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Black Hair vs. Health: Do We Sacrifice Our Health for Our Hair?

I’ve been training and providing consultations to hundreds of black women for well over 15 years and about 80 percent of them have, at some point, used hair-related excuses for rescheduling or even canceling their sessions. Ironically enough, those women of color who were compliant either had natural hairdos (dreads or kinky twists), braids, fades, or European-like hair (commonly defined as “good hair”).

What is it with hair and exercise when it comes to black women? Do we sacrifice our health for our hair?

Years back, I watched Chris Rock’s documentary “Good Hair” and was stunned to say the least.

In this documentary he shows that the poorest to the richest black women spend anywhere between $1,000 and $5,000 on hair weaves and the like in order to enhance their appearance with a European look. The take home message is that most black hair is coarse and unmanageable, especially in humid environments; therefore, black women must resort to other means (relaxers and weaves) for hair maintenance.

After watching this, I thought about my days with naturally long locks when I’d spend up to $250 for one hairdo (without a relaxer) thinking that I was spending some money. Since I considered $250 to be a lot of money for hair maintenance, I only got my hair done once a month and sometimes even once a quarter due to my physically active lifestyle during which I was exposed to humidity and sweat for 12-15 hours a week.

In 2003, I decided to take a leap from long locks to very short locks for several reasons:

  1. When I got my hair done I didn’t sleep well for at least 2 days in an effort to preserve the do.
  2. I refused to workout for at least 2 days after my hairdo so that I wouldn’t sweat it out.
  3. I got subs at least once a month for the water aerobics classes I taught to preserve the do.

Now, if I would put myself through all of this because I didn’t want to waste my $250, I can definitely see why women who spend $1,000-$5,000 may abstain from anything that negatively affects their hairdos. Furthermore, with sweat and humidity being like kryptonite for most black hair, exercise is the last thing that a woman with a costly do will invest in. Curious about black hair and health, I’ve done some research and made some startling discoveries.

Black women in the U.S. have the highest rates of being overweight compared to all other groups (including men). More specifically, 80 percent of black women are overweight which equates to 4 out of every 5 women. Further, 34 percent of black women are physically inactive which interestingly correlates with a study conducted by Columbia University which found that 32 percent of black women don’t exercise for fear of harming their hairdos.

Why are these statistics disturbing?

The answer is simple.

A large proportion of black women may be unhealthy out of concern for their hair.

As a black woman whose habits were once driven, although slightly, by my hair, I do sympathize. However, as an advocate of physical activity and exercise I often opted for some of the sharpest ponytails that I could concoct. Believe me, I understand the black hair dilemma, however, I also understand the consequences of a physically inactive lifestyle.

If there are women who would actually invest $1,000-$5,000 on a hairdo, there’s no excuse for not investing in one that is conducive to an exercise environment.

With such a large amount of money at stake there has to be a hairdo that can be preserved, or at least look good, after a workout.

While I don’t have a solution for the hair versus health dilemma among black women, I do have some food for thought.

I once met a woman in the locker room of my local gym who I’ll call Renee. Although I saw Renee 3-4 days a week I had never spoke with her until one humid summer day. It was about 5:30pm when she walked into the gym with her designer bag and suit holding a very large Nike duffle. Renee’s hair was fierce and I looked at her and thought to myself, wow, she’s about to destroy that do.

To my surprise, she popped off the hairdo which was obviously a high priced wig and exposed a stocking cap tightly wrapped around her head.

But that wasn’t the kicker.

She then went into that Nike duffle and grabbed another wig that was equally as fierce and pinned it on. This wig consisted of long curly locks with a headband attached to keep the hair off of her face.

I looked at Renee and said two words, “That’s tight”.

Renee looked at me and said, “Sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do”.

I should add that this lady was not a punk with her exercise routine. During each exercise session, she climbed stairs for up to an hour while sweating profusely and lifted weights afterwards looking flawless the whole time. I learned that Renee had spent well over $1,000 on her wigs which were maintained by a beautician.

Understanding the importance of black hair maintenance, I was impressed that Renee was making investments in both hair and fitness. As black women “sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do”.

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