Is That Hair Killing You?

According to the U.S. Surgeon General, some women are jeopardizing their health in order to protect their hairstyles -- and black women are at the top of the list.

As if chemical relaxer burns, alopecia, and unnecessary poverty from the staggering cost of sew-ins and lace fronts wasn’t enough, our hair has found another way to potentially kill us.

U.S. Surgeon General Regina M. Benjamin, who is black and no stranger to black women’s hair concerns, issued a warning last month against the common excuse of skipping exercise to preserve a hairstyle. According to the New York Times, Dr. Benjamin’s remarks to Bronner Bros. International Hair Show attendees aligned with a 2008 study where a third of the women cited their hair as a reason they exercised less often.

“For shame,” I’d like to say, but I’m just as guilty — maybe even more so because my hair is chemically relaxed. I’m in no danger of the regression from straight to curly to kinky that happens when moisture strikes pressed natural hair. I can identify, however, with the sinking feeling brought on by rain when I’ve just dropped $50, $75 or $100 (or more) to get my hair done. And, in case you didn’t know, weaves and wigs aren’t exactly waterproof nor are they cheap. Given the investment, I absolutely think twice before willfully dismantling a style through sweat from a vigorous workout.

Biblically, our hair is our glory, our individual object of pride. When Mary anoints the feet of Jesus and then washes them with her hair, the symbolism of the act of sacrifice is as much about the cost of the oil as the fact that she willingly sullied her hair to honor the Lord. Then and now, regardless of whether we grow ’em or buy ’em, we hold our tresses in high regard. We capitalize on our locks’ ability to influence the jobs we’re offered, determine how we’re treated and even how we’re admired. Ignoring the historical and social context of black women’s hair makes it easy to ridicule the expense of it all and downplay its significance.

But our hair is not as significant as we make it, particularly if we allow it to compromise our bodies so dramatically. Our hair was meant as a covering, not a cross to bear.

Exercise isn’t just for overweight people, and those who don’t engage risk more than obesity but also hypertension, higher levels of bad cholesterol, poor sleep, and increased fatigue. Beyond that, if it’s our desire to positively participate in a movement of God with a broad impact on the world around us, physical health must trump physical beauty, even as the two coexist.

Whether well coiffed or not, we still exist for a greater purpose that we can’t be ready to fulfill if we’re falling apart. We can’t be spiritually strong if we’re physically worn down.

As good stewards of the bodies God gave us — that still belong to Him — we have a responsibility to maintain ourselves as much as possible to fulfill our individual callings. And if that means exercise at the price of a few bad hair days, then so be it. Just keep the flat iron ready for after the workout.

About the author, DeVona Alleyne

DeVona Alleyne is a senior copy editor at Urban Ministries Inc. Writing is the one tangible thing she can’t live without. Singing is a close second, and she does that in part as a member of Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church in Chicago. She studied practical theology at Regent University and received a B.A. in journalism and in English from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her 10 years as a newspaper journalist didn’t change the world much, but with help from her husband, she’ll keep working on it.
  1. I have a friend that I walk with periodically. She’s white and doesn’t have the same hair concerns that I do. Couple sweating from exercise along with being in perimenopause and you can just imagine what my hair looks like. I don’t do my hair in between salon visits, so I need to keep it in shape until my next visit. I’ve actually turned down walks this summer if it was too hot and humid because I knew what it would do to my hair. I’m seriously considering going natural so I don’t have to contend with sweating out a relaxer just a day or two after getting it. I need the exercise and my hair should not hold me back from what I need.

  2. Amen to that. Some people, myself included, use their hair as an excuse for not swimming. It’s a real shame because swimming is one of the best and lowest-impact exercises around. Ladies, we have to stop not working out just so we can work our hair.

  3. My parents both died before I reached age 50: my mom from complications from diabetes and a stroke, my father from congestive heart disease. I realized that there was nothing I could do about my genes, but I could change my lifestyle. I don’t eat badly because I don’t keep junk food in my house, but I was determined to up my exercise regimen. So, I cut my hair to a short afro (maintenance-free) and work out 3-4 times a week–Jazzercise, and running and I try to run a half-marathon every 6 months. It maintains my weight and tone and it’s kept my blood pressure down. Comments about my hair are all over the map–from you look terrific to you would get more dates if your hair was longer. I think my haircut fits my face and my health is worth it.

  4. I always thought going natural was cutting off your hair or growing dreads so I put it off for years. I haven’t permed my hair since March nor have I cut it off. I don’t know what to do with it but until I find out, wash and flat ironed is my only style

    • I am right there with you Lady Lee. I am cleaning, nourishing, conditioning and powdering that nose…and lets not forget SmiLe and hold are head high. It is good for focus, exercise and spiritual growth. I like the song that reminds me….”this is who I am”

    • i have done the same except i don’t flat iron…i wash and braid then lossen and go.

  5. With the high cost of getting one’s hair done in a beauty shop, I can certainly ‘see’ why a sistah, would hesitate on doing ‘anything’ to rob her of her ‘do.’ However, I think that we black women put way too much money and false value on the ‘outer’ look good, for our own good! Why should we care what someone else thinks about our outward appearance? We spend more money on hair, nails, purses, hats, clothes, jewelery, perfume, make-up, shoes….. ALL to make a ‘statement’ to someone who doesn’t even matter! Who matters is YOU… your FAMILY! Find a hair do that you can LIVE with for many, many years in the future, as you embrace getting your ‘move’ on!!

  6. Best Wishes to DeVonna for continually speaking with intelligent and heartfelt words. What a beautifuL educated woman. I need to read the journal more often.

  7. I do a lot of walking and in the last two months I have lost ten pounds I had been eating better with little exercise. Not a big fan of sweating! Hair notwithstanding.

  8. I work out on my way home or on the weekend with a friend…I tie my hair up with a scarf while working out then just pin it up….your hairstyle is important for your mood…we all know if we don’t like our hairstyle we don’t feel as good or confident about ourselves….