Simone Manuel isn’t concerned about what you think of her hair.
Speaking to a room full of swim fans at the 2017 National Association of Black Journalists convention, she shared that she had received flak about the way she wore her hair on the Olympic stage. Though frustrated, she keeps in mind something her mother taught her as a young girl.
“It’s just hair.”
Most sports teams and organizations don’t stipulate how female athletes wear their hair. They are more interested in how well they perform and how often they win. Yet, major televised competitions like the Olympics are often littered with hair commentaries, especially about black female athletes. Gabby Douglas, like Manuel, received criticism about her ’do after she won gold medals at the 2012 and 2016 Olympics.
Much of this hair-related shade comes from the public, not the sports industry. The ramifications of such public disapproval can affect decisions including whether to exercise and which jobs to pursue. Although a new wave of natural hair promotion began in 2007, black women have been fighting for social and professional spaces to accept their natural beauty since the 1960s and before.
Nearly 60 years later, natural hair is still considered less beautiful than treated hair. According to a survey from the Perception Institute, 1 in 3 black women said their hair prevents them from working out. Only 1 in 10 white women said the same. Nearly 4,200 men and women were interviewed for this study, which found that black women perceive a level of social stigma against textured hair, and that white women show bias against the textured hair of black women — calling it less beautiful and professional than straight hair.
The Undefeated interviewed three black female athletes in three different sports about their hair and how it affects their lives.
Nzingha Prescod is an Olympic medalist in fencing. In 2015, she became the first African-American woman to win an individual medal at the Senior World Championships. Two years earlier, she became the first U.S. women’s foil fencer to win a Grand Prix title. These successes, and the fact that her head is covered by a mask when she competes, haven’t prevented her from feeling self-conscious about her hair.
She’s been experimenting with various hairstyles since she was 12 years old and natural. The desire to fit in middle school coerced her to dye the back of her hair and leave the front natural so she could still wear braids. Everyone in seventh grade had straight hair.
Afterward, she experimented with everything from texturizers to clip-ins. At age 22 and tired of her hair difficulties, she decided to do the “big chop” and cut off all of her chemically processed hair. She says she’s felt free ever since.
“[Cutting off a perm] strips you of anything fake, anything forced. … It’s a purifying self-discovery,” Prescod said.
That wasn’t the only reason behind Prescod getting her hair cut. At fencing practice, her sweat matted her clip-in extensions and entangled them with her natural hair. She had to keep cutting off parts of her hair, which left her with such an undesirable look, she once cried and wore a hood to class. Eventually, she went to a Dominican salon in Spanish Harlem to cut off her uneven, processed hair.
It took some time for to embrace the new ’do, but today, Prescod is confident and encourages women of all hair textures to cut off their hair because of its empowering effect. When she’s not training for fencing, she holds a corporate job in consulting where she typically wears her hair in a pineapple bun.
Despite the fact that various hairstyles are accepted on teams and in the workplace, many black women still believe that natural styles are not valued or considered as professional as straightened ones. The Perception Institute survey stated that 1 in 5 black women feel social pressure to straighten their hair for work, twice as many as white women. This happens, in part, because straightened hair is often considered to be a sign of professionalism and beauty in corporate settings.
WNBA player Nayo Raincock-Ekunwe and Olympic hurdler Queen Harrison hope the hair freedom allowed in professional sports will nudge corporate aesthetic standards in the same direction.
Nayo Raincock-Ekunwe is a power forward for the WNBA’s New York Liberty. This Afro-Canadian athlete grew up in British Columbia, where there are very few people of color. Just under 3 percent of the population identify as black. Raincock-Ekunwe’s father is Nigerian, and her mother is white Canadian.
Ekunwe remembers feeling self-conscious as a little girl. Her mother struggled to manage her curls and often put her in braids. She didn’t have the right products to deal with the frizz and the “poofiness” of her hair, and she wanted to fit in with her peers.
She eventually straightened her hair, against her mother’s wishes, opting for flat irons over products that chemically straightened hair (nicknamed “creamy crack”). Consequently, she’d have to wake up two hours before school to complete the process. She continued this regimen through high school, college and part of her WNBA career.
In 2014, she put down the straightener because of unhealthy hair.
“My hair was dry to the point that it would just like crack off, and it was basically straight after I showered and washed my hair. There was no curl pattern, and it was just bad times,” Ekunwe said.
To this day, she tends to receive more compliments from men and women when her hair is flat-ironed straight than when it is natural. Still, that doesn’t stop her from maintaining her brown, corkscrew curls with Shea Moisture and Kinky-Curly products.
“I love it [natural hair]. I’m sad that I embraced my natural hair so late in life. I think curls, kinky hair, coils are just so flattering on so many women,” Ekunwe said.
The only place she’s met formal resistance to her hairstyle of choice was when she played for the Women’s National Basketball League (WNBL) in Australia. Her teammates discouraged her from wearing braids, citing the league’s concerns that the style is prone to hitting someone in the face during games. According to FIBA guidelines, because of the potential for injury, players are not permitted on the court with free braids in their hair.
She also doesn’t see much natural hair in WNBA advertising.
“When I think of WNBA players in the media, I don’t really think Afros, curls; I think straight hair or Brittney Griner with her locks. You rarely see hair in its natural state; it’s often straightened and curled,” said Ekunwe.
Vincent Novicki, communications director for the Liberty, said they encourage athletes to let their personalities shine. He also said star power is used to determine which athletes are tapped for marketing.
“Who’s been with the team, who’s established themselves … who’s the most identifiable but who has the best ability to kind of reignite and connect with our fans,” Novicki said about the other factors used in advertising. He used Liberty star center Tina Charles as an example because she has natural hair.
Although natural hair may not be abundant in public relations for the league, go to any WNBA game and you will find every style, from Afros to weaves to cornrows.
The same can be said about black female track athletes. Queen Harrison is an American Olympic hurdler and sprinter. The 28-year-old from Loch Sheldrake, New York, was rocking her natural tresses long before she became a track star. Her parents are members of the religious movement Nation of the Gods and Earths (Five Percenters), and they don’t believe in using relaxers. Harrison remembers being strongly encouraged to cover her hair, which was typically styled in cornrows, with a head wrap in elementary school. Eventually, she learned how to braid and twist her thick hair, and she kept it that way in high school.
During her sophomore year of college, curiosity led her to try a relaxer. She figured the puffiness would be easier to manage. But after almost three years, her hair became limp and flat. The chemical life was not for her, so she, like Prescod, ended up doing the “big chop” and grew out her natural hair.
At that time, Harrison looked nothing like the models she saw in athletic apparel and sports team advertisements. The women featured had straight-haired ponytails and other styles that required straight hair. She thought she would need to conform to be used in advertisements. However, her sponsor, A6, did not object to her rocking her natural hair on the track. Harrison says African-American women have shattered the idea that natural hair is not acceptable in sports.
“My first photo shoot that I ever did … I had my Afro puff in a ponytail. I feel comfortable with coming on set with my hair in a press or coming on set with my hair in a curly twist out. I’ve done all of the above,” said Harrison. She currently wears box braids.
Part of what sets track athletes apart from their female counterparts in basketball and fencers has to do with the wide range of hair and nail styles they rock. From the long weaves to long acrylic nails, women in track seem empowered to display their individuality.
Prescod, Raincock-Ekunwe and Harrison are involved at the highest levels of different sports, but they share the experience of having their natural hair not only accepted but also welcomed in their sports. Too few black women can say they have experienced the same. The “Good Hair” Survey found that a majority of those surveyed, regardless of race, show implicit bias against black women’s textured hair.