I have always had mixed feelings about the Olympics. Like, I’m not a sports kinda gal — I call a “uniform” a “costume,” in case you were curious about where my mental space in when it comes to sports. For me, sports aren’t about the actual sport but rather the accoutrements — the hot dogs and beer; the tennis skirts, yadda yadda yadda. All of this is to say: I care more about the culture around the Olympics more than the actual Olympics themselves. This year, in particular, I am one of the many people feeling some type of way about the 2020 Tokyo Olympics still being held, but it’s too late now. Last night marked the Opening Ceremonies, and instead of focusing on the sheer irresponsibility of having an event of this caliber when we’re still in the midst of a global Pon De Replay, it’s time to talk about the impact the Olympics have had on beauty culture. Somehow gymnasts and figure skaters everywhere perfected the scrunchie and fluffy bang combination and made it look chic, and that is an Olympic-level feat worth discussing.
As a young Black girl growing up in the ’90s, Dominique Dawes was it for me. Watching her along with Shannon Miller, Jaycie Phelps, Dominique Moceanu, Amanda Borden, Amy Chow and Kerri Strug — and don’t even get me started on Kerri Strug — win the gold medal in gymnastics at the 1996 Olympics was a blueprint moment for me. And more than anything, it was her hair that I was in love with. Gymnastics and tight buns went hand-in-hand, and while I had accepted that I was never going to be flipping and stunting like Dawes, I wanted to look just like her in every way. There was something so effortlessly cool about her curly bangs, a look you rarely see on Black girls, but you know she set them with mousse on perm rods every night before she went to bed so that the next morning, she would have the perfect spirals in the center of her forehead. In 1996, it was everything. 25 years later, now that scrunchies have come back into fashion hard, we’re all thinking Dawes and Shannon Miller might have been onto something back then.
Gymnast Shawn Johnson explained in an interview why she believes scrunchies have endured the test of time in the gymnastics world: “Gymnastics doesn’t give much leniency in terms of what you can wear — can’t wear nail polish, jewelry, can’t have tattoos. So people come up with glitter clips, hairdos.”
A friend of mine asked me why Tara Lapinski could wear those big, mid-80’s/early 90’s fluffy bangs and pull them off. My response: “Well, she was a child.” Admittedly, if I saw someone walking down the street with teased bangs in 2021, I would wonder if they just emerged from a coma or if they were doing Tammy Faye Bakker cosplay. But on the Olympic stage or on the ice, it really does just feel like this is form of physical expression. Olympians train for years for mere seconds of worldwide attention, and in those moments, this is when you get to tell the world who you are, under the guidelines you must continue to operate under. There are only so many ways to show what a slicked back bun can look like, and if you have a hair bow or a ribbon, glitter gel, or yes, a scrunchie, that is how you remind the world who you are.
Twenty-five years later, and I’m still thinking about Dominique Dawes. It’s so much more than a hairstyle and an accessory — it’s a cultural highlight.