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To exercise, or to have great-looking hair. For many black women, that is the question.
Sweat and water are the enemies of many a costly, painstakingly achieved black hairstyle. And that has doctors, fitness instructors and even the U.S. surgeon general worried it might be keeping many black women from exercising.
Cecilia Blakey has been a group-exercise instructor for 20 years. She currently teaches aerobics at the YWCA in St. Paul's Selby-Dale neighborhood, which has a significant black population.
"I'd love to have a class full of black women, but the majority of my following is not," she said. "Sometimes a few will start, but they don't hold up long-term, and I'd say 90 percent of it's the hair."
Blakey, 60, can relate. When she first got a job at a US Swim and Fitness club more than a decade ago, "Caucasian women would go out the door looking just as good as when they walked in," she said. "Not me. I couldn't blow-dry or flat-iron or curl it every day without ruining it, and it was frustrating. Mentally it's still an issue for me, but working out is more important. It took me 10 years to accept it, though."
According to recent government studies, nearly 50 percent of adult black women are overweight or obese, compared with 43 percent of Hispanic women and 33 percent of white women. Another study concluded that as girls, blacks also stop being physically active at a younger age.
Of a sampling of 103 black women taken by a medical center in North Carolina, about a third responded that they exercised less because of concern for their hair. Nearly 90 percent of them did not meet the Center for Disease Control's minimum physical-activity guidelines, about 20 minutes a day or 150 minutes a week of moderate exercise.
To U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin, that constitutes a health problem. Benjamin, a black woman who wears her hair in a chemically straightened pageboy, said last fall that concern over hairdos is a real deterrent to staying fit. "When you're starting to exercise, you look for reasons not to, and sometimes the hair is one of those reasons," she said.
Tasha Kirk, 39, a commercial loan administrator for Ameriprise Financial, agrees.
"My hair is definitely a contributing factor in why I don't work out," she said. "My straight style is not wash and go, so I can't do it over lunch, and even after work it's too time-consuming to shower and redo my hair every time. I'm lucky I'm skinny."
Kirk's close friend, nonprofit agency director Jessica Rogers, used to avoid exercising for the same reason, but she started up again last year because "I want to be 40 and fabulous. I don't want to be the fat mom at the pool in her gauchos, I want to be the hot mom. And I want to set the right example for the youth I work with."
Another of their friends, Angela Hebert, works out at least six days a week. A mother of four who lost 60 pounds by sticking to a strenuous exercise-video routine, she pulls her hair back into a clip-on ponytail before returning to her job as a receptionist at Vision Loss Resources. "If you really want to do it, you'll find a way," she said. "Hair is just an excuse."
No puffing, please
Dr. Rebecca Alleyne, a Los Angeles surgeon, is conducting an online survey asking black women to answer specific questions about their hair and how often they exercise (www.startribune.com/a968). Among the 1,200 responses she's received so far, she said, "the main trend I've seen is that women with styles that are salon-dependent tend to exercise fewer days a week."
Black women have never had more or better hairstyles and products at their disposal, including a variety of weaves, smoothing keratin treatments, even wigs, which some use as a temporary solution to "workout hair." But even if a woman has the time to sit in a stylist's chair every other week, she may not have the $100 to $250 it can cost.
While "black hair" encompasses a wide range of textures and curl, from thick kinks to fine waves, many black women cannot just shampoo, dry with a round brush and be good to go in 15 minutes. If their hair has been straightened, they need to dry it, redo it with a flatiron and possibly also use a curling iron to get it how they want it.
When their scalps sweat, the roots of hair that is naturally very tightly curled will swell or puff. The same happens when hair gets wet from swimming or in the shower, which is "why a lot of women won't swim," said stylist Yisha Eson.
The most obvious solution, to "go natural," isn't right for everyone. Despite the expense, time and hassle, many women prefer chemically straightened hair for cultural and socioeconomic reasons.
"For African-American women, our hair is really an important part of our image," Blakey said. "If your hair isn't looking right, you just don't feel right."
Rogers also noted a regional influence: "Out East you see a lot more women with natural hair, in dreads, but Minnesota is more conservative and you just don't see it as much."
Frizzy but fit
Michael Cole, who owns Talk of the Town salon in Minneapolis, has specialized in styling black hair for 30 years. Cole said that chemically straightened or "relaxed" hair and elaborate, pricey weaves (including a newer style called the quick weave) can all be difficult to touch up at home between appointments.
"Styles are so intricate today, it's hard to attain the skill set necessary to do it yourself at home," he said. "Anytime you perspire, it's going to put moisture into your hair and it's going to relax any straightening or loose-curl process and revert it to some degree."
Beverly James, an administrative assistant with Hennepin County, exercises three or four times a week, sometimes on an elliptical machine, sometimes at Curves. But there is one day when she refuses to break a sweat -- the day she gets her hair done.
"You can't work out right after you've had your mop whipped," said James, 54. "Not unless you want to ruin what you just paid for."
Shop assistant Dalona Ethridge, 26, said it's an issue that crosses generations. "Most women will work out Monday through Thursday, have their hair done on Friday and not exercise again so they can keep their hair looking good over the weekend," she said.
Barbara Doyle, a social services program manager who at "let's just say 60-plus" looks at least a decade younger, is slim with a chic straightened bob, tinted a burnished red. She puts her health first.
"You can have cute hair and look like you're 80, or you can look 50 and the hair's not perfect," she said. "I've got high blood pressure, and I want to play with my grandchildren."
Doyle said that with their history of being more prone to diabetes and heart disease, black women need to pay special attention to fitness: "Hair can be replaced. Your body can't."
Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046