We’re all aware of the benefits that exercise has on our overall health, and yet many of us still struggle to integrate it as part of our lifestyle.
For the average woman, sticking to a regular exercise routine is not exactly a walk in the park. But on top of common barriers that all women face (lack of time, menstrual cramps, lack of motivation), black girls also have black girl hair.
Despite its beauty, black girl hair can alter how often you exercise, how intense your workouts are, what kind of exercise you choose to do, how long you exercise for, and more. But before you dismiss this as “just another excuse,” hear me out. Because this is our reality.
Right now, black women in America experience higher rates of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and obesity compared to their white peers, all of which can be reversed, delayed, or controlled by physical activity. Society’s immediate response to this would be to call us “lazy” and “uninterested” in controlling our health, saying it’s our choice, our fault. And although some things are in our control, when it comes to exercise, we can’t all adopt Nike’s motto and “just do it” — it’s just not that simple.
History aside, many hairstyles that represent black culture are actually protective styles. Cornrows, braids, weaves, wigs, and more are all classic go-to’s for black women and are almost always a part of a black girl’s natural hair journey. These protective styles can be a tedious, costly process and believe it or not, we don’t just rock these hairstyles to look cute. These styles are essential in promoting black hair growth and reducing hair breakage. Plus, they make our hair 10x easier to manage since we can’t just tie our hair back in 2 seconds and still look presentable. We have texture. We have volume. We have edges.
Protective styles are meant to be long-lasting and sweating through them during exercise ruins the style hold, completely reversing its intended function. That’s why we sometimes limit ourselves to exercising at “safe” intensity levels to avoid sweating under a lace front or weave. We’ll sometimes also exercise less often to preserve our cornrows or twists that took hours to do. Sweating out a classic “wash and go” style is also extremely annoying, especially if it’s only day 1 or day 2 hair — the trapped heat and frizz gets way out of hand and it’s a literal hot mess. The only way to really fix it is to wash it.
Oh, wash day. Almost every black girl has to mentally prepare for wash day. Fro, curls, kinky curls, dreadlocks — it’s a whole thing. When I was younger, before I had embraced my hair in all of its glory, I remember the embarrassment I felt after telling my white teammates that I didn’t wash my hair every day, watching them responded in absolute disgust. But let me tell you what my momma told me: shampooing every day strips your hair of its natural oils, drying the hair even further — which black girl hair definitely does not need (so can we stop shaming black girls for trying to protect their hair?!).
A lot of black women choose not to exercise because of the mere thought of having to wash their hair post-workout. And with the washing process that comes with it, you can forget about water-based exercise too. Because our hair texture is different, washing, drying, and styling takes a lot more time, care, and product. Plus, more wash days means more product, more product means more costs, more costs means no thank you.
Aside from sweating them out, some of these protective styles aren’t exactly exercise-friendly. Take braids for example. Most women add extensions to their natural hair when braiding. Have you ever tried running 5 km with 5 extra pounds of extensions weighing your head down? Leaving your braids out during a run means braids in your face, neck pain, and a hot back. And if you manage to find a hair tie or wrap big enough to tie your hair back or in a top bun, you get a bobble-head headache (especially if those braids are fresh – we feel you, sis).
Not to mention the inconvenience of finding the right equipment for other exercises, like a swim cap or bike helmet that’ll fit over your braids, big hair, or dreadlocks. Maintaining certain hairstyles sometimes call for other necessities, like a hair wrap. This comes with its own challenges including image, social comparisons, and social justifications. It’s annoying to always have to explain yourself for wearing a headwrap to your workouts. We could go without the extra staring too (let me be, please!).
So you get it, right? Black girl hair is a clear barrier when it comes to physical activity and exercise for black women.
But on top of all this, the alarmingly(!!) low levels of black women engaging in physical activity feeds into a deeply rooted cycle. With fewer black women in our circles engaging in physical activity, there’s a lack of physically active black women for us to look up to. Sure, we love us some Serena Williams and we had that brief Rihanna Puma collab. Not to mention we totally gawked at Queen B and her Adidas x IVY PARK collection. But where are our middle class, day-to-day black women at? The ones that make up these stats proving we have the lowest physical activity levels compared to any other race and sex demographic?
I don’t need to see a new athletic collection to know that I saw zero black women on my hike this weekend. To see that there are hardly any black girls at the beach-Pilates classes outside. We need more. We need more of our black girlfriends, members of our community, women we interact with on a daily basis – tangible beings we know and can relate to, to inspire us, empower us and show us that #blackgirlslifttoo. The lack of social support when we don’t see friends, family members, or community members that look like us motivating us to be physically active decreases our desire and interest to exercise, keeping our higher rates of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and obesity in motion.
Hair is obviously not the only factor here, but we need to deal with its challenges nonetheless. I need my niece’s first ballet class to be taught by a black girl with dreads. I need my mom’s aquafit class to be taught by a black girl with braids. I need my fitspiration to come from a neighborhood walk club filled with black queens in lace fronts and head wraps. “If she can do it, I can do it too” really only works when she looks like me. We don’t need this for the sake of “representation,” we need this to break a damn cycle. Because being a black woman shouldn’t automatically mean poor health.
And we need you to understand this. So it should come as no surprise to you when I’m not the first to join y’all for a quick lunch-break workout if I’m rocking my day 1 curls. Why high school me took so long to get ready after PE class. Why I’m not always down for a ‘refreshing swim’ in the river after a long hike. It’s not that I don’t want to, it’s not that I’m lazy, my hair just comes as a plus one.
The relationship between hair and physical activity is something you might have always overlooked because you’ve never had to deal with it. And that’s okay (as long as you’re learning). But before you exclude me from a hot yoga session with the girls because you “know I’ll say no,” maybe just give me a little extra time to fix my edges after class.
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Ewnett is a master’s student who has spent the past few years of her life overseas. When she’s not traveling, you can probably find her doing something active, binging a Netflix show, or eating Ethiopian food. You can follow Ewnett on Instagram @ewnett.