Work out or have a good-hair day? That’s the decision many black women—myself included—face when it comes to going to the gym. And unfortunately, the hair often wins out. For kinky and curly textures, washing your hair after an intense cardio workout isn’t always an option. Not to mention, sweat can cause straightened or permed hair to curl or kinky hair to shrink significantly. In short, hair woes have often created a barrier to fitness for us.
“Hair has always been important to women in general. African-American women in particular, we spend a lot of money on our hair. We spend a lot of time on our hair. It's important that we look good, that we feel good about ourselves. And our hair is an important part of that,”
former Surgeon General Regina Benjamin, M.D., told NPR in 2012. She was discussing how the way we feel about about our hair can get in the way of our health. "There are studies that show that when we ask women—and particularly African-American women—why don't you exercise? And they would say, 'Well, I just spent a lot of money on my hair, I don't want to sweat my hair back.'" In a 2011 study , 45 percent of the African-American women polled said they avoided exercise because they didn’t want to ruin their hair. And since, according to the CDC , 57 percent of American black women over age 20 are obese (compared to 37 percent of all Americans), any barrier to fitness is a problem.
So, how do we untether hair from health for black women ? That's a big question, for sure, but as a former member of that 45 percent, I know that the solution starts simply. With a little push, a shuffling of priorities, and the right products, you can love your hair and take care of your body at the same time. Here's how I, along with two other black women, stopped letting our hair get in our way.
I love my hair. It is truly my crown of glory. But it doesn't come easy. Until recently, a typical Sunday night found me spending six to eight hours styling my Afro. That meant doing a hot-oil treatment, shampooing twice, sitting in a deep conditioning mask , detangling, and twisting it so I could have perfect ringlets all week long. Yes, it was exhausting, but the results were totally worth it—and I’d be damned if I was going to let 60 minutes of sweating ruin my night of hard work. When it came to hair versus exercise, hair always came first.
I grew up in a world where the tiniest hint of perspiration or precipitation was cause for panic. A hot summer day meant grabbing a fan and ceasing all movement. Sweat is an equal-opportunity hairstyle killer. When I have straight hair, the worry is that it will puff up. When I have curly hair, the fear is that it will shrink. And rain? I’m not a fan of running, but I sprint indoors at the first drop.
Recently, I had a hair tragedy. One sitting with the hot comb caused major heat damage, leaving me with curls that were stick-straight instead of springy in certain spots. After crying real tears, I had to accept that I’m now in the dreaded grow-out phase . And I did something I never thought I’d do: I put on a wig.
While my mother and grandmother both have worn hairpieces in the past, I always thought they looked too, well, fake. But now I know what they know: A wig is the key to having more time in life. (THIS is why Beyoncé is so much more productive in her 24 hours than I am.) With my natural hair in cornrows underneath the wig cap, I’m wearing all the hats I can find, falling asleep without a silk bonnet on, and showering without a plastic cap. Even better: I’m working out five days a week.
I just pack my wig in my gym bag and plop it on my head after an hour of sweat-inducing strength and cardio moves in an OrangeTheory class. The funny thing is, most people think the wig is my real hair (even the folks at the gym thought I was miraculously unbraiding my hair in the locker room). And while I thought I would be nervous about others finding out my secret, I am happy to snatch off the hair to prove a point: Yes, it is possible to have a stylish hairdo AND work out.
Do I miss my natural curls? Of course, and I can’t wait until I’m able to wear my real hair again. But I can guarantee I won’t waste as much time styling it. That’s eight hours a week I could be spending on my kettlebell swings. A week of gorgeous hair is not worth setting myself up for a lifetime of health issues.
Growing up as a black girl in West Virginia, swimming for exercise was never something any of us explored . The pool was more for laying out in the sun than doing laps. Most girls of color like me sat squarely on the side of the pool, dipping in at the shallow end only to wet their skin. Mess up the hair? Never.
Sitting at the side of the pool while others dive in and play is one of the long, great frustrations of brown-girl beauty—particularly children of the 1990s and before, when chemically relaxed hair was the go-to style. The work involved to get that look was extraordinary, and carting all the tools to the pool was annoying. It raised too many stares and questions from white girls in the locker room, who can just blow their hair dry and leave. I still get looks from Caucasian people now when I’m working with my natural hair. It reminds me of people trying to touch my hair or staring at me intensely after swimming as a child. The scars run deep.
So even though my mother taught me the basic mechanics of swimming as a child, I never learned how to alternate my breathing or even considered it as a form of exercise. But in December, I had stalled out on both my personal and weight loss goals and needed to shake things up. So I signed up for a sprint triathlon this year. And in 2018, my goal is to complete an Ironman—a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride, and marathon (26.2 miles) run—in that order, without a break. Even though this year’s sprint tri is a fraction of the ultimate race, it’s still no joke. It’s a far cry from my current fitness routine and requires me to step it up on all levels: I will learn to run, cycle competitively…and swim freestyle.
Since I’ve started swimming lessons, I’ve adopted the “curly hair, don’t care” mantra. I use Spandex swim caps: super comfortable but not waterproof. And before I get into the pool, I saturate my hair with water and deep conditioner to avoid chlorine damage, then immediately co-wash everything out and apply coconut oil before I braid it or twist it and let it air-dry. Inevitably, I’ll move to braids during competition since, well, there’s no time to shower.
I have wanted to complete a triathlon for years, and I refuse to let my hair get in the way. It’s simply along for the ride, and when I cross that finish line this summer, I’ll feel amazing, and my hair will be part of that celebration.
Four years ago, if you told me I would exercise consistently without sparing much thought for my hair, I’d have given you the side eye and laughed in your face. After that, I would have remembered my manners and apologized but also explained that you must have the wrong girl. Your from-the-future intel couldn’t possibly be right.
At that point in my life, I routinely spent hours in a salon chair undergoing the blow-dry-and-flatiron combination necessary to straighten the kinks in my natural hair. I’d flip through magazines without reading as my eyes watered from the piping-hot stream of air on my scalp. I’d flinch when a searing flatiron grazed my ears, then say it was no problem. I’d shell out hundreds of dollars each month to force my hair to be something it’s not. And then, high off the silkiness of the final result, I’d always go back.
Naturally, after this rigmarole, I went to various lengths to keep my hair straight as long as possible. Exercise = sweat , and sweat = my hair furling up into its usual curly state. So working out was, well, out. Sure, sometimes I’d exercise, then try to wrangle my hair into submission with my own blow-dryer and flatiron, but the results were never the same.
But the older I got, the more I felt this foreign urge to be an adult. Or at least more of one. Avoiding intense exercise to prolong my straight styles got to be too much. I wanted to be strong, fit, and healthy—straight hair be damned.
In April 2016, I signed up for a 10K that July and told my editors I’d write about it for this very site. (Committing to something that could mean embarrassing yourself in front of millions if you don’t follow through is one way to stick to a goal.) As a novice runner, if I tried to limit my training based on straightening my hair, I knew I’d wind up writing about my legs seizing up on the course, my heart giving out, and having to get a medevac out of there.
So, I ran. I pushed my body as hard as I could multiple times per week, pounding out mile after mile, not paying any mind to the sweat collecting on my brow. I also started experimenting with hairstyles that would work for my curls in all their natural glory. Gone were the days of choosing between exercising and feeling as good as possible about my hair—I could have the best of both worlds.
Now, almost a year since I committed to that race, I’ve straightened my hair less than a handful of times. I’m not saying I’ll never do it again (a woman’s got to have her aesthetic choices). But I’m more focused on fueling, nurturing, and challenging my body, and intense exercise is a major component of that for me.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to run. I’m heading to boxing class in a bit, and I know just the cute braided hairstyle that will be a T.K.O.
Watch: This Fit Mom Works Out With Her Toddler Daughter to Stay in Shape