Gabby Douglas: Women Athletes Subjected to Bullying, Sexism on Social Media

The Olympian faced unwarranted scrutiny by the public, which is a reflection of greater societal issues.

By Sheryl Estrada


In a repeat performance, during the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio social media users criticized Olympic gold medal winning gymnast Gabby Douglas while she represented the United States with athletic prowess. This time, the African American 20-year-old woman was critiqued not only for not only her hair, but also for a lack of patriotism and because she did not smile enough.

“When they talk about my hair or me not putting my hand up on my heart or me being very salty in the stands, they’re really criticizing me, and it doesn’t really feel good,” Douglas said while fighting back tears on Sunday, according to The Associated Press. “It was a little bit hurtful.”

Douglas’ Hair

At the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, Douglas won gold medals in the individual all-around and team competitions. She was part of the “Final Five” in Rio, where she won gold in the team competition. But chatter on her hair being “unkempt” dominated social media. Many of the negative hair comments came from Black female Twitter users.

In the book “Hair Matters: Beauty, Power, and Black Women’s Consciousness,” author Ingrid Banks analyzes how talking about hair reveals Black women’s ideas about race, gender, power, beauty and sexuality.

Banks wrote:

“Most of the girls and women in the individual interviews discussed the social, cultural, and personal reasons of why hair matters Their comments detail how constructions of beauty intersect along the lines of race and gender for Black women and how ideas about beauty often relate to devaluing, as opposed to embracing, tightly coiled black hair. Furthermore, the idea also emerges that Black women go through a socialization process in which hair is central.”

Related Story: Natural Hair: To Straighten or Not To Straighten

Emmy award-winning actress Viola Davis said she faces pressure in regard to the appearance of her daughter’s hair.

“I invest so much into her life, but if her hair isn’t right then I’m not a good mother,” Davis told ESSENCE magazine. “But, like India.Arie says, ‘I’m not my hair.’ Well, I am my hair, but there’s so much more to me.”

Four-time Grammy-winning artist India.Arie is one of many people who came to Douglas’ defense on Twitter. She tweeted:

India.Arie wrote, along with Shannon Sanders and Drew Ramsey, and recorded the 2005 Grammy-nominated song, “I am Not My Hair.”

She also wrote a blog post in support of actress Zendaya, whose hair was criticized on E!’s”Fashion Police” in 2015.

Douglas’ Patriotism

After her team won the gold medal Wednesday night, Douglaswas criticized on Twitter whenTV cameras showed her standing to attention during the national anthem, instead of placing her hand on her heart.

Douglas issued a response on Wednesday:

“In response to a few tweets I saw tonight, I always stand at attention out of respect for our country whenever the national anthem is played,” she wrote. “I never meant any disrespect and apologize if I offended anyone.”

Her mother, Natalie Hawkins, has also come to her defense.

“I don’t think respecting your country or your flag boils down to whether you put your hand over your heart or not,” Hawkins told Reuters.

“We grew up in the military community. My mum spent almost 30 years in the military, my dad’s a two-time Vietnam vet. Because of that it was so insulting that they would accuse my daughter of being unpatriotic when we are so tied to the military family.

“When the Star-Spangled Banner is played, most military members either salute or stand to attention.”

Douglas Needs to Smile

“They said she wasn’t smiling enough, she’s unpatriotic,” Hawkins said. “Now you’re ‘Crabby Gabby.'”

Twitter users created a #CrabbyGabby hashtag, which is now being flooded with support for the gymnast. However, the scrutiny made Douglas feel she had to apologize for not smiling and looking “mad.”

“Everything I’ve gone through has been a lot this time around,” Douglas began, “and I apologize if [I seemed] really mad in the stands. I wasn’t. I was supporting Aly. And I always will support them and respect them in everything they do. I never want anyone to take it as I was jealous or I wanted attention. Never. I support them, and I’m sorry that I wasn’t showing it.”

There’s actually a feminist art project called, “Stop Telling Women to Smile.

Related Story: Breitbart Editor Incites Racism, Kicked Off Twitter

Actress Leslie Jones, who was recently harassed on Twitter, started a hashtag in support of Douglas: #LOVE4GABBYUSA.

Douglas is an Overcomer

In a 2012 interview with Oprah Winfrey on the OWN show “Oprah’s Next Chapter,” Douglas said she faced racism and bullying from fellow gymnasts in her early days of training in Virginia, at one point being referred to as their “slave.”

“I would come home at night and just cry my eyes out,” Douglas told Winfrey. “I was the only African American at that gym. I definitely felt isolated.”

She said it became so bad, she told her mother that she wanted to quit. Douglas later moved to Iowa to train with Olympian Shawn Johnson’s coach. She didn’t give up, and her perseverance pushed her to become the first African American woman in Olympic history to become the individual all-around champion. Douglas is also the first American gymnast to win gold in both the individual all-around and team competitions at the same Olympics.

Great Black athletes, such as Althea Gibson and Wilma Rudolph, to name a few, overcame obstacles and made history. Douglas’ immense accomplishments and grace under fire earns her a spot in history as well.

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