Commentary: Is Hair Really the Reason Black Women Don’t Work Out?

Don't believe the hype.

Posted: 12/19/2012 07:39 PM EST

The media rang with plenty of articles about the obesity crisis among Black women this year. Almost two-thirds of all African-American women in the U.S. are overweight or obese, according to the Office of Minority Health. And these stats are problematic given how many poor health outcomes—such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer and strokes—are linked to extra pounds.

But why is this the case? Why are so many of us so large?

Lately, our hair (or our obsession with not wanting to sweat it out by taking a Zumba class) has been blamed. Earlier this year, our Surgeon General Dr. Regina Benjamin weighed in on this issue, telling us to worry less about our hair and more about our health. Even actress Nicole Ari Parker created a hairband to absorb sweat right at the scalp so we can get our run on. And now a new study about hair, exercise and Black women is adding more fuel to that fire as more media outlets pick this story up.

Researchers from Wake Forest found that of the 103 Black women surveyed, 40 percent said that their hair was a barrier to working out; 36 percent said they avoided swimming and 29 percent said they avoided aerobic and gym activities. Also, more than half of the women were working out less than the recommended 75 minutes per week, and one in four didn’t work out at all. The good news: 50 percent admitted to considering altering their hair to accommodate working out, reported NBC.com.

Now, I don’t know about you, but something about this “we care more about our hair than our health” narrative doesn’t sit right with me. Yes, I appreciate the special attention to trying to understand what some of the barriers are to being active that Black women face. And yes, hair probably does play a role to an extent. Hell, I’ve scheduled hair appointments around the days that I workout—blowouts can be expensive and I can’t waste a dime in this economy.

But what bothers me about studies like this, or really how the media reports on these studies, is that hyping up the hair aspect really only oversimplifies and pathologizes Black women as being shallow and lazy. Yes, addressing our motivation to workout is crucial, but in this weight debate where is the talk about the structural factors that make us fat?

Where are the conversations about the lack of access to healthy foods in low-income neighborhoods, high food costs, lack of money to afford a gym membership, safety in our own neighborhoods, and the lack of green space and parks? Or how so many Black women spend so much of their time caring for others—husbands, parents and children—that their own physical and mental health takes a backseat?

The study also only looked at Black women. While we have the highest obesity rates in this country, women across all races and ethnicities are battling the bulge, too.  And if white women can wash and go with their hair, what’s their deal? Is hair their problem, too?

In the end, we all can agree that we need to take control of our weight and health by making our hair less of a priority. Fine. But let’s not fall for the okeydoke here. In order to truly fix the obesity problem in all communities across the country, let’s look beyond our tresses, and take into account the real issues that are standing in the way between us and good health.

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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(Photo: The Plain Dealer /Landov)

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