Home > Editorial, The Industry Cosign > {Dr. Ivor Is In} Obesity, Exercise and Black Girl Hair: What We Teach Our Daughters

{Dr. Ivor Is In} Obesity, Exercise and Black Girl Hair: What We Teach Our Daughters


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All the ladies who have put off a workout for the sake of the ‘do raise your hand. I know mine is raised high. But I’ve never wanted that for my daughter. Instead, I’ve worked hard to make it so that she has the freedom to focus on her health rather than her hair.

This started out as a tricky proposition. At the ripe age of four, my daughter asked to have her long, below the shoulder curls cut to chin length. I could hear my mother’s voice in my head: “Don’t you cut that baby’s hair!” And my first instinct was to stop it dead in its tracks. But before I moved to try to convince my daughter to not cut it, I asked her why she wanted to in the first place. Her response was simple: “It makes my neck hot!” It was summer. Made sense to me. So off to the hairdresser we went.

I thought the hairdresser was going to refuse when I told her what we wanted. The look on her face said it all. The other stylists in the shop, no longer able to keep silent, asked, “Are you going to cut off all her beautiful hair?” My response: “It will grow back.” I wanted her to be free!

Then she got older. Last year she wanted her hair straight for the beginning of the school year. My heart fluttered. What would this mean when swimming started in October? Would she choose pressed hair over the water? Reluctantly, we headed to the hairdresser. My game face was on. She went a few times and I thought we would never get her out of the mirror. Seriously, when it came to whipping her hair back and forth, she could give Willow Smith a run for her money. Her school pictures last year are a testament to this straight hair phase.

Then swimming started up. She tried preserving the straight look with some diligent wearing of her swim cap during practice, but the natural state inevitably returned. After about a week, I asked if she wanted to go get her hair done. Her response was a resounding, and shocking no. It was too much with swimming and the thought of putting a hairstyle before swimming was ridiculous to her. Her hair was back to its curly—frizzy, according to her—state for the rest of the school year and all through the summer swim season. Now, we are back to the straight hair for back to school. She has added cross country to her sports line up, and the hair is holding up in a ponytail. But she made it clear: “This is just until swimming starts!”

All of this is to say that when Surgeon General Regina Benjamin stepped out of the comfort zone last week to say that some black women avoid working out because it affects their hairstyle, I took it personal. Because no matter how much some of us may not want it said out loud, the fact of the matter is that hairstyling does impact the exercise behavior of some African American women (and, if we are honest, any woman, no matter the color, with high-maintenance hairstyles). The expense of messing up a fresh hairstyle, the time it takes to fix it, the aesthetics of sweating out our hair or getting it wet—each of these things come at a cost to black women who do make the calculations between working out and keeping their hair in specific styles.

But when we do this, what message do we want to send our beautiful brown girls? That if you look good on the outside it doesn’t matter that you are dying inside? I don’t think we’re doing it on purpose. But clearly, it’s a disturbing message that could very well be playing into why our girls are getting bigger by the year. Between 1988-1994 and 2007-2008, the prevalence of obesity for African American girls went from 16.3% to 29.2%. That’s almost 1/3 of our daughters!

The key to fighting back this obesity plague that has invaded our communities is to start teaching our kids to live a healthy lifestyle. Yes, I recognize the realities—the things that work against us: we live in communities where we don’t feel safe sending our kids out to play; there are less parks and green spaces for physical activity for our kids; our neighborhoods tend to be food desserts, devoid of major grocery stores with fresh fruits and vegetables ready for purchase; we work demanding jobs that leave us too tired at the end of the day to cook a balanced meal or head outside with our babies. I get it.

This isn’t about beating ourselves up when we miss the mark.

It’s about making the best choices every chance we get and teaching our kids to do the same.

I make sure my daughter knows that when I’m running, I’m also reducing my stress level so she understands the link between a healthy body and a healthy mind. I also make a point of encouraging my daughter to play sports I know she’ll love, focusing on the benefits she’ll get from the exercise and the fun she’ll have participating, instead of focusing on what playing will do to her hair (which I think is beautiful any way she chooses to wear it).

How do you encourage your children to make healthy choices?

Ivor Horn is a mom, practicing pediatrician and researcher with several publications in medical journals. She has appeared on the Today show and Good Morning America Health discussing health topics such as childhood obesity, puberty and breastfeeding. She lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband of more than 20 years and their two children. You can follow her on Twitter @DrIvorHorn.

Get more Dr. Ivor Is In here.


*Read the MyBrownBaby disclosure for Dr. Ivor Is In here.

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