For Mariah Stackhouse, Hair Love is an Expression of Self-Love
There’s one word that comes to mind when Mariah thinks about her hair—pride.
At first glance, Mariah Stackhouse may seem like your typical, vivacious 20-something.
She’d likely describe herself as a loyal friend, a girl who’s not shy in front of the camera, a lover of a good meal, a good selfie and Beyoncé. But the modest Stanford graduate, both a four-time All-American and the seventh African American woman to earn a card on the LPGA Tour, has carved out a unique space for herself in sports.
Beyond her ambition and clear talent in golf, Mariah has become known on the LPGA Tour for her varied hair styles—sporting braids, twists, cornrows, Afros and everything in between—as she climbs the professional ranks.
On the surface, one might assume Mariah simply enjoys mixing things up with her look, but behind her eye-catching hair is a deeper metaphor she hopes people will come to understand. Her hair is an important symbol of pride.
Mariah’s hair journey, like those of many women in the black community, entailed a process of learning to understand, appreciate and often wrestle to eventually fall in love with her hair and the way it naturally grows out of her roots.
As a fellow curly girl on my own journey with hair, I can’t help but cheer for a black woman who shows up in a space that’s mostly male and vastly white while unapologetically touting a perfectly coifed Afro. It feels like the juxtaposition golf needs.
It’s worth noting that black hair is a storied subject in sports, reflective of our society’s broader struggle to grapple with the topic. From Venus and Serena Williams’ braids with beads that puzzled the tennis world during their professional debut, to the harsh criticism decorated gymnast Gabby Douglas received for sporting a gelled-back ponytail at the 2016 Rio Olympics, to the New Jersey high school wrestler Andrew Johnson, who was forced to shave-off his dreadlocks by a referee just moments before a match—it’s a layered and complicated subject to say the least.
But the evolution in understanding black athletes and their hair has continued to make progress thanks in part to the Academy Award-winning short animated film Hair Love, which opened eyes to the joys, challenges and nuances of black culture and our relationship with hair.
Much like Hair Love’s main character, Mariah views her hair as a vehicle for self-expression and an opportunity to present her most confident self to the world. That confidence is critical to helping her perform at her best on the golf course.
“When I get to the golf course, when I like my hairstyle, I like my outfit I’m wearing, I feel good,” Mariah shares. “I feel like I’ve shown up here today to do business and I’m ready to attack the objective at hand. Golf is such a mental game that feeling good and happy with yourself is important.”
For Mariah to be at her best, taking the easy way out and throwing her hair into a ponytail to make ends meet simply isn’t an option. Because her career as a professional golfer carries her around the globe to compete in just about every climate, her hair requires thoughtful planning.
She will always find time in her hectic travel schedule to squeeze in trips to her Atlanta-based stylist Skyye, dedicating up to eight hours in the salon chair to accomplish a look. Together they choose creative designs that speak to Mariah’s personality and style but can also withstand hours under a visor on the golf course and endure sessions in the gym sweating with her trainer, yet still hold up to present a polished look during press conferences or sponsor appearances.
It may seem like a lot of hoops to jump through but consider the likelihood of finding a hair stylist with a comparable level of expertise working with black hair in Thailand or Singapore. Put simply, these aren’t considerations many of Mariah’s LPGA Tour counterparts must think about.
For many women of color, what we go through to care for our hair isn’t a burden, but an exercise in self-care and self-love.
For Duane Smart, the father of two young daughters of color and the producer behind Mariah’s video feature, the hope is that sharing Mariah’s passion will help illustrate why this story is about so much more than hair.
“It’s not just about accepting your hair, but loving it,” Smart says. “My girls are 5 and 7 years old, so at some point it’s going to come up. Right now, it’s pigtails, braids, or the occasional Afro puffs, but their hair is capable of doing so many things. I want them to see that they can be artistic with their hair as well.”
Mariah is keenly aware that her presence inside the ropes on the LPGA Tour is a visual representation of what’s possible for young girls who look like her.
“All it takes is a couple of people kind of popping out and showcasing different things and then it doesn’t look so different,” she says. “It doesn’t look so out of the ordinary anymore. I tell everybody to just love their hair. Wear it how they want and exude that confidence.”
It’s that openness to be herself that gives Mariah her magic on the golf course. It also illustrates to others what they’re capable of when they watch her coils, braids or twists bouncing freely down the fairway as she pursues her passion.
It’s a reminder that we, like our hair, are incredible just the way we are.
Ashleigh is the Vice President of Marketing and Communications for the non-profit Youth on Course, which gives young people affordable access to play golf for $5 or less. She's a former collegiate golfer with a degree in Marketing and Communications from Florida State University and has dedicated her career to bringing more diverse groups to golf.