In a unique example of insight into health disparities, particularly the lack of physical activity among many African-American women, General Dr. Regina Benjamin’s decided to address the Bronner Bros. International Hair Show in Atlanta. As reported by the New York Times, she said,
“Oftentimes you get women saying, ‘I can’t exercise today because I don’t want to sweat my hair back or get my hair wet,’ ” she said in an interview. “When you’re starting to exercise, you look for reasons not to, and sometimes the hair is one of those reasons.”
The problem, Dr. Benjamin said, is that many women — particularly black women, like herself — invest considerable amounts of time and money in chemical relaxers and other treatments that transform naturally tight curls into silky, straight locks. Moisture and motion can quickly undo those efforts, with the result that many women end up avoiding physical activity altogether.
Surgeon General Benjamin has already faced criticism over her remarks. Some say she needs to stick to the big issues, while other think that talking about hair trivializes the issue and ignores the many other causes of lack of physical activity (lack of time, work and family demands, dangerous living conditions, etc.).
However, as noted in the NYT article, there is scientific evidence to back up the Surgeon General’s comments,
When researchers at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in North Carolina sampled 103 black women from the area, they found that about a third exercised less because they were concerned it would jeopardize their hair.
[S]tudies have shown that black men and women are more likely to see a doctor and pay attention to their health when prodded by their barbers and hairdressers and that they see hairstylists as health ambassadors of sorts.
Health communicators have tried to convince people for decades to get more exercise and eat right, yet obesity rates continue to creep upward. Is it time to look for the underlying reasons — the socio-cultural context — instead of solely focusing on the bigger picture items? Let us know what you think!