African-American Adolescents May Be Avoiding Exercise Due to Choosing Hair over Health?


A small but novel study suggests that one reason African-American adolescents—girls specifically—have higher obesity rates is due to fears that sweat from exercise will ruin their hair. The idea that hair could be prioritized over health may seem odd at first glance, but there’s a bit more to the story that makes the study’s findings appear to be more plausible.

Between ages six and 11, the obesity rates for African-American girls and Caucasians are fairly close. Once adolescence happens, these rates start to get farther apart until African-Americans end up with a disproportionately high risk and an obesity rate of about 29%, versus 14% for Caucasians.

The study’s lead researcher, Susan Woolford, thought this might be due to a lack of exercise. Her sister, Carole Woolford-Hunt, is a counseling psychologist and an expert in race-culture issues. Discussion between the two led to the theory of hairstyles being behind a lack of physical activity among African-American teenage girls, hence the study.

In Brief: African-American Hair

The hair of certain African-American populations has a natural spring-like shape that, if grown out and not treated or styled, will make the hair appear dense and frizzy. For various reasons relating to cultural pressure, it is popular for African-American women to wear hair styles that require straightening, weaving, or perming their hair. Such treatments are undone when the hair gets wet and will cause it to return to its natural style.

According to the Woolfords, this is socially unacceptable. An example of this can be seen in some of the comments surrounding Olympic gymnast Gabby Douglas. Past studies have also suggested that about 40% of adult African-American women have avoided exercise at least once to prevent hair-changing sweat.

The Study

The Woolfords and their assistants conducted focus group interviews with 36 adolescent, African-American girls aged 14-17 years old across Michigan, California, and Georgia. The focus groups covered perceptions about hairstyles, exercise, and how the two related to each other. Afterwards, recordings and transcripts were analyzed for themes. A standard ethnic identity measure and survey was also performed.

Four primary themes were found from parsing the results of the focus groups and surveys:

  • Concerns about hairstyles began between ages eight and 15, when participants reported changing from their natural style to straightened “adult” styles
  • Participants reported avoiding getting their hair wet or sweating during exercise to keep their hair from becoming “nappy” (a term for the natural style)
  • Braids and natural styles were acknowledged as better for exercise, but also seen as unattractive
    Participants overwhelmingly (“almost universally”) selected long, straight hairstyles as the most attractive

The study is obviously small and relies primarily on self-reporting, but the main conclusion—that hair concerns may affect how African-American adolescent girls engage in physical activity—seems to hold up.

Whether this potential exercise avoidance is actually contributing to the obesity rate or other health issues is beyond the scope of the study and the authors do a good job of keeping their findings in the right context. At the very least, it suggests a potential novel approach of keeping hair care concerns in mind when trying to encourage African-American girls to be more active.

Feature image: Susan Woolford, M.D., M.P.H., is a pediatrician at the University of Michigan’s C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital. Credit: University of Michigan Health System.

Woolford, S., et al., “No sweat: African American adolescent girls’ opinions of hairstyle choices and physical activity,” BMC Obesity, 2016; 10.1186/s40608-016-0111-7

“Why Black Teens May Feel Pulled Between Health and Hair”

“Breaking News: Gabby Douglas again attacked online by Black Women for nappy hair and bad edges. Is Simone Biles next?” Sportsblog web site, August 8, 2016;–gabby-douglas-again-attacked-online-by-black-women-for-nappy-hair-and-bad-edges–is-simone-biles-next–.html, last accessed August 10, 2016.