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Is Your Hair Making You Fat?

Last week, the news was all abuzz about some comments made by Dr. Regina M. Benjamin, the current surgeon general of the U.S., at a Bronner Bros. International Hair Show. Dr. Benjamin – a black woman – took the opportunity to call out women who would rather preserve their ‘do than sweat off some calories.

“Oftentimes you get women saying, ‘I can’t exercise today because I don’t want to sweat my hair back or get my hair wet,’ ” Dr. Benjamin said in an interview as reported by the New York Times. “When you’re starting to exercise, you look for reasons not to, and sometimes the hair is one of those reasons.”

Subsequently, lines were drawn in the media and on social networks with some saying that Dr. Benjamin crossed a line and was unfairly calling out black women. Others praised the surgeon general; citing statistics of black women’s obesity and a cultural preoccupation with hair (see Chris Rock’s Good Hair).

I get it. If the only thing between you and a healthier life is a concern that you might sweat out your perm, then you need to try something new and get busy. It’s almost never that simple, however. As Dr. Pamela Peeke, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Maryland and a spokeswoman for the American College of Sports Medicine told the New York Times, hair is just one of many obstacles to getting fit which include family, children, and work.

Women who exercise often (and have the physique to prove it) still pay attention to their hair no matter their race. Not everyone can just wash-and-go or pick up any old ratchet gym hairdryer and come out looking put together. If you’re an active black woman, you’ve probably tried binding your hair in braids and twists, wrapping it in a scarf/bandana, layering on headbands (my preferred method), or timing your workouts with your hair maintenance schedule. I can tell you from experience that going natural (chemical-free) is not a fool-proof solution as natural hair often requires as much or more upkeep than relaxed strands.

Despite what some might think, personal experience tells me black women’s attitude toward working out and its relationship to their hair isn’t just about frivolity and excuses. When I was in middle school, we had an indoor pool on campus and swimming was built into the phys-ed curriculum. Several weeks each year were devoted to swimming in the middle of the school day. Thankfully, the powers that be knew enough to schedule most swim periods right before lunch and kids had some flexibility when it came to getting dry and dressed — not for me though. Because I was in advanced courses, my lunch came later. Instead I had algebra during that period and I was late every single day the we had to swim during gym. It took me much longer to make sure my hair was dry and at least presentable in a ponytail. I couldn’t be ashy either and I was sure to rinse my bathing suit too because that’s the way I was taught at home. Being one of the only students of color in my advanced level math class, I couldn’t help but notice that the other (white) kids would make it with plenty of time to spare, sitting in class with wet hair down their backs, as I disrupted another lesson in-progress. While opting out of swimming would have put me in class on time and spared me the wrath of my unsympathetic teacher, I would have failed gym – an offense that could’ve sent me to summer school. I certainly had plenty of friends who chose to sit out on swimming and they had the support of their parents who thought that kind of activity was too much for the middle of the day. I’m inclined to agree, and as an adult I save my workouts until the end of the day and try not to plan anything afterward.

I don’t want to beat up on Dr. Benjamin because not only is she our nation’s leading medical authority, but obesity is at epidemic proportions in the black community and a hair show was probably a pretty good forum for discussing hair and health. And I’ll be honest; I have skipped the gym once or twice because I’d just dropped a stack of bills on a fresh blowout but my hairstyle never keeps me away from the treadmill for long. I just wish Dr. Benjamin would’ve teamed up with some of the super star stylists and product-makers that frequent Bronner Bros. to come up with recommended protective styles, pomades, sprays, accessories, etc. for active women who care about their appearance. Wouldn’t that have been a nice collaborative and solution-based way to tackle the issue instead of implying that vanity and laziness are keeping us fat?

Last 5 posts by Nakia D. Hansen