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Surgeon general wrong, black women’s hair not cause of obesity

Hairstylist LucretiLondwork Red KarmHair Sp3523 S. IndianAve. Wednesday August 31 2011 | John H. White~Sun-Times

Hairstylist Lucretia London at work in Red Karma Hair Spa, 3523 S. Indiana Ave., Wednesday, August 31, 2011 | John H. White~Sun-Times

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Updated: November 16, 2011 1:31AM

Black women can’t catch a break.

Lately, they’ve been criticized for everything from wearing weaves to weighing more than other racial groups.

Now, Surgeon General Regina Benjamin, a black woman, is chiming in about the reason behind the higher obesity rates.

Benjamin, who has been criticized for being overweight herself, recently told the New York Times: “Oftentimes you get women saying, ‘I can’t exercise today because I don’t want to sweat my hair back or get my hair wet.’ I hate to use the word ‘excuse’ but that’s one of them.”

Benjamin’s insight on this topic is considered credible because her mother was a hairstylist. Also, she is backed up by a study done by Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in 2008. The study polled 103 black women in the North Carolina region and found that a third of them mentioned their hair as the reason they shied away from exercise.

Sixty-four of the women had relaxed hair, and half of the participants stated that “they considered changing their hair to make it easier to exercise,” according to a press release detailing the study’s findings.

Hair was definitely a consideration when I was in high school, but I can’t blame my hairstyle for preventing me from developing a regular exercise routine later on in life.

I just never got it until I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Then, I lay awake night after night regretting every cigarette I had smoked; every cocktail I’d drunk; and every health club membership I had let expire without so much as stepping a foot inside the place after the orientation.

None of this had anything to do with my hair.

In fact, the unruly hair excuse has played out. Today, black women have a lot more alternatives when it comes to maintaining a straight hairstyle. They no longer have to smother their hair with grease and torture it with a hot comb to beat back frizzy or puffy hair.

Because of the widespread acceptance of weaves, extensions and wigs, black women don’t have to deal with their natural hair at all.

When I went for my regular hair appointment on Wednesday, I asked a couple of stylists what they thought.

“I believe it’s true,” said Anna Walton, a stylist at Red Karma Salon at 3523 S. Indiana.

“What happens is clients ask what can they do to prevent their hair from looking a mess. But you can’t prevent your body from sweating,” Walton pointed out.

“I tell them you are either going to be cute and fat or you are going to be slim and you may look a little crazy about the head.”

Lucretia London, also at Red Karma, styles my natural hair. She isn’t convinced that relaxers and other high-maintenance hairstyles are the reason black women are skipping workouts.

“There are still a lot of women with natural hair that are obese,” she told me. “But there are also women who cut their hair off so they can run and swim and do other vigorous exercise.”

London, who works out two to three times a week, wears her own hair in a curly natural style.

“I just think we have a lot of ancestral baggage. We are still broke down from all the things that have happened to us,” she said.

When Benjamin was chosen to stand as the surgeon general, she was ridiculed for being, well, big boned. The extra poundage made her a favorite target of conservative bashers. I’m not joining that chorus, but I think she did a disservice to black women because the hair excuse makes black women look ridiculously shallow.

Yes, there are women whose self-esteem is tied up in their hairstyle, but a lot of women in low- to moderate-income neighborhoods don’t exercise regularly for a variety of reasons, including being unable to afford the high cost of a health club membership.

Additionally, when innocent people are being gunned down in the street, what makes anyone think it is safe for black women to bike, jog or even walk in their neighborhoods?

If the surgeon general wants to help black women get control of their weight, she should challenge the real barriers that are making healthy living a challenge.

Changing the black female obesity rate requires more than a new hairstyle.

It requires a change in lifestyle.

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