If Gabby Douglas is feeling depressed and picked on, she can blame it on Rio.
In the London games of 2012, the U.S. Olympian was a celebrated gold-medal winner and the first African-American to win the individual all-around title in gymnastics. Later, Douglas’ face landed on a cereal box and magazine covers. Her story was the subject of a Lifetime movie, and a Barbie doll was created in her likeness. She was a rock star.
But this year, the returning champion became what her mother, Natalie Hawkins, described to CNN as “the brunt of criticism and hatred” after an onslaught of cruel and snarky comments on social media. Some of the remarks were more personal than others, but most of them were downright mean.
For starters, the trolls criticized Douglas’ coarse hair, which as we should all know by now is a sensitive subject for many African-American women. The attack was especially sad and ironic given that, at least on Twitter, this line of criticism seemed to come largely from other African-Americans. In one of the tamer examples, @chancolemann chimed in: “So nobody did gabby Douglas’s hair before the olympics?”
The critics also chided Douglas for not placing her hand over her heart during the national anthem after she and her fellow Americans won gold in the team competition.
The gymnast later responded in a tweet that she meant no disrespect, and she apologized to anyone who was offended. She explained that — during the “The Star-Spangled Banner” — she always stands at attention with her arms at her sides “out of respect for our country.”
Other critics attacked her for not appearing supportive of her teammates when they performed well, and for looking glum at various points during the competition. On Twitter, she was dubbed “#crabbygabby.”
And keep in mind, all this was happening as Douglas’ teammate, the phenomenal Simone Biles — who is also African-American — was blowing away the competition on her way to three more gold medals, including the individual all-around title.
The cynic in me says that, in the minds of some, there wasn’t enough room to root for two African-American gymnasts on the same team. So the critics and the media created a narrative where one could do no wrong, and the other couldn’t get anything right.
The haters might have gotten in her head. She came in a distant seventh in the individual competition on the uneven bars. After that disappointing finish, the 20-year-old admitted that the attacks had been “really hurtful.”
Part of the reason could be that, according to her mother, Douglas is highly sensitive and internalizes everything.
“She’s like a sponge,” Hawkins told CNN. “Everything that you say to her, she just absorbs it.”
See, that right there is the problem.
In recent days, fans have come to Douglas’ defense and advised her to ignore the bullies and stay strong.
I’ll second that. But I’ll also add one more piece of advice that I’ve tried to apply in my own life: When Douglas has praise lavished upon her, she has to learn not to take that seriously either. Otherwise, she’s setting herself up for a big fall when she goes — as do many public figures — from being the toast of town to just being toast.
As the old saying goes, there is a danger in believing your own press clippings. If your success goes to your head, you’re going to be shocked one day when you realize not everyone adores you. You’ve got to keep a sense of perspective, in the good times as well as the bad.
This can be hard to do. We all like to be told we’re great people who are doing great things.
In my case, I like to joke that this is not much of a problem because praise is such a foreign concept. In the life of a columnist, criticisms usually outnumber kudos 10-to-1. So much so that, when I’m being introduced for a speech, with overly generous remarks, I get uncomfortable. I’m just not used to it.
Going forward, Douglas needs to just live her life, and focus on accomplishing her next set of goals. She’ll be much happier if she stops soaking up what other people say about her, whether it’s positive or negative.
She can take comfort in the support of her fans, friends and family. The naysayers — in language Douglas will appreciate — can take a flying leap.
Ruben Navarrette’s email address is email@example.com.