Black Women Don’t Work Out … Because of Our Hair?!

Our rates of overweight and obesity are higher than other races, but is something as trivial as hair really the culprit?

A Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center study from last fall that proclaimed—yet again—that black women don’t work out for fear of messing up our hair, and how this is the reason we have such high rates of overweight and obesity, had me in quite a state. When I saw the study, I groaned, sucked my teeth, ranted relentlessly to friends and started angry-writing. Studies like this, which survey only a handful of black women (103 in this case) and then make sweeping blanket statements about all of our behavior based on that small sampling, make me madder than a rained-on rooster.
But in talking with two exercise instructors, Birmingham, Alabama-based spinning instructor Nichele Hoskins and D.C. resident Lottie Joiner, who teaches Jazzercise five times a week, I realized I had to slow my roll. Both women reminded me that there is some truth to the whole hair-exercise thing. Joiner says some of the women in her Jazzercise classes are sometimes absent because they “just got their hair done and they don’t want to sweat it out.” Heck, even former U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin, M.D., has weighed in on the topic. “It’s an excuse, but it’s a real excuse,” she said in a 2011 CNN interview. “If you go out and spend $40 to $50 to get your hair done, you don’t want to go out and get it all sweaty and wet that afternoon before you get to show it off.”
While I’m still suspect of the methodology of the superficial Wake Forest study, and I’d prefer larger sample sizes (they could only find 103 black women? really?) and a deeper look at the nuances behind (and solutions to) our overweight and obesity problem (see the Black Women’s Health Study, which has tracked the health of 59,000 black women since 1995), I decided to dial back my anger and instead celebrate the black women I know who do exercise—hair be damned.
In addition to the obvious exercising black women (the ones in the WNBA, Olympic gymnast Gabby Douglas, tennis phenoms Serena and Venus Williams, and track and field phenoms Carmelita Jeter and Sanya Richards Ross), I’m thinking about Lorraine Sanabria Robertson, an Atlanta wife and mom and creator of the Run Wifey Run blog, who has run multiple marathons and half-marathons. I’m thinking about Richmond, Virginia, attorney Valyncia Simmons, who plays on an adult soccer league. And Nicole Blades, who writes the Ms. Mary Mack parenting blog and often posts pictures on her social media pages of the sights she sees along her morning runs in suburban Connecticut. And breast cancer survivor Cam Ragland, who grinds out regular runs during the week in her Central Virginia city. And Howard University professor Ingrid Sturgis, who is also a certified yoga instructor. And advertising executive Kehinde Akiwowo, who nearly every time I talk to her, is racing through the streets of New York City to get to an African dance class or Zumba or Bikram yoga. And Ernestine Shepherd, who in her mid-70s, is still winning bodybuilding competitions! (She is the Guinness World Record holder for oldest bodybuilder, by the way.) And Chicago marathoner Leslie Gordon. And Whitney Teal, a former Howard University intern of mine, who stays up in the gym. And my friend Joy Sewing, Houston writer and fashionista, who no longer ice skates competitively, but still straps on her skates for a workout (when she isn’t whipping her body into shape at HardCore Pilates).
I’m celebrating the women of Black Women Do Workout, a Texas-based fitness organization that has thousands of members nationwide. And the members of Girl Trek, Black Girls RUN!, Outdoor Afro, Runtellthis and similar groups established across this country, all geared toward black women who run.
OK, rant over. It’s time for this black woman—who admits she needs to exercise more, and when she doesn’t it ain’t because of her hair—to lace up her running shoes. I’ll wash my relaxed hair when I get home….
Know other black women who have figured out the whole hair-working out conundrum? Shout ’em out in the comments section.

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