Some of you who’ve been reading this blog for a while (or who are friends with me on Facebook) might know that I’ve been working on my health on a continual basis for the past year.
Since November 2009, I have had (much-needed) uterine fibroid surgery; I gave up sugar (and I thought I would stab myself through the eye, I was so miserable, but now I’m completely okay); and I gave up eating meat and fish, though I don’t call myself a vegetarian because I must admit that in the past year, I’ve cheated four times.
Sidebar: I know cheating with the meat or fish makes me a very bad person, but I don’t feel bad about being a very bad person. I eat far fewer dead things than the average American, I recycle, and I drive a really small car that doesn’t use much gas, so maybe God will forgive my occasional carnivorous lapses. And if I ever get solar panels on my house, I’m hoping to get my express ticket into Them Pearly Gates.
Other than changing my diet, the biggest hurdle for me was exercise, which I began in real earnest this May. I went public on Facebook with my thirty-day exercise commitment, which meant I would work out for at least thirty minutes each day for a month. I kept that commitment and after the month was over, I kept going, though I now rest one or two days a week. It was plenty hard at first, but now, it’s part of my daily schedule, even when I don’t want to be bothered. And sometimes, no, I don’t want to be bothered. But I do it anyway.
But since I’ve started on this journey, I’ve encountered many Sisters who won’t begin this same healthy journey, and not because they don’t have time or they have too many responsibilities. No, they won’t start because they insist on being cute twenty-four, seven.
The estimates are that 67 percent of Americans are overweight and obese. That’s really bad. But according to the website GirlTrek: A Challenge to Black Women and Girls, 80 percent of Black women are overweight.
So what’s up with that?
Well, some of it is about how we eat, sure enough. Byron Hurt’s film-in-progress SoulFood Junkies touches on some of these issues. (You can see a teaser for the film by clicking this link.)
Our steady diets of beloved traditional African American cuisine don’t help us any. For example, out here on the prairie where I live, when I go to a “Grown and Sexy Set” at a club (i.e. a gathering of adults who are over-35), there is liable to be a vendor selling some form of grilled pig meat at that club. Hot links, ribs, etc. The “healthy” alternative is fish fried in (probably) some form of trans-fat. And then, folks be drinking brown liquor to wash all that mess down. I mean, dang.
Sidebar: I can’t tell you the number of Black folks out here who have looked at me with disbelief when I say I don’t eat meat on a regular basis. The shock I receive after I mention my dietary changes is about the same as if I said I receive nightly visitations from Martians and we do the Dougie together all night long.
Some Sisters noticed that I had dropped a few pounds—and added much needed (and let’s face it, cuter) muscle tone—and asked me how I did it. And I was shocked to discover that many of them refused to exercise because of their hair. I’m not talking one or two Black women, either. I’m talking a lot. (That doesn’t even include the fly-but-obese Sister who said she couldn’t do push-ups because she was afraid she would break her nails.)
So then, I started talking to my other Black women friends who don’t live where I live, and they told me their anecdotes about Black women who won’t work out because of their hair. And I gotta tell y’all, I don’t think this is just a phenomenon of only a few Sisters. I think this is rampant.
When I googled, “Black women, hair and exercise,” all sorts of links popped up, including an article about a study done on the subject. (Click here to read the article.) And a “viral” Facebook note, “Black women, hair, and exercise: Let’s get moving!”
Despite having what some (ignorant) people might call “good hair,” I do have my own hair issues when it comes to working out. Years ago when I was in graduate school, my mama used to press and curl my hair; I would drive an hour and a half every two weeks to go see her. In between, I had one of those old-fashioned rain bonnets I had purchased at the drugstore—I don’t even know if you can find those things anymore—and any time the sky became cloudy, I would whip that thing out hysterically and wrap it over my head.
And anytime I sweat, my hair would go back. And then, that would require an elaborate ordeal of combing my hair out, oiling it profusely—you could fry a chicken in all that grease I put in my head—and rolling it back up to restore it to a semblance of the Hair Beauty that my mother bestowed on me. So finally, I just gave up working out altogether. And got even fatter and unhealthier than what I already was.
And I know other Black women with so-called “good hair” who still maneuver their workouts around their blow-dry and flat-ironing schedule. So what’s underneath this “fly before fit” issue, and why are so few people are talking about it?
I haven’t found an article stating why we are obsessed with our hair to the point where we will let our health suffer. Surely, we still have issues with White beauty standards in our community. The discussion of that is nothing new.
But I believe that “fly before fit” also stems from the fact that Black women’s self-esteem is constantly assailed.
For example, just in the past year, there have been an ABC Special explaining why we can’t find husbands in our community(ies)—with no mention at all of the epidemic incarceration of Black men, by the way—and an article yanked off the Psychology Today website that talked in “scientific” terms on why Black women are not as attractive officially as other women, especially White women.
The Psychology Today article was particularly hurtful because it didn’t take into account any cultural issues. It stated that we Black women weren’t attractive and that there was empirical proof for that; after an overwhelming public outcry, the article was taken down. (And do you really want to read about what some racist [insert expletive maternal noun] has to say about Sisters? No, you don’t.)
Besides the overt media beat-down, what Sister hasn’t encountered the good old-fashioned “talking to” at the hairdresser’s, the family reunion, or even at the bus stop about what is wrong with Black women, and in particular, her?
She’s “too loud, too sassy, too bossy, too unfeminine, too-messed-up-in-some-kinda-way”, and that’s why Black women are alone and lonely. It ain’t nobody’s fault but her’s. We are deserving of the abuse that gets heaped on us. But if Black women could just be more like White women—that’s the implication, sometimes real or spoken out loud—we could be happy.
We’ve been getting that message for three and a half centuries now. Yay, slavery and colonialism.
So, we Sisters can’t control much in the world or how it looks at us. But we can be pretty. We can spend money on our clothes, our nails, and our hair to provide armor against what other people–sometimes other Black folks–say about us. And when we are hurting, we can turn to the food that is killing us to provide that temporary chemical rush of pleasure and then, sit in front of the TV and watch images that never reflect us. And put on more weight.
I know. I’ve been there. I am not going to lie to y’all. I have battled serious food issues (and the resulting self-hatred) for years and that battle has been slow-going and sometimes humiliating and also, frightening. So I know what I’m talking about.
Y’all, I am one of those 80 percent of overweight Black women, which is one of the reasons I had to make some hardcore health changes. I am overweight tending to obese—despite other people calling me a “big, fine woman” or saying I have “big bones.”
But another reason I have made the change and stuck to that change is that I keep running into other Black women with preventable health issues and it scares me.
They are taking blood pressure medicine. They have high cholesterol (but still eat lots of meat). And an alarming number of them have diabetes. And then there are the issues that might be helped by a better, healthier diet and exercise—like migraines, very heavy periods, or fibromyalgia. Yet even those women who already have health issues will put up barriers to lifestyle change. But their hair looks really, really good.
I know that it’s a lot easier to say to someone, “I can’t work out because I don’t want my perm to look like a hot buttered mess with nacho cheese on it,” instead of, “If my hair goes back, then I won’t look conventionally pretty, and then what do I have? What can I lean on besides looking fabulous, in this world that tells me I’m literally nothing?”
In past blog post, I talked about how I ignored the pain I was in from uterine fibroids while I spent hundreds of dollars on clothes to feel good. And now, I can’t believe I ever did that.
It’s the same with my hair. I wear my hair natural all the time these days, and so, I look back on my rain-bonnet era and laugh at myself. Now, when I work out, I sweat like one of my Uncle Alvester’s prize pigs. So, I just put my hair in a ponytail. I do grease it daily with coconut oil to keep it from becoming dry, because I wash it more often now.
And no, my hair’s not adorable on a regular basis, and sometimes, that really upsets me. But I have more than my hair. I have me. I have my health. I have the love of a good God who has kept me through all those trials I went through to get to this better—but still not perfect—place. And I have self-love, finally, so I know it’s possible to capture.
And further, to be completely shallow here, I can still wear a fabulous outfit and foundation and lipstick and gold earrings. My hair might be in a ponytail, but I can still look very fine and sassy. And so can you, my Sister.
Just think about it. That’s all I ask.