Dr Stoneham writes:
Ok, so I admit it. I used to be a gym junkie. I would fret when I missed a session. But I can’t say that my hair was ever a reason to skip a step or boxing class. I have very short hair so maybe I am an exception but apparently, having a bad hair day is a common excuse for not being physically active.
I concede that I have heard many women state they won’t wear a bike helmet because of the risk of “helmet hair” and my daughter did say recently that she chose a low impact option so as to avoid having sweaty hair.
And it seems these are not isolated events. A recent Wake Forest University survey reported that just under 40% of women admitted to avoiding exercise because they didn’t want to ruin their hairstyles. Most of the women surveyed only did half the recommended amount of weekly exercise, and a quarter didn’t exercise at all.
This week’s JournalWatch article looks at this issue more deeply and explores a paper authored by Shellae Versey from the Institute for Health at Rutgers University in New Brunswick. This article discusses the cultural significance of hairstyles for African American women and how this acts as a barrier to exercise.
But first, for some context. Research has indicated that African American women are at increased risk for being obese and for developing obesity-related diseases. Reports also indicate that African American women exercise less than any other racial/ethnic–gender group, including African American men. An article by another American researcher, Rebecca Hall identified similar results with hair concerns leading to 35.9% of the surveyed women avoiding swimming/water activities and 29.1% avoiding aerobic/gym activities. This article discusses two key issues associated with these lower rates of physical activity including the upkeep of hair being important enough for some women to avoid exercise, and the high costs associated with maintaining hair while exercising.
Versey states that the maintenance required in the upkeep of hair following physical activity is costly. It can involve personal styling or frequent visits to the hair salon which, in the African American community, can entail substantial time and monetary investment. The time required to maintain a groomed appearance can vary significantly, depending upon the style of hair. Hairstyles are often done with the intention of being preserved for days or weeks. In the Wake Forest research, 62% of women said they typically had their hair chemically relaxed, a time-consuming process known to increase hair fragility, particularly during washing. Many also engaged in multiple forms of hair care practices – involving various combinations of chemical relaxers, braiding, flat ironing and wigs – that led them to limit hair-washing to once a week or every other week.
Finding this intriguing and thanks to Google, I did a small amount of research into African American hairstyles and found that it could involve straight-styled, heat-styled or chemical-styled, coarse and curly hair. The one common thread with all these styles was that is not something that is easily handled, especially when it gets wet or sweaty. If you are interested, go to this website for a quick peek at some of the “latest African American hairstyles to get you noticed”.
The author was careful to add, that not all women avoided exercise because of their hair but suggested an emphasis should be placed on identifying the proportion of African American women who find combining hair maintenance and exercise to be especially burdensome. She encourages the public health profession who aim to get inactive women moving, to develop culturally competent strategies with concerns such as hair and self-image in mind. She also states that the inability to do this in the past may provide an explanation for why general interventions targeted to address obesity and increase physical exercise in this population group, have been largely ineffective.
The solutions to this issue of hair being a barrier to physical activity are few. I would suggest the easiest physical solution would be to change your hairstyle! However, in the real world, this would not be accepted as a realistic solution. Gary Bennett, an Associate Professor of Psychology, Global Health and Medicine at Duke University, agrees but also concedes there aren’t many easy answers – oh and by the way, he has NO hair! He suggests “holding their hair in a ponytail – or pulling it up into a bun style. And some women might want to try and plan to be more active at times before they’re about to style their hair, and maybe less so right after it’s done. Because in the end, it comes down to helping women balance their lifestyle needs with an interest in being healthy. And sometimes that requires a little bit of a trade-off.”
I will leave it there for now – because I am off to the hairdresser – no I meant the gym!
Article: Centering Perspectives on Black Women, Hair Politics, and Physical Activity by Shellae Versey; Journal of Public Health: May 2014, Vol. 104, No. 5, pp. 810-815.
The Public Health Advocacy Institute WA (PHAIWA) JournalWatch service reviews 10 key public health journals on a monthly basis, providing a précis of articles that highlight key public health and advocacy related findings, with an emphasis on findings that can be readily translated into policy or practice.
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