a lot so if it’s like here [holds hand up to chin] then people look at me all weird.”

   Having someone 18 be aware of these microaggressions and shown a preference for straight hair is heartbreaking. But a terrible truth Black people have known for a very long time, starting at very young ages. This has been illustrated in the disturbing findings of the infamous Doll Test of the 1940’s, where positive attributes were assigned to the white dolls and negative ones to the Black dolls by the children asked. And even more disturbing were the reactions by Black children when asked which doll they were: either they would cry and run from the room sobbing or explain “That’s a nigger. I’m a nigger.”36 This was more illustrative of skin color as the baby dolls had no hair texture on them, however, a widespread characteristic of being Black in most cases can be tied to kinky/coily/curly hair. Therefore by extension, the same negative attributes have been assigned to Afro hair.

   Jaylynn went even further in our chat by sharing an experience she had in an REI (outdoor outfitter). “I went to REI and I was trying to get fitted for a helmet. And my hair: I had a slickback on so it wasn’t like a full afro. And I put it on and it was a little difficult because the ponytail was kind of high but I could still fit my helmet on. And the guy at REI said: ‘If your hair wasn’t so puffy you would probably be able to get it on.’ And like, in a very mean way, not in a ‘oh if it wasn’t that puffy.’ I feel like still you shouldn’t be saying that. I was crying after that…[it happened] this year a few months ago.” In 2022. We should not be surprised: but we should be outraged. Oftentimes outdoor gear, especially helmets, are not designed with larger hair in mind. Going back to the Soul Cap idea: why would manufacturers make helmets for larger hair when they do not see the need as their own? Add the fact that many people grew up in such redlined and segregated communities where it would not reflect this essential and it seems so trivial. On the whole, they don’t consider it because they don’t see it. Which leaves people like me watching Black Ice37 yelling at the tv screen “Someone get Fred a helmet that fits his Afro hair right! That is so unsafe, he may as well not even be wearing a helmet! How can the professionals on that trip not see it?!” There are indeed a few manufacturers who make larger helmets. And where style and appearance is so important to Black people who are judged constantly for their physical appearance in the world, the selection is dismal. As Jaylynn so adequately put: “I want to be able to wear my helmet out but some of the big helmets don’t look good.”

   Beyond the fact that there are very few suitable helmets for larger hair, the store employee should never have made that particular comment to Jaylynn. And unfortunately, larger companies like REI cannot vet every employee on their equity practices or gauge their exposure to Black people or how to handle the delicate dance of finding the right helmet for the constant change in hair size. Outdoor retailers would all benefit from some education on the subject. Our hair and bodies deserve to be treated with respect, even when shopping for gear to do sports we love. And with that respect will come more retention for Black people in sports, inherently making it more diverse.

   Jaylynn has been competing for a while and also has her own ideas of how to make competitive climbing more diverse. “…if you get kids into the climbing community, like, Black and Brown kids in the climbing community, they will probably grow up with it. A lot of the kids I am on the climbing team with, they have already been on the team like 10 years. Definitely diversify teams: I think I am the only Black girl on my team and a lot of times, well, I saw you the other day but I am usually like the only Black person in the gym which makes me kind of sad. It makes me, like, not want to climb as much sometimes.” An unfortunate side effect of climbing as a Black woman. However, Jaylynn is one to watch in the competitive realm. They have goals within it for themselves: “Right now, I want to be sponsored. I’m in the works of that currently and then I want to go to a world cup, go at least to one world cup within the next 5 years. Like train really hard and make sure I have no injuries…” We are cheering you on, Jaylynn, and want to support you in this interest. If anyone has a way of assisting in getting her sponsored, please reach out.

   I spoke to someone who identifies as fully Black but I also wanted to get a perspective from someone with mixed heritage.

Works Cited

36. Legal Defense Fund. “Brown v. Board and “The Doll Test” 09 Dec 2022

37. “Black Ice.”

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