When Natasha Burkett’s twins were about a year old, it was time to go back to work. She had been exercising a lot and not worrying as much about how she looked, but that would have to change.
“Because I’m a pharmaceutical rep, it’s not like I can just put my hair in a ponytail, no makeup, and go see a customer,” said Burkett, 40, of Miami Shores.She found herself facing a dilemma common to African-American women: Her expensive, time-consuming hairstyle was at odds with her fitness routine. It’s a juncture where First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” mantra collides with the cultural ideal documented in Chris Rock’s 2009 film Good Hair.Black, non-Hispanic women are more likely to be obese than any other group, according to a 2008 survey by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Thirty-nine percent of black women report a body mass index of at least 30 — the lower limit for obesity.Expensive, time-consuming hairstyles are by no means the main culprit, but many experts believe they play a role.Dr. Michael Railey, a family physician at St. Louis University, conducted one of the few studies on the topic in 2000. In his survey of overweight and obese black women, 48.6 percent said hair care directly affected their exercise habits.“What I see women doing is using hair as their crowning glory,” Railey said. “I got news for them: It still would be nice to have a decent figure.”African-American hair comes out of the follicle in tight curls, “and the curl has to be dealt with in order to have a ‘neat look’ or be ‘acceptable’ in society,” said Dr. Carol Sims -Robertson, a St. Petersburg dermatologist.For Burkett, like legions of other black women, that meant paying a lot ($175) for a chemical relaxer, cut and color every six to eight weeks. When it came to keeping her hair straight, moisture — e.g., the sweat generated by an intense workout — was the enemy. Burkett was even reluctant to participate when her 8-year-old son took swimming lessons as a toddler.“Every Friday, the parents had to get in the pool with the kids. And I would get in, but I was always hesitant,” she said. Her thought: “That means I’m going to have to give up my Saturday to go to the hairdresser.” Early last year, Nicole White of North Miami came to a similar crossroads. She had been using a permanent relaxer since she was 8 years old, but she wanted a style more compatible with daily exercise.“My workout schedule was dictated by my hair,” said White, a former journalist who runs an interior design and wedding planning business. “I can’t afford to spend $70 on a perm and cut and then just sweat it out.”Lower-maintenance and natural hairstyles are becoming more popular, she said, citing growing confidence among African-American women, growing acceptance from significant others and even comedian Rock’s documentary.By reading natural hair blogs and following friends’ examples, White, 36, escaped what she called “perm culture.” These days, she alternates between wearing braids and an afro, and does the popular workout program P90X six days a week. Burkett, the pharmaceutical rep, settled on a different solution: human hair extensions that she can wash and blow-dry as needed. “It’s so easy,” said Burkett, who works out four days a week at Biscayne Boxing & Fitness Club. “I feel like I’m a white girl sometimes.”Or maybe not. “It’s the same for white women who get their hair colored,” said Marcia Narine, owner of the multicultural Glow Salon in Kendall. “There are a number of issues — women who have really long hair and it’s a pain for them to flat-iron, whatever race you are.”Narine wrote a blog post in January titled “Is Your Hair Making You Fat?” She understands why some women prioritize their hair over their health. “You may not be able to lose 50 pounds in a few weeks, but you can walk out of the salon, your hair looks good, and you feel better,” she said.Still, Narine laments the fact that black women are less comfortable in the water than other groups. (A 2008 University of Memphis study bears this out.)It’s a safety issue, and it prevents them from enjoying Florida life to the fullest, she said.“They will go to the beach. They will never get their hair wet. You’re really missing out on what Florida has to offer. If you don’t exercise, you’re missing out on the beauty of Miami.”