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Is your hairstyle keeping you overweight?

Angela Davis always rocked an afro.
Angela Davis always rocked an afro.

Here I am, all ready with my coffee and facts, getting ready to write a bit about the headlined topic, when my email dinged, announcing six new ones. I clicked over to Outlook, and among them was a Google alert featuring this story: “Must black women choose between beauty and health?”


I don’t believe in coincidences, so after reading through both articles featured in the St. Louis American newspaper, I’m just going to cut-and-paste portions of what I read, with links so you can read and comment.

But first, let me tell you why this is front-of-mind, as I sit here with my hair in curlers. Well, not really curlers, but these things called Lock Loops, made for all types of hair, but they’re great for my Sisterlocks. I just got them a week ago, and they’re pretty decent. Most importantly, they’re soft and comfortable enough to sleep in, so for the first time I can have a curled style in the a.m. without a headache or a crunchy attitude due a night’s discomfort.)


Anyway, because of my recent series, on Tuesday I received an interview request from Harold T. Fisher of WHUR-FM in D.C.  Fisher said he works out several times a week, and asked me if a big part of the reason African-American women are so overweight is because they don’t want to exercise because of their hair. I agreed it may be a problem with some of us, but I refused to believe it was that big of a deal.

So here we are with coffee, curlers and a fab couple of stories from the St. Louis American. Reporter Sandra Jordan interviewed Michael Railey, associate dean and professor multicultural affairs at Saint Louis University School of Medicine, noticed some of the ladies avoided activities such as biking, aerobics and other forms of exercise that would cause them to “sweat out” their hairdos. He conducted a study, and the findings were published in October 1, 2000 issue of the Journal of the National Medical Association, “Parameters of Obesity in African-American Women.”

Reporter Jordan writes:

For [Railey’s] research, anonymous data was gathered from 40 women who were overweight or obese, who were between the ages of 29 to 69 (a BMI of 25 – 29.9 is considered overweight; 30 or greater is considered obese). Many of the ladies were being treated for high blood pressure, diabetes or other illnesses, but none of them had been hospitalized for an illness that might have affected their weight in the six months prior to participating in the study. . . .

The analysis revealed striking behaviors that affected their activity level. Nearly 49 percent of the women indicated that hair care directly affected their exercise patterns, and more than half of them (57.5 percent) went to the hairdresser at least twice a month.

“It’s the perms; it’s the ‘freeze days;' it’s the inability to exercise because of that,” Railey explained.


Freeze days are days when you can’t exercise because you don’t want to mess up your hair.

At the time of the interview, 67.5 percent of the women (27 out of 40) had no exercise regimen at all; did not exercise during inclement weather and canceled outdoor exercise due to weather. Seventy five percent exercised less than once per week, and apparently those who did exercise were not having a good time – 65 percent of the women indicated that exercise is rarely to never fun.


A whopping 92.5 percent of the women (37 out of 40) acknowledged the need for exercise but didn’t have the energy to do so. Although 31 out of 40 women (77.5 percent) admitted they did not exercise enough, only one woman felt exercise was essential to her well-being. And none of the women surveyed exercised as a way to deal with stress.

Isn’t that wild? In the article, Jordan quotes Railey’s research about pride and hair, from afros to Jheri curls:

“There was a period when African Americans began to “de-brainwash ourselves,” Railey said, when men and women proudly wore afros as a God-given natural hairstyle and statement of who they were are as a people.


“It shows you that we accepted it, because we started loving women with big afros, and pretty afros, and afro sheen that smelled good and shaped good,” Railey reminisced.

“We had this thing turned around – James Brown, ‘I’m black and I’m proud’ and the Jheri Curls brought us right back up to the chemicals” he said. “It brought us back to trying to be like somebody else again.”


Fear, self-esteem issues and even job considerations may prevent ladies from going natural.

“In my study, I would ask women how many of you would go to an afro,” and they would say, ‘Oh no,’” Railey said. Sixty percent of the women (24 out of 40) in the study said they would even consider going natural with their hair.


While braids, twists and locks offer a considerable amount of hair freedom, straight, relaxed hairstyles remain as popular as ever.

Find a style that looks good on you that requires the minimum amount of maintenance you can honestly commit to in order to keep from looking like “a hot mess” after exercise.


The article includes recommendations from stylists on hair maintenance while working out. It’s a great read, so please check it out.

I also want to recommend a related article in the same paper, “Must black women choose between beauty and health?” by Consuelo H. Wilkins, M.D. She really lays it on the line:

But is it worth it? Should we deny ourselves the benefits of regular exercise- weight control, improved mood, more energy, better sleep? Is our hair more important than decreasing our risk of diabetes, heart disease, and stroke? Sadly, many of us make that decision every day. Because when we look in the mirror, we don’t see high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or diabetes. We see ourselves, often only from the neck up. So our hair can be the biggest piece of our self image.


Kudos to the St. Louis American for keeping it real.

Time to take the curlers out . . .

Chris Rock: How old were you when you first got your relaxer?
Maya Angelou: Oh god. I was about seventy.
Chris Rock: Seventy? You went your whole life…
Maya Angelou: Not my whole life, I'm still alive!
~  From the movie, Good Hair


Leslie J. Ansley is an award-winning journalist and entrepreneur who blogs daily for TheRoot. She lives in Raleigh, NC.

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