Hair Is A Major Obstacle To Exercise For Black Women — But We Ran A 10K Anyway

Photographer: Felisha Tolentino.
About 40 percent of Black women avoid exercising because of their hair — and the two of us are among them. For many Black women, the costs and time associated with style upkeep is an ever-looming excuse to avoid the gym. But this March, while training for a 10K, we challenged ourselves to find hair solutions that would allow us to run on the regular, putting our exercise routine before our grooming rituals for a change.
At the time, we just so happened to work together, but we're also best friends, a BFF pair who have bonded over everything from love and heartbreak to reality TV and expert shade throwing. And though we've each dabbled in working out in the years since we met as college freshman at Penn State — Arianna is a fan of her gym's elliptical and occasional SoulCycle classes, while Channing used to run around the lake near her family's home — fitness was the one thing we never quite bonded over. So when the opportunity came up to train for a Nike 10K in Los Angeles, we thought: Why not?
Well, it turns out, there's a major why for not just us but millions of Black women: Our hair. Yet when we each confessed to the people around us — specifically, white people — that we had often avoided running because it's not convenient for our hair aesthetics, more than a few people called us "silly" and even "crazy." What they might not have realized, however, is that historically, Black women's relationship with their hair has been very complex.
For centuries, we've been taught that beautiful or "good" hair is straight hair — in other words, the European or white ideal of beauty. And that's not just for personal looks, but also in the workplace: A Perception Institute study from 2016 found that Black women's natural curly hair was rated "less attractive" and "less professional" than their straight hair by white women. But for Black women, achieving "straight hair" isn't as simple as a quick wash and blowout in the morning; it requires time, money, complicated upkeep, and even pain. (Applying chemical relaxers to hair, for instance, can lead to actual burns and scabbing on the scalp. It is not fun, trust us.)
The fact that more and more women are now embracing natural textures and styles — research firm Mintel reports that sales of hair relaxing products decreased by nearly 19 percent between 2013 to 2015 — doesn't necessarily make hair care while exercising any easier. Keeping your hair straight without a relaxer is even more difficult, and maintaining curly, perfectly coiled hair through constant sweat is no easy feat.
Every Black woman's hair struggle while working out is different. For Channing, for instance, her challenge was maintaining her sleek blowout and straight edges without repeated visits to her hairstylist. And for Arianna, either maintaining the shape of her natural curls while running or finding a two-to-three-hour window to wash, detangle, and air dry her hair, was not always feasible.
All of the above were reasons we'd both found ourselves simply shrugging at the idea of running. We often skipped physical activity altogether in order to keep our hair intact for a week full of work and events. We're also well aware, however, that Black women are disproportionately affected by conditions like heart disease — and we also know that even just a daily, five-minute run can reduce the risk of dying from heart disease. So with a little bit of sacrifice and a whole lot of hand-holding from Nike over six weeks, we each came to realize that there's no point in taking such great care of your hair if you're not taking even better care of your body.
So, we did it. But that doesn't mean the journey didn't come with its fair share of challenges. Read Channing's diary about exercising with straight hair here, and also check out how Arianna learned to run with natural curly hair.
Travel, accommodations, and training were provided to the author by Nike for the purpose of writing this story.

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