Commentary on Black Female Athletes

Commentary on Black Female Athletes


A Comparative Analysis of Twitter Responses to Gabby Douglas and Sha’Carri Richardson


Black women are some of the most talented athletes of our time. However, the athletic success of Black female athletes is often overshadowed by criticism regarding their physical appearance and specifically their hair. This paper uses Twitter comments made about Gabby Douglas and Sha’Carri Richardson as a case study to investigate the way Black female athletes are judged and expected to present their Blackness and womanhood. 


Black women are some of the most successful athletes in the world. In a diverse number of sports, Black women excel, however these athletes face many obstacles. For decades, Black women have been expected to uphold strict white beauty standards and have been criticized for failing to do so. Unfortunately, this has been the reality for many Black female athletes in the world of sports. In the media, Black female athletes have faced enormous criticism based on their physical appearance; their athletic success has been overshadowed by debates and commentary surrounding their hair and physical appearance. Commentators and viewers have criticized Black female athletes on their hair, nails, bodies, and clothes. Following the 2012 Olympic Games, Gabby Douglas’s two gold medals were overshadowed by debates over her hair. In 2021, Sha’Carri Richardson’s performance, appearance and personality at the Olympic trials increased her popularity, however much of the new attention on Richardson became focused not on her athletic success but on her appearance. To analyze the treatment of Black female athletes, this paper will investigate the questions: How are Black female athletes expected to present themselves, their womanhood, and their Blackness in sports competitions? What comments are made about the physical appearance of Gabby Douglas and Sha’Carri Richardson on social media? How do participants on social media, specifically Twitter commentators, criticize these athletes? How do commentators support these athletes? What do commentators say about their hair, nails, makeup and clothes? 

Literature Review

Throughout history, Black women have faced criticism and harassment for their physical appearance. For decades, they have been criticized for failing to uphold white beauty standards. In Sheila’s Shop: Working-Class African American Women Talk About Life, Love, Race, and Hair Kimberly Battle-Walters writes, “In America, African features, dark skin color, and the tightly coiled hair that protected African scalps from the scorching sun were deemed unattractive and inferior by Europeans.”1 The idea that Black features are not feminine or beautiful has been perpetrated in many ways throughout history. For instance, as Noliwe Rooks says in Hair Raising: Beauty, Culture, and African American Women, “Advertisements for skin lighteners and hair strengtheners marketed by White companies suggest to blacks that only through changing physical features will persons of African descent be afforded class mobility within African American communities and social acceptance by the dominant culture.”2 From advertisements to movie representations, Black women’s appearance has been criticized. For decades, Black women have been told to change and alter their natural appearance. Even following the emergence of the natural hair care movement in the early twenty-first century—in which Black women began “embracing their natural hair texture, rejecting the relaxers they’d been wearing for years” in large numbers—Black women still face criticism.3 While natural hair grew in acceptability, many specific expectations surrounding the appearance of Black women remained; even today, many Black women face criticism for their appearance failing to meet certain expectations. 

In recent years, Black female athletes have been bombarded with criticism based on their physical appearance from sports commentators and viewers. In addition to Black female athletes having to navigate a racial world, as an athlete they have to navigate a highly gendered world. Sports is still a male dominated field. As a female athlete, one has to “manage the cultural tension between athleticism and hegemonic femininity.”4 In Shaking the Foundation: Women of Color in Sport Ruth L. Hall  wrote, “Feminist sports psychologists agree that the playing field is not level regarding gender issues in and out of sport and that sexism is alive and well. Ironically, the myth persists that race and racism are not prevalent in sports. Like any aspect of culture, sport is influenced by societal norms.”5 Black female athletes are still haunted by the structures of race and gender that harmed their ancestors. They have to face the diverse obstacles, including criticism of their appearance, that comes with being a Black female athlete in the sports world. The judgment of women and the expectation of women to uphold beauty standards is persistent in the world of sports. In Child’s Play: Sport in Kids’ Worlds Michael A. Messner and Michela Musto write, “Racialized and politically contested hair controversies are quite common when considering the media coverage of Black female athletes, particularly when they occur within White-­dominated sporting spaces or when Black female athletes are contrasted with or compared to White female athletes.”6 Unfortunately, when Black female athletes become popular or receive extensive TV or media coverage they often face lots of commentary and judgment. 

Much of the research on Black female athletes and their appearance mentions “Flo Jo.” In Sportswomen’s Apparel in the United States Leelanee Malin writes, “​​Florence ‘Flo Jo’ Griffith Joyner, a record-holding Olympic all-star known for fashion, fortitude, and being one of the fastest women in the world, caused a media frenzy during her Olympic debut as early as 1984 Los Angeles. Her mere aesthetic presence, including competition apparel, began to overshadow her athletic ability with her record-breaking speed and agility, taking a backseat to the media coverage of her hair, nails, and track uniform.”7 Gabby Douglas suffered a similar fate. She too had her great athletic success overshadowed by criticism of her physical appearance. According to Messner and Musto, “the dominant media frame for Gabby Douglas’ groundbreaking Olympic achievements centered not on her history— and record-making performance—but ­ instead on her appearance, specifically her hair.”8 Douglas’s white counterparts did not receive similar disapproval nor did Flo Jo’s white contemporaries. As Black women, they alone faced this criticism. 

While Gabby Douglas was criticized by all audiences, most of the criticism she faced was from other Black women. In Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America, Ayana D. Byrd and Lori L. Tharps write, “The day after Gabby won the gold medal, Daily Beast ran a quote from a Black woman who said, ‘I love how she’s doing her thing and winning. But I just hate the way her hair looks with all those pins and gel. I wish someone could have helped make it look better since she’s being seen all over the world. She’s representing for Black women everywhere.’”9 This criticism, while directed at Gabby Douglas, critiqued many other Black women. Byrd and Tharps wrote, “Hairstylist Larry Simms, who works with weave loving celebs Gabrielle Union and Mary J Blige, argued ‘It’s taboo culturally to be seen in public with a kinky hairline and your ponytail is straight.’”10 These criticisms reveal beauty standards that all Black women are expected to uphold. Additionally, as Gabby Douglas’s experiences show, Black women have been criticized throughout history both by white voices and Black voices.

This research looks specifically at the different expectations held and the different forms of criticisms utilized when commenting on Black female athletes. The research and findings regarding contemporary Black female athletes will be placed in context with historical views of Black female beauty and womanhood.

Methods & Data 

To analyze the commentary concerning Black female athletes in the US today, I conducted a content analysis of Twitter posts made regarding Gabby Douglas’s 2012 Olympic performance and Sha’Carri Richardson’s July 2021 Olympic Trials meet. These athletic appearances were paramount to their respective notoriety as well as key events that sparked mass debate. At only sixteen years old, Gabby Douglas won two Gold medals in the 2012 London Olympics, becoming the first African American female gymnast to win a Gold medal. At the time, Gabby Douglas, along with her teammates, wore their hair in high buns. However, after competing on the world’s largest stage (and winning) Douglas was criticized by many for the appearance of her messy hair. Both Black and non Black audiences joined in on debates regarding the sixteen year old’s hair. At age twenty-one, Sha’Carri Richardson competed at the 2021 Olympics trials just days after her mother passed away. After winning the semifinals, Richardson said in an interview, “I just want the world to know that I’m that girl.”11 Richardson’s story, personality, and athletic success from this race shot her to fame and to the center of many debates. Richardson won her hundred meter race with long, flowing orange hair and long bright nails, which became the object of passionate support and criticism from both Black and non Black audiences. 

To gather data I conducted a keyword search on Twitter. I conducted searches for various sets of keywords and phrases including: “Gabby Douglas hair,” “Gabby Douglas bun,” “Sha’Carri Richardson nails,” and “Sha’Carri Richardson hair.” I then analyzed the positive and negative tweets that emerged from these keyword searches looking specifically at the way commentators discussed Dougals and Richardson’s physical appearance, femininity, and athleticism. 

In addition, when possible, I examined the race of the commentator (via the user’s self-identification in their profile or commentary and/or by me categorizing the user based on their profile picture) to uncover whether race—crudely measured here—is a factor in how people view Douglas and Richardson. In addition to race, when possible I examined the gender (via the user’s self-identification in their profile or commentary and/or by me categorizing the user based on their profile picture) of the commentator to determine the effect of intersectional identities on their treatment of these athletes. Will Black commentators, specifically Black women, treat these athletes with more kindness and empathy due to their shared identity?  Or will Black audiences expect excellence and criticize these women for failing to specific beauty ideals? Will Black commentators expect these Black women to serve as a positive representation of Black athletes and Black communities?   



  1. Gabby Douglas: A Mixed Response of Criticism and Support from the Black Community 

Following her 2012 Olympic performance Gabby Douglas was criticized online for her hair. People of various races and genders disapproved of Douglas’s appearance with a focus on her hair. Many commentators took to Twitter to call Douglas’s hair “nappy” and messy. Here are examples where commentators harshly judged Douglas’s hair: 

“Gabby Douglas be having more bad hair days than me.”12

 “Gabby Douglas is a nappy headed hoe! #thingsPplDontAdmit.”13

“Gabby Douglas, take a look at Michelle Obama. THAT is how your hair should be #laid.”14

“Gabby Douglas’ hair still pisses me off.”15

“Gabby Douglas head still nappy as a sheep’s back.”16 

Many commentators, both Black and white, and both men and women, commented negatively on the appearance of Douglas’s hair. While commentators could support Douglas wearing her natural hair, they still expected it to be perfect.

However, many of the tweets commenting on Gabby Douglas simultaneously criticized and supported her. Many of the commentators said they supported Douglas despite her hair, saying they disapproved of her hair, but that did not diminish her athletic accomplishments. For example two Black female commentators said,

“Why are people bashing on Gabby Douglas hair who the heck cares if her hair is messy, she had better things to worry about last night…”17

“Why people always gotta hate on somebody ok yea Gabby Douglas hair might be messy, but she is out there in London shining & doin her thing.”18

While these tweets are supportive, most of the tweets, even those that supported and defended Douglas, did not say they loved Douglas’s hair, nor did they celebrate her as a representation of them. Here are two additional comments from Black female commentators,

“I’m cheering for GABBY DOUGLAS, nappy hair and all… She’s successful, that’s all that matters.”19

“Can we not say Gabby Douglas’ hair looks bad and still acknowledge the fact that she’s an amazing athlete?”20

These comments are supportive of Douglas and her athleticism and success, yet are still criticizing her hair. These commentators do not think Douglas’s hair looks good but to them that does not take away from her athletic success. Similarly, many commentators defended Douglas because they believed it was unreasonable to critique an elite athlete after an Olympic performance. One white female commenter tweeted,

 “Gabby Douglas is an athlete her hair is not suppose to be all cute if she just done sweat it out. Y’all criticize everybody.”21

Two Black female commentators said, 

 “I don’t care what Gabby Douglas’ hair looks like! She’s 16 and in the Olympics… You rock that messy ponytail!”22

 “Gabby Douglas, Condoleezza Rice both have REALLY bad hair but I would LOVE to be just like them :)”23

 These commentators are actively criticizing Douglas’s hair, yet simultaneously supporting and complimenting her athleticism and life. In their support and criticism, these commentators separated Douglas’s appearance from her success and athleticism.


2. Sha’Carri Richardson: Support from Black Communities and Criticism from non-Black Communities  

Following the 2021 Olympic trials, track and field star, Sha’Carri Richardson’s popularity skyrocketed. With her growing fame, came support from fans, along with lots of criticism of her appearance. For example commentators said

“Something about hair dye and sports… there should be limits.”24

“Lmao that girl Sha’Carri Richardson looks ghetto af lmao.”25

One white Australian reporter, Claire Lehmann, even tweeted that she believed Richardson’s nails and hair were evidence of steroid use. Many comments focused solely on critiquing Richardson’s physical appearance, ignoring her athletic success. However some comments, like Lehmann’s, used her physical appearance and personality to diminish her athletic success.  

In addition to these negative comments, many comments were zealously supportive. Most of the positive tweets analyzed were supportive of all aspects of Sha’Carri Richardson. A trend that emerged was often if a tweet was supportive of one aspect they were supportive of all aspects of her. For instance, if they were supportive of her athletic success, they were often supportive of her hair, nails, and makeup. Black commentators left the following tweets, 

“Sha’Carri Richardson wearing long coffin shaped nails and colorful frontals does it for me. She’s THAT bitch.”26

“I ain’t gone hold you. Sha’Carri holds a little more special place in my heart cuz she beat the brakes off folks in colorful wigs and long nails.”27

“Sha’Carri Richardson is so inspiring. I love the hair, the nails, the tattoos and her confidence is unmatched. We’re rooting for you girl!”28

Often if commenters were supportive of Richardson’s athletic success, they were also supportive of her personality and physical appearance; in their support they embraced all of Richardson’s characteristics.

Many of the comments from Black commentators explicitly used the term “ghetto” endearingly towards Richardson. Here are two tweets left by Black commentators: 

“Can I just say I loved Loved LOVED that Sha’Carri Richardson ran with ginger hairstyle, long lashes, long nails, the “ghetto” look. Being unapologetically black.”29

“Sha’carri Richardson is fast and ghetto. I LOVE IT.”30

“Ghetto” has historically been utilized derogatorily towards Black communities and, while it was used derogatorily towards Richardson, it was also used endearingly. Black commentators reclaimed the word as an affirmation and supportive description of Richardson.

In addition to explicit support, many commentators mentioned their annoyance with the extent of the conversations and debates surrounding Richardson’s appearance. For example two commenters wrote,

“Idk why but the way they keep pointing out Sha’Carri hair & nails is annoying me.”31

“Why do mfs care so much about that girl Sha’carri nails and hair congratulate her without mentioning her colorful hair and long nails.”32

These commentators, while not as passionately supportive as other commentators, did not believe Richardson’s athletics success should not be defined by her appearance. They believed the attention Richardson received for her appearance was unwarranted and the focus should stay on her athletic performance. 


Gabby Douglas and Sha’Carri Richardson display two different ways of presenting and embracing one’s Blackness and womanhood. They have different approaches to their hair, makeup and nails, but they both still faced “racialized and politically contested hair controversies.33 Douglas and Richardson faced criticism from both white and Black commentators. The majority of Black commentators that criticized Douglas did so because her hair was messy and “nappy.” The majority of white commentators critiqued Richardson’s colored hair and long nails for being “ghetto.” Ironically, in many ways Douglas was criticized for not doing enough to her hair and for it not being perfect enough, while Richardson was criticized for doing too much.

Throughout the comments, Sha’Carri Richardson seemed to receive more holistic support than Gabby Douglas. There are many possible explanations for this finding. For one, in the last few years, conversations regarding Black women’s hair have emerged in schools, online, and amongst friends. The Black Lives Matter movement brought the issues of the Black community to the forefront of many white communities. Additionally, laws like the C.R.O.W.N. Act that “was created in 2019 to ensure protection against discrimination” have materialized.34 These conversations and laws have emerged making Black hair issues more accessible to non Black audiences. This accessibility has made criticism against Black women and specifically their hair less acceptable. The response to Claire Lehmann’s comments regarding Richardson is an example of the hostility that now surrounds those who critique Black women’s hair. In today’s social media age of “cancel culture,” it is no longer appropriate or acceptable to criticize Black women in some of the traditional ways they have been criticized in the past.   

While the majority of criticism regarding Gabby Douglas came from Black women, the majority of criticism regarding Sha’Carri Richardson came from white commentators. One explanation for this might be that many Black women commented in support of Richardson in an effort to defend her against the initial criticism she faced from white commentators. Many of the comments left by Black women directly reference this criticism or were tweeted in reply to said criticism.

In addition another explanation might be that, from 2012 to 2021, Black women might have grown less comfortable criticizing other Black women on Twitter. In 2012, Black women might have been comfortable talking about Black women on Black Twitter35 in what they viewed as a Black space. However, the controversy that surrounded the dialogue Black women created regarding Douglas’s hair showed many Black women that Twitter is not a space exempt from white critique. Social media is not a Black safe space like the Black beauty salon, and the dialogue among Black women on social media can still be critiqued by non Black audiences. Black women to this day are still demonized for the comments they made regarding Gabby Douglas. In tweets regarding Sha’Carri Richardson, many Twitter commentators referred back to the comments Black women made demonizing Gabby Douglas. Many of the Black women that criticized Douglas did so because her physical appearance did not live up to the ideal of how they wanted Black women perceived. Ironically, by criticizing Douglas, these women created a controversy that made Black women look bad. The controversy they created has been used by people for over a decade to demonize Black women. Black women who criticized Douglas because she “made Black women look bad” might be discouraged from doing so again after the negative coverage and controversy their criticism created.

To fully understand and account for the difference in Black women’s response to Douglas and Richardson, a similar data collection should be conducted in a true Black space, like a Black beauty salon. In addition, this data was collected only on Twitter, so another similar data collection could also be collected to determine if comments on Instagram or Tik Tok would reveal similar trends. 


Black female athletes have more to tackle than their sport of choice. As if training to break a world record was not stressful enough, they must compete on a field that has nothing to do with athleticism, talent, and hard work. Gabby Douglas and Sha’Carri Richardson are two of the greatest athletes of all time and present themselves in very different ways, yet they both were heavily criticized on Twitter. The experiences of Douglas and Richardson illustrate the criticism Black female athletes face for “failing” to uphold certain ideals of femininity and Blackness. The criticism these athletes face on social media transcends their sport and their success. Young Black women and young Black female athletes are growing up with these unrealistic standards and harsh commentaries.

  1. Kimberly Battle-Walters, Sheila’s Shop: Working-Class African American Women Talk About Life, Love, Race, and Hair (Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2004), 48.
  2. Rooks, Noliwe. 1996. Hair Raising: Beauty, Culture, and African American Women. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.
  3. Ayana D. Byrd and Lori L. Tharps, Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America (St. Martin’s Press 2014), 178.
  4. Michael Messner and Michela Musto, “Chapter 3: Girls and the Racialization of Female Bodies in Sport Contexts,” Child’s Play: Sport in Kids’ Worlds, eds. Michael A. Messner, and Michela Musto (Rutgers University Press, 2016): 101, ProQuest Ebook Central,
  5. Ruth L. Hall, “Shaking the Foundation: Women of Color in Sport,” The Sport Psychologist 15, no. 4 (2001): 386,
  6. Messner and Musto, Child’s Play, 62.
  7. Leelanee K. Malin, “Chapter 8: In Flo Jo Fashion; the Cultural Appropriation of Sportswomen’s Apparel,” SpringerLink, Springer International Publishing, Nov. 18, 2020,
  8. Messner and Musto, Child’s Play, 61-62.
  9. Byrd, Hair Story, 192-93.
  10. Byrd, Hair Story, 193.
  11. Sha’Carri Richardson, Interview, June 19, 2021.
  12. Lex Murphy, [@gasminjary], ”Tweet Message,” Twitter, June 30, 2013.
  13. Hemingways Whiskey, [@KountryT], “Tweet Message, Twitter, Sep 23, 2012.
  14. Ozelle M., Esq, [@OzelleM], “Tweet Message,” Twitter, Sept. 4, 2012.
  15. Brandi LaFaye, [ @BrandiFayee],”Tweet Message,” Twitter, Aug 31, 2021
  16. Panthers [@luc_skeewalker], “Tweet message,” Twitter, July 10, 2016.
  17. Brynn [@BeyondandAbove1], ”Tweet Message,” Twitter, Aug 3, 2012.
  18. CK [LosTheIVth], “Tweet Message,” Twitter, Aug 2, 2012.
  19. R.I.P DB [@Sadiiesss], “Tweet Message,” Twitter, Aug 6, 2012.
  20. Winner [@_ShesKimberly], “Tweet Message,” Twitter, Aug 9, 2016.
  21. Tiffany [@Tiffaannny], “Tweet Message,” Twitter, Aug 12, 2016.
  22. La Neta Del Planeta, [@NettaNoBetta], “Tweet Message,” Twitter, Aug 2, 2012.
  23. Kace [@Kacymocha],”Tweet Message,” Twitter, Aug 2, 2012.
  24. Cotsdi [@cotsdi], “Tweet Message,” Twitter, June 20, 2021.
  25. JayD [@DeezMets], “Tweet Message,” Twitter, July 2, 2021.
  26. SLIM [@slimarella], “Tweet Message,” Twitter, June 20, 2021.
  27. Kevin [@KevOnStage], ”Tweet Message,” Twitter, June 20, 2021.
  28. Jerm, Hot Boy [@imcountry], Tweet Message.” Twitter, June 21, 2021.
  29. Liv [@Livsssx_], “Tweet Message,” Twitter, July 5, 2021.
  30. Red [@canikick_it], “Tweet Message,” Twitter, June 20, 2021.
  31. Nizaddy [@nizaddy],”Tweet Message,” Twitter, June 23, 2021.
  32. Rocket [@PTBWAN7)], ”Tweet Message,” Twitter. June 23, 2021.
  33. Messner and Musto, Child’s Play, 62.
  34. “The Official Crown Act,” The Official CROWN Act,, accessed May 14, 2023.
  35. UVA assistant media studies professor Meredith Clark defines “Black Twitter” as “a network of culturally connected communicators using the platform to draw attention to issues of concern to black communities.” Whitelaw Reid,“Black Twitter 101: What Is It? Where Did It Originate? Where Is It Headed?” UVA Today, Nov. 28 2018,
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