Surgeon General right to focus on hair as barrier to exercise

We’ve all heard the reports that U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Regina Benjamin hit the Bonner Bros. International Hair Show recently to talk about the importance of exercise with women. Dr. Benjamin theorizes that many women, black women in particular, often avoid exercising for the fear they do not want to ruin their hair style.

What we find when talking particularly with African American women – I’m later finding this with other women, too – was that when we talk about exercise, we hear, “I don’t want to sweat my hair back or I don’t want to mess up my hairstyle.  It cost me too much to get my hair done this week.”

A little more from the doctor, who cites a study about this issue:

I’ve talked to a number of women and that’s the first thing they’ll tell you.   I know that was an issue for me. I didn’t want to mess up my hair. You sweat a lot in your hair and it changes your hairstyle completely.

Unlike other races and ethnic groups, you can’t wash your hair and go out. African Americans, most of us can’t do that. We need to spend a little bit more time on our hair. We need something that cuts down on getting hair back in a nice  hairstyle.  So I don’t think it’s something anecdotal.  I’ve talked to women a lot because I’m doing this conference and it’s a real issue.

As a black woman, I can attest to this. I have and still do occasionally to put off going running or hitting the gym because I have to factor in my hair routine, along with my busy schedule.

The New York Times on Friday had a similar story with some commentary from some folks in the article. One opinion from a senior fellow caught me by surprise:

Today, some question Dr. Benjamin’s focus on such a “niche” issue.

“The role of the surgeon general is traditionally, and appropriately, to take on big issues,” said Jeff Stier, a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research, a conservative think tank. “I don’t know whether the surgeon general’s role is to engage in smaller issues like this. It strikes me as bizarre.”

So, talking about the barriers to getting people to exercise at the gym is not a “big issue?” I’m sorry, but I thought this country was indeed suffering from a crisis with the majority of its population being overweight or obese. I mean, only 34 percent of adults aged 20 and older were considered obese between 2007 and 2008 and 20 percent of adults were classified as overweight (but not obese) during the same time frame (Source).

What bothers me most about Stier’s comments is they seem to have a ring of sexist, dismissive tone to them. Steir’s characterization of Dr. Benjamin’s focus as “bizarre” demonstrates his subconscious opinions and beliefs about women’s health and to the barriers women do face that could hinder them from getting the recommended amount of physical activity. His comments come off as yet another man, dismissing the concerns or issues women have when it comes to their quality of life.

Stier’s opinion is also tainted with white privilege. Stier (and other whites like him) has the luxury of not having to worry about his hair and how its presentation is tied to his race, ethnicity and/or color. Stier doesn’t have to worry about the cultural burden the black community places on hair and how whiteness uses black hair as a tool to measure the political, social, economic and cultural beliefs a black person may hold.

More from the NY Times article:

Medical experts also note that grooming is only one of the many obstacles that can stand in the way of the treadmill. Juggling the demands of family, children and work — issues that transcend race — can make an hour of cardio seem like a luxury, and by the end of the day, “many women are just plain exhausted,” said Dr. Pamela Peeke, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Maryland and a spokeswoman for the American College of Sports Medicine. “I hear it from my patients all the time.”

I think Dr. Peeke’s comments have a bit more rationale and substance, but it still ignores and dismisses the cultural barriers many black women face when it comes to our hair.

As an athlete, I actually applaud Dr. Benjamin’s unique perspective and initiative on this issue. It’s a refreshing and interesting take on why some black women just refuse to go to the gym.

Quite frankly, the comments in the article (and from readers below) demonstrate their lack of cultural awareness about black women and how our hair has become such a part of us. Black women spend billions on hair care products just to make ourselves look “presentable” (and less threatening to whiteness if we use relaxers) in the work place and out in the public. Black women pride themselves on how good their hair look and generally wouldn’t think twice about skipping a workout if it means forgoing spending an extra $60 at the salon.

From my personal experience, I’ve had to schedule my workouts around the times in which I could squeeze in co-washes, washes and deep conditioners for my hair. I actually look with envy at my white co-workers who could go out for a lunch time run.

Luckily, since I’ve decided to do the big chop (on Sunday, actually), I hope to get rid of (or lessen its presence) that elephant in the room whenever I decide to go for a run or hit the gym. I also hope many other black women who are physically active or who would like to become more active will heed the advice of Dr. Benjamin and begin to make better lifestyle choices.