By Patti O’Brien-Richardson
A few years ago, I was giving a talk on physical activity among urban adolescent girls to a group of wealthy benefactors and was asked, “But isn’t it about the chips though, isn’t the reason these girls are obese is because they are just eating too many potato chips?” It was in that moment that I realized I have to do more to get the word out that no, it is not the chips. In fact, there are a compendium of reasons for obesity among black women and girls, it is a complex topic. But it is definitely bigger than chips.
As a black woman, educator, researcher, and mother of four teenage girls, I’m offended at the impression some have of reasons why some black women are obese. At the same time, the data surrounding the health of black women and girls are alarming. African-American women and girls have the highest rate of physical inactivity and sedentary lifestyles among U.S. women, regardless of outside factors such as socioeconomics. We are also at the top of the list for obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, and several types of cancers. But the big question is why?
Data from several studies have identified hair management as a perceived barrier to physical activity among African-American women. As black women, we can identify with that familiar feeling: we just had our hair done, it’s looking pretty, and there’s no way we are going to mess it up with water, rain, or sweat, a byproduct of vigorous physical activity. But what if there was a way to do both: be physically active and care for our hair, at the same time? What if this was taught to adolescent girls so they could build habits of physical activity into their lifestyle while caring for their hair? Curls on the Move, a virtual health and hair camp for curly girls, creates this culture of health by building on a foundation of self-love, self-care, and cultural pride to educate and protect girls from a future of obesity and chronic disease.
I created COTM from years of research talking with hundreds of women and girls about their hair. My research culminated into a dissertation entitled, Cultural Hair Practices and Physical Activity Among Black Adolescent Girls, and revealed hidden feelings today’s black girls feel about their hair and reasons why they are often physically inactive. Although the natural hair movement has come a long way to educate black women, many young black girls today feel pressured to look like the celebrities and reality television stars they idealize who often rock straight, blonde hairstyles. Social pressure from peers to be accepted based on looks, and pressure from parents who don’t want their hair to look like a “hot mess” after spending hours and money in the salon, all contribute to a standard of “ideal hair” many black adolescent girls feel they must reach or be subject to bullying, harassment, and social shaming.
COTM addresses these social stigmas, often rooted in historical stereotypes, to teach girls and women whatever our hair texture is, we should never be ashamed or pressured to have our hair in a “certain type of way”. We can have both health and hair, and our chips too
Patti O’Brien-Richardson, PhD, MS. Ed, is also a professor of cultural health and the CEO/Founder of Move It Nation, Inc., a non-profit organization whose mission is to empower women, girls, and youth to move their minds, bodies, and souls.