Straight Talk: Black Women, Hair and Exercise

Aug 21, 2014, 9:00 AM, Posted by

When you're starting to exercise, you look for reasons not to, and sometimes the hair is one of those reasons.—U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin, August 2011

I once wrote about how black women can care for their hair when physically active. It featured the perspectives of women ages 21 to 65 on how we protect our weaved, straightened, and natural styles while exercising. After reading the post, a well-respected public health leader admitted, “I did not know that hair care was an issue that kept black women from exercising.”

I wasn’t surprised that a middle-aged, middle class, white male had missed this not-too-insignificant tidbit. But I was saddened that someone with a prominent role in prevention wasn’t aware of an important factor behind the obesity crisis among black women.

There are many reasons why four out of every five black women in the U.S. are overweight or obese: We live in neighborhoods that make eating cheap, high-calorie foods and beverages very easy, but physical activity very hard. Some wonder if our genes predispose us to excess weight; others say that we are beyond motivation, given data suggesting that too many of us suffer untreated depression.

But hair, for black women, adds a whole other level of complexity, as we struggle with how we can maintain our hairstyles while being physically active. Hair is no small matter for us—it is intimately connected with our life experiences, from whether we get married, to how much money we make, to who we socialize with. Ultimately hair is a powerful mediator for how African-American women feel about themselves.

Many of us struggle with shame around our body image. This includes how we present and care for our hair. In work settings, we feel pressured to have "professional" hair that doesn’t bring too much attention to ourselves. Socially, the rules wax and wane, but overall it is important to be not too far beyond the mean with your tresses. Most black women spend a great deal of time and money finding the right fit. Physical activity, with its attendant sweat and dishevelment, adds another layer of concern.

So what are we, as public health stewards, to do if we are serious about getting more black women active? Any public health initiative targeting physical activity for black women must be culturally responsive, and that means taking hair care into consideration. Rutgers University’s H. Shellae Versey has closely studied how hair influences physical activity among black women, and recommends that public health efforts include strong social networking, social media, and responsiveness to cultural norms and preferences.

I agree. Within the last five years, there has been an upsurge of groups that are promoting physical activity in the black community. In Birmingham, Alabama, where I live, nearly 6,000 black women are moving with GirlTrek and Black Girls RUN! (BGR!). We log thousands of miles monthly even when the temperature is 30 degrees, in the pouring rain, or when the humidity is over 90 percent. You'd best believe that this causes hair stress for black women.

Birmingham trekker, Rukiya, does not let what’s on her head get in the way of what is in her heart. She is resolute about keeping her hair straightened and reaching her health goals. For Rukiya, being physically active means fewer curly styles as well as taking extra time to use protective grooming techniques. She has found the right balance that permits her to walk five miles, three days per week. She also does strength training three times per week and has begun to add interval runs to her routine. Rukiya spreads the word about walking to family members, sorority sisters, and friends in BGR! and GirlTrek.

Her diligence is paying off. Her loved ones have begun to take note of a more toned and active Rukiya. She has dropped two dress sizes over the past three months and continues to explore new ways to be active. After a recent GirlTrek skate party, I asked Rukiya what keeps her moving and committed. She quickly replied “I see what you all are doing or have done, and it's encouraging. The support is amazing. In some things, I'm a loner. But my fitness journey, I believe, is not something I'm meant to do alone. I tried it that way and failed. Thank you all for being such shining stars!”

Rukiya’s story should set a trend for how we tailor physical activity programming in public health—it should be inspirational, culturally responsive, and build community. We have to set the stage for more shining stars to emerge from communities of color and in low-income communities. We must ponder the types of policies and practices that can promote a culture of health and bolster health equity. Ask yourself: “What if more public health programming was framed to be culturally and circumstantially responsive? What policies and funding decisions can build upon the strategies of BGR! and GirlTrek? What role can I play in ushering in this type of change?”

Hair will remain an issue, but the allure of powerful social networks and positive imagery has shifted the dialog for black women’s wellness. Many have transitioned from asking ”can I be active” to “how can I try on more and new activities” in the comfort of a community of other black women.

Our fitness community also includes our daughters. It is not unusual to see Rukiya with her 9-year niece, Garnier, along the walking trail. She is the spitting image of her aunt, and she too wears her hair straightened. Garnier has a powerful role model that lets her know that she can be active and have any hair style she chooses. We need to spread that message to all girls and women of color—they can have great hair and great health as well as public health systems that make it possible.

About the author

Keecha Harris, DrPH, RD is a walking enthusiast who has trekked every day since October 2012.  Her consulting company has provided support to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Childhood Obesity Team and the Research, Evaluation and Learning unit.