The United States surgeon general, Dr. Regina M. Benjamin, said earlier this month that women will skip exercise to keep their hair looking good, but they need to realize that their health is more important than having a bad hair day.
“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,’ ” she said in an interview when she visited the Bronner Bros. International Hair Show in Atlanta, the New York Times reported. “When you’re starting to exercise, you look for reasons not to, and sometimes the hair is one of those reasons.”
Dr. Benjamin said that black women in particular spend a lot of time and money on their hair—chemical relaxers and additional treatments to straighten their hair—and that the moisture produced by exercise and sweating can quickly derail their efforts. Thus, women may simply skip exercise completely, she told 60,000 hairstylists, many specializing in the needs of black women, at the trade show in Atlanta.
“I hate to use the word ‘excuse,’ but that’s one of them,” said Dr. Benjamin. “We want to encourage people, and also give women the ability to look good and feel good and to be empowered about their own health.”
But, many medical professionals are quick to point out that there are many reasons—many having nothing to do with vanity or race—that women choose not to exercise on a daily basis. “Many women are just plain exhausted,” said Dr. Pamela Peeke, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Maryland and a spokeswoman for the American College of Sports Medicine. “I hear it from my patients all the time.” Family, children and work all make constant demands on women’s time, she stressed, leaving little time or desire for exercise.
Additionally, some professionals are unsure as to why Dr. Benjamin would approach such a narrow topic when, traditionally, the role of the surgeon general is to take on large issues affecting the nation as a whole. Jeff Stier, for example, a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research, a conservative think tank, said, “I don’t know whether the surgeon general’s role is to engage in smaller issues like this. It strikes me as bizarre.”
Dr. Benjamin, however, indicated that any obstacle to exercise should be addressed, as they are all crucial to health. Additionally, she pointed out, black women have a higher obesity rate than any other demographic. Almost 50 percent of black women over the age of 20 are overweight or obese, while 33 percent of white women and 43 percent of Hispanic women in the same age group are overweight or obese. And, a sampling of 103 black women by Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in North Carolina backed up the surgeon general’s concerns, indicating that approximately one third of black women in their sample said that, yes, they did exercise less because of hair concerns. Professor of dermatology Dr. Amy McMichael led the study.
“Being an African-American woman myself,” she said, “I have to go through those same trials and tribulations when I exercise, so I started to realize that this is probably a barrier for many women.”
Dr. Benjamin did say, however, that it isn’t just black women concerned about their hair and exercise.
“It’s not just African-American women,” she said. ” I’ve talked to a number of people, and I saw it with my older white patients too. They would say, ‘I get my hair done every week and I don’t want to mess up my hair.’”