Being a champion gymnast isn't just tough on muscles and joints; years of competition damaged Douglas's hair and caused bald spots, she revealed.

By Claire Gillespie
September 08, 2020
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Gymnast Gabby Douglas, the 2012 Olympic all-around champion and 2015 World all-around silver medalist, revealed on Instagram that competing from a very young age caused serious damage to her hair. In her post, which she describes as “from the heart,” Douglas said she always had to put her hair in a tight ponytail to do gymnastics. “My hair became completely damaged,” she wrote. 

And the damage was bad. “I had bald spots on the back of my head,” Douglas continued. “I was so embarrassed and self-conscious that I put a bunch of clips over the spots to try and cover them up, but it was still noticeable.” 

Although Douglas’s hair grew a little, she had to cut all of it off because it was still so damaged. “I cried and cried and cried, most days I didn’t even want to go to the gym because I felt so embarrassed that all my hair was gone,” Douglas wrote. “I used to think: why can’t I have healthy hair?” 

The official term for the kind of hair loss Douglas experienced is traction alopecia, with consistent pulling on the hair’s roots leading to damage. 

“It used to be most common in women of color who wore their hair braided tight as children and would be confronted with hair loss in their thirties or forties,” New York-based dermatologist Doris Day, MD, previously told Health. Tight cornrows, braids, ponytails, top knots, and hair extensions can all be problematic. 

To make matters worse, social media trolls stuck their knives in. After Douglas and her “final five” team won gold at the 2016 Olympics, her hair was a major talking point. 

“Gabby Douglas is pretty af but her hair…” wrote one Twitter user

And it wasn’t the first time Douglas’s hair had been attacked (when the only thing that deserved to be talked about was her world-class gymnastics). “I love how she’s doing her thing and winning,” one woman told The Daily Beast during the 2012 Olympics. “But I just hate the way her hair looks with all those pins and gel. I wish someone could have helped her make it look better since she’s being seen all over the world. She’s representing for black women everywhere.” 

In her Instagram post, Douglas acknowledges that during the 2012 and 2016 Olympics, her hair was “the topic of conversation.” But since then, she’s reached a place of natural hair happiness. “Now here I am today – no extensions – no clip-ins – no wigs – no chemicals – all me,” she wrote. 

Douglas received such an outpouring of love in the comments that she posted again to thank everyone for their “kind and supportive words.”

“It really means a lot,” she wrote. “It’s not easy opening up and being true and vulnerable about certain things, especially in this day and age.” 

“I am forever grateful to have this platform to inspire and encourage you all,” Douglas continued. “Hopefully one day I will have the courage to share my FULL story with you.”

Douglas hasn’t trained since 2016, and when she was asked in 2019 about returning for the 2020 Olympics––which have, of course, been postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic––she simply said she was enjoying her time off. And, clearly, embracing her natural hair. 

Anabel Kingsley, a trichologist at Phillips Kingsley Trichology Clinic in New York, previously told Health that it’s not uncommon for gymnasts and ballerinas to experience traction alopecia due to pulling their hair back into tight styles. And while anybody may be affected by this condition, it’s more likely to affect people with fine hair. “Fine hair is weaker than coarser hair types, so anyone with finer strands is more likely to experience breakage,” Kingsley said.

To help prevent this, the best thing to do is give your hair regular breaks from those scraped-back styles. You can still wear ponytails, buns, and braids—just make them a little looser. 

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