The Soapbox: On Black Women, Exercise And Our Hair

One day in college, during track practice, I wore a bandanna to my work out. I was having a spectacularly bad hair day and that thin piece of printed cloth made me feel safe from criticism. My coach, who was a hard ass, wasn’t having it and ordered me to take it off immediately. I ran back to the locker room, did my best to make my mane look presentable but still, I cringed as I walked back to the track, embarrassed of what my teammates would think.

Like many black women I know, I have always had a tumultuous relationship with my hair. If it didn’t look good, I didn’t feel good and often it dictated whether I would have a good or bad day. But my own criticism of my hair wasn’t something I could have ever controlled; it was something that started with my ancestors, long before I was born.

Everyday, women everywhere are chastised for what we wear, don’t wear, our shape, our personal hygiene, how we wear our hair, etc. We call this body policing. By definition, body policing is the informal practice of policing one’s physical appearance because it does not conform to social norms. It is a custom that has been perfected and normalized,  especially at the expense of women.

Experiencing this policing as a black woman adds an additional layer of exhaustion. Black women’s appearances have been the target of entire physiological studies – one even claiming that we are inherently less attractive than other women. Among the many physical attributes of ours that have been criticized, one of the most widely talked about is our hair. The media has painted a picture of which Black women are attractive and which are not; after years of scrutiny, many of us have caved, internalizing the hoopla and perpetuating self-deprecating behavior.

One of these behaviors is avoiding physical exercise. While I always made it to practice no matter what kind of hair day I was having, many black women avoid workouts because of what it might do to our hair. Let me break this down for those of you who don’t understand why.

Obviously, the experience of African and African-American people in the U.S. has been less than ideal. During slavery, slaves who were the product of interracial relationships or interracial rape or incest had a lighter complexion and had a finer grade of hair than those who were not. These slaves were often treated with more compassion and humanity. So, as you cam imagine, the notion of looking closer to white was a novelty that became very prevalent – and hair played an important role in this. In the late 19th century, the son of a former slave created a chemical that broke down the protein structure in hair and made it really straight. While every person who is of African decent has a different texture of hair, the majority of us have hair that is very kinky with tight curls. This chemical, called a relaxer or a perm, removes the curls and allows the hair to fall freely. Once you relax your hair, usually you flat iron it to style it. This process is time consuming and can be expensive. When you work out, you perspire and this wrecks your hairstyle and makes your hair what some consider “less manageable.” But it’s not just a hairdo: All of this stems from systemic racial oppression that paints Black people as less attractive and desirable than white people. While we are moving in a more progressive direction, we still have a long way to go.

While I don’t agree that you should compromise your health to maintain your hairstyle, I understand why some women do. Each of us has an inherent need to feel attractive and visible. Whether it’s the clothes we wear, makeup or our gym routines, most of us conform to society’s norm of what what’s attractive and strive for that — Black women included. You may be thinking, That’s ridiculous! But if you’ll just consider what it is like to be constantly policed for how you look, you might understand better why some sacrifices are made.

When she took office, U.S. Attorney Surgeon General, Dr. Regina Benjamin encouraged Black women to risk having bad hair days and work out so we could prevent health disparities like obesity and heart disease. “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 is quoted 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. … I hate to use the word ‘excuse,’ but that’s one of them.”

I’ve recently heard rumors that Dr. Benjamin is working to design low-impact workouts to help Black women preserve the hair investment and stay healthy. Her commitment to working around systemic oppression is remarkable — yet it’s worth noting that this avoidance of exercise can transcend race. I’ve had conversations with non-black women who feel the same way about their hair and exercise. So let me underscore this: As long as women are held to certain beauty standards and as long as we internalize the notion that we must adhere to those standards, we need to be creative in finding ways to engage some women in physical activity. If we can strive for a society where people are embraced no matter their hairstyle, size and shape, or style of dress, maybe in the future these kinds of conversations can be avoided.

[New York Times]

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[Photo of Black woman via Shutterstock]