A few weeks ago I entered an elevator with my bike helmet. A gentleman noticed the helmet and commented, “That is great you ride a bike. I wish I could get my wife and daughters to exercise. I want them to learn to swim but they don’t want to mess up their hair.” I asked him what he thought the solution might be. He replied sarcastically, “I don’t know. Water that’s not wet?” He chuckled as he exited the elevator, but the conversation lingered, and I thought, “The beauty industry is fueling the obesity epidemic in black women.”
Black women have the highest rates of obesity in the U.S., and four of the five leading causes of death in black women are linked to obesity. Yet, for many of us, it seems our hair is more cherished than our health. The history and emotionally complex relationship between black women and hair has been highlighted in a controversial film that set social media ablaze with kudos and criticism alike. However, as a medical doctor who for over 20 years has witnessed the health impact of inactivity, our behavior is of great concern to me and continues to weigh heavily on my heart.
A few years ago when we opened the Community Wellness Collective (CWC) in the most underserved, under-resourced residential area in Washington, D.C., we struggled to fill our exercise classes. We established the CWC because over the years, my patients with chronic health conditions told me they wanted to exercise but either had no where to go nearby, could not afford it or needed assistance to get started. Our wellness instructors, on a mission to serve and volunteer their time, would often traipse across the Anacostia River to an empty room. Consequently, I began to casually inquire about reasons for the lack of participation at CWC despite its location in a community with some of the nation’s most glaring health disparities. I learned a lot, but the most disconcerting reason was related to hair. I was told of associations between self-confidence and self-image and hairstyle and how class times needed to coincide with calendar appointments with the hairdresser. If a person had an appointment on Saturday morning, the best time for a class would be on a Friday night when she had no plans to go out that evening. A few women expressed their desire to exercise consistently but were conflicted by the financial burden associated with frequent beauty shop appointments. I was told, “It costs too much.“
Indeed, it costs too much. The long-term impact of prioritizing hair over health will likely bear substantially greater costs associated with preventable diseases, long-term physical disability and quality of life. At a time when obesity rates in the nation, and strikingly among black women, are stubbornly high, it breaks my heart to be reminded the extent to which beauty and hair obsession are so engrained in our psyche and linked to self-worth they continue to drive our choices about health and wellness behaviors. We have the tools and information to combat obesity and other preventable diseases. But amidst the ubiquity, power and influence of the beauty industry, I wonder if we stand a chance. Do we? Let me hear from you.