The Frustrating Reason Some Black Girls Are Choosing Their Hair Over Their Health

Photographed by Amelia Alpaugh.
The natural hair movement is in full force. Relaxers and flat irons are being replaced with curling creams and deep conditioners. More than ever, Black women are tossing the strict European beauty standards of smooth hair and embracing their coils instead. But, despite the shift, according to a new study, Black teens still prefer straight hair. While this particular finding isn't too surprising, what we find most worrisome is that their hairstyle choice could be negatively affecting their health. Here's the thing: African Americans are 70% more likely to develop Type 2 Diabetes than non-Hispanic Caucasians. And while many societal factors are likely at play (including: access to healthy food and medical care, higher exposure to unhealthy food marketing, limited access to safe physical activity, the list goes on), a group of pediatricians joined forces to see if something else was playing a role. The team (including Susan Woolford, MD, at the University of Michigan; Carole Woodford-Hunt, PhD, at Andrews University; and David Williams, PhD, at Harvard University) wanted to see whether lower levels of physical activity among African-American teens could actually be a result of young women not wanting to sweat, mainly because it would mess up their straightened hair. The team polled a total of 36 girls, ages 14 to 17, in three different states (Michigan, California, and Georgia). Four main themes emerged from their findings: The participants reported that they changed their hair from more "juvenile," or natural styles to "adult," or straightened styles between the ages of 8 and 15. They also reported actively avoiding getting their hair wet or sweaty because they didn't want it to become "nappy." And, although braids and natural styles were viewed as preferable for exercise, they were also deemed less attractive by the participants. As for what constitutes "attractive" hair, long, straight styles were almost universally selected by the young women in the study. The study concluded that hair maintenance could indeed affect girls' participation in physical activity — depressingly, even at a young age. It's important to note that this was a very small study. And while more research is certainly needed to see how widespread these feelings are among the Black community overall, that shouldn't take away from the glaring issue: The cultural pressures surrounding hair are still very strong in the Black community — particularly among young women. Writer, cultural critic, and founder of the video series Hair Tales, Michaela Angela Davis says that she let out a long, pained sigh when she read the study. But, she adds, she wasn't too surprised — especially given the age of the participants. "I've interviewed about 60 women in Brooklyn and Paris, and there was a consistent narrative of women 'liberating' themselves from relaxers in college or at college-age," she told Refinery29. "Around 18 to 20 is when they start to self-define, learn more about their full culture, and also get online and see the products and information available to teach them about their own hair." Davis adds that girls in their early teens are universally impressionable — making this study especially concerning. "It's a challenge, because studies show adolescence is the time when unhealthy and healthy habits can really settle in — especially [surrounding] eating and exercise — and [those habits] can plague us through adulthood," she adds.

Adolescence is the time when unhealthy and healthy habits can really settle in — especially [surrounding] eating and exercise — and [they] can plague us through adulthood"

Michaela Angela Davis
When asked what families can do to encourage physical activity among teens, Dr. Susan Woolford, a childhood obesity expert and one of the study's authors, said in the University of Michigan Health Lab blog that she'd recommend less-sweaty activities, like yoga or Pilates, scheduling exercise time around wash days, and even experimenting with hair-preserving styles, like wrapping the hair or using a cooling band. But perhaps her most important piece of advice is to encourage and spread more inclusive beauty ideals. Davis notes that the natural hair phenomenon, while really exciting, tends to be concentrated in cosmopolitan areas such as New York City, Atlanta, and Los Angeles. "I think there's still such a gap in information in certain communities," she says. "We need to do a better job of reaching teens and parents about all the wonderful innovations in products, practices, and styles." Erika Nicole Kendall, founding blogger at A Black Girl's Guide to Weight Loss, shares a similar sentiment. Like many Black women, Kendall has a complicated history with her hair. She spent the first 25 years of her life straightening her hair with relaxers, and it wasn't until she first started her fitness journey that she decided to go natural. "More and more Black women are going natural, and I LOVE it! But it has to be more than that. We have to praise one another for taking the leap and bucking the system," she says. "American society [has ground] the idea of kinky curly hair being beautiful down into dust. We have to rebuild that all, and one another, together."

Richelieu Dennis, founder and CEO of Sundial Brands (a portfolio of hair companies which include SheaMoisture and Madame C.J. Walker Beauty Culture), adds that after acceptance, Black girls need to arm themselves with knowledge. "We need to come together to help young girls understand that being healthy is the first step in any beauty regimen. Whether hair is natural, heat-styled, straight, or otherwise, none of these styles wear well if the hair and scalp are damaged due to poor nutrition or health conditions," he says. "Providing simple styling tips, hair-care practices, and the right good-for-you product choices can make all the difference." But that's not all to say that embracing your curls and coils is the right or the only way to be fit — quite the contrary. Just ask Simone Biles, who is the first African-American gymnast to win an all-around world title (and is being championed as the best gymnast of all time) and Simone Manuel, the first African-American female swimmer to win an individual gold medal — two women who straighten their hair and kick serious fitness ass. How you choose to wear your hair is ultimately up to you. But when Gabby Douglas, another elite athlete, is still being criticized for not having her edges laid, it becomes clear how much our definition of beauty and the way we talk about health needs to shift, both within and outside of the Black community. Because it would be a damn shame for a young Black girl to give up her dream of becoming an Olympic star because of a little perspiration.

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