{Dr. Ivor Is In} Obesity, Exercise and Black Girl Hair: What We Teach Our Daughters


All the ladies who have put off a workout for the sake of the ‘do raise your hand. I know mine is raised high. But I've never wanted that for my daughter. Instead, I've worked hard to make it so that she has the freedom to focus on her health rather than her hair.

This started out as a tricky proposition. At the ripe age of four, my daughter asked to have her long, below the shoulder curls cut to chin length. I could hear my mother's voice in my head: Don't you cut that baby's hair! And my first instinct was to stop it dead in its tracks. But before I moved to try to convince my daughter to not cut it, I asked her why she wanted to in the first place. Her response was simple: It makes my neck hot! It was summer. Made sense to me. So off to the hairdresser we went.

I thought the hairdresser was going to refuse when I told her what we wanted. The look on her face said it all. The other stylists in the shop, no longer able to keep silent, asked, “Are you going to cut off all her beautiful hair?” My response: “It will grow back.” I wanted her to be free!

Then she got older. Last year she wanted her hair straight for the beginning of the school year. My heart fluttered. What would this mean when swimming started in October? Would she choose pressed hair over the water? Reluctantly, we headed to the hairdresser. My game face was on. She went a few times and I thought we would never get her out of the mirror. Seriously, when it came to whipping her hair back and forth, she could give Willow Smith a run for her money. Her school pictures last year are a testament to this straight hair phase.

Then swimming started up. She tried preserving the straight look with some diligent wearing of her swim cap during practice, but the natural state inevitably returned. After about a week, I asked if she wanted to go get her hair done. Her response was a resounding, and shocking no. It was too much with swimming and the thought of putting a hairstyle before swimming was ridiculous to her. Her hair was back to its curly frizzy, according to her state for the rest of the school year and all through the summer swim season. Now, we are back to the straight hair for back to school. She has added cross country to her sports line up, and the hair is holding up in a ponytail. But she made it clear: “This is just until swimming starts!”

All of this is to say that when Surgeon General Regina Benjamin stepped out of the comfort zone last week to say that some black women avoid working out because it affects their hairstyle, I took it personal. Because no matter how much some of us may not want it said out loud, the fact of the matter is that hairstyling does impact the exercise behavior of some African American women (and, if we are honest, any woman, no matter the color, with high-maintenance hairstyles). The expense of messing up a fresh hairstyle, the time it takes to fix it, the aesthetics of sweating out our hair or getting it wet each of these things come at a cost to black women who do make the calculations between working out and keeping their hair in specific styles.

But when we do this, what message do we want to send our beautiful brown girls? That if you look good on the outside it doesn’t matter that you are dying inside? I don’t think we’re doing it on purpose. But clearly, it's a disturbing message that could very well be playing into why our girls are getting bigger by the year. Between 1988-1994 and 2007-2008, the prevalence of obesity for African American girls went from 16.3% to 29.2%. That's almost 1/3 of our daughters!

The key to fighting back this obesity plague that has invaded our communities is to start teaching our kids to live a healthy lifestyle. Yes, I recognize the realities the things that work against us: we live in communities where we don't feel safe sending our kids out to play; there are less parks and green spaces for physical activity for our kids; our neighborhoods tend to be food desserts, devoid of major grocery stores with fresh fruits and vegetables ready for purchase; we work demanding jobs that leave us too tired at the end of the day to cook a balanced meal or head outside with our babies. I get it.

This isn't about beating ourselves up when we miss the mark.

It’s about making the best choices every chance we get and teaching our kids to do the same.

I make sure my daughter knows that when I'm running, I'm also reducing my stress level so she understands the link between a healthy body and a healthy mind. I also make a point of encouraging my daughter to play sports I know she'll love, focusing on the benefits she'll get from the exercise and the fun she’ll have participating, instead of focusing on what playing will do to her hair (which I think is beautiful any way she chooses to wear it).

How do you encourage your children to make healthy choices?

Ivor Horn is a mom, practicing pediatrician and researcher with several publications in medical journals. She has appeared on the Today show and Good Morning America Health discussing health topics such as childhood obesity, puberty and breastfeeding. She lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband of more than 20 years and their two children. You can follow her on Twitter @DrIvorHorn.

Get more Dr. Ivor Is In here.


*Read the MyBrownBaby disclosure for Dr. Ivor Is In here.

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Denene Millner

Mom. NY Times bestselling author. Pop culture ninja. Unapologetic lover of shoes, bacon and babies. Nice with the verbs. Founder of the top black parenting website, MyBrownBaby.


  1. Thank you, Dr. Horn!!! What an informative and inspiring blog! Although I am the mother of two sons, I am an African-American woman who has struggled a majority of my adult life trying not to let my hair restrict the amount of exercise I do or desire to be outdoors.

    I, too, was elated to hear the Surgeon General speaking directly to black women about wellness and not letting our hair dictate our lives. Although we know that food deserts and fast food restaurants and their bulging marketing budgets are vicious contributors to the staggering rates of type 2 diabetes and obesity amongst black women and children, we must take back the reins of our our health!

    Our hair cannot be the cause of our demise.

    Regarding healthy food choices for my brown babies, I keep lots of fruit around and try new healthy foods. My latest discovery is having my sons help me cook- they seem to love the end-result even more!

    • Angelou – My kids LOVE helping me cook too! A cooking class for kids (even one taught at home) is a great way for kids to eat healthy. Thanks for the tip!

  2. Lovely post, really made me smile. Took me back to my years playing netball (UK) on a Saturday. The black women on my team would be in the salon in the morning getting their hair fixed for the evening, but it would never stop them coming to the match in the afternoon, often with showercaps on their heads or hair wrapped to keep it in place. There is room for sport and beauty and the girls never let one get in the way of the other.

  3. Thank you for sharing this. I have type I diabetes, and when we adopted our two AA daughters, I was greatly concerned (still am) about them developing type 2 diabetes b/c 50% of AA and HI kids born after the year 2000 will get type 2. The stats are staggering. Healthy eating and exercise are very important in our household. Yes, my toddler messes up her hair when she does flips on the floor, but I’ve had to learn to let it go and adjust. I now do her hair mostly in a natural afro because it’s easy to maintain and if she “messes” it up, all I have to do is comb it out a bit and add a little more styling product. I’m not going to put her life on the line for the sake of her hair. NO WAY. My disease is too damn hard—and I won’t choose diabetes for my children.

    • Rachel – “I won’t choose diabetes for my children.” I couldn’t have found better words. Sometimes we think that just because everyone else in the family has an illness that we will get it and our kids will get it. For preventable illnesses that can be avoided by making changes in our behavior we CAN stop the cycle. Bravo to you for making taking that bold step!

  4. OH, and you asked how we encourage our kids to make good choices? It’s pretty simple: parents need to provide plenty of healthy-choice opportunities. We spend our money on organic groceries, for example, instead of on fancy cell phones or expensive cable TV packages. We have lots of fresh produce, whole grain products, etc. around the house. I make homemade meals nearly every night. Pretty much anything a child likes can be made homemade and healthy—even mac-n-cheese and pizza. 🙂 We also make our own desserts, and my toddler loves to help bake! Get your kids aprons they love, let them use the mixer, etc. We have dance parties in the kitchen to Motown CDs while the food bakes—exercise! Parents cannot bring crappy food into their homes and not exercise but then expect their kids to make good choices. When kids learn how awesome food can be and how fun exercise is, they will naturally make good decisions. While at the zoo the other day, my daughter saw a monkey eating a head of lettuce and she said, “Look, mommy! He’s making a healthy choice!” 🙂

    • Teaching our kids to make healthy choices is KEY! We have to teach them EARLY and OFTEN! We will not always be there when food is offered to them.

  5. I have serious fatigue over this exercising and black women hair discussion. I feel like we are being beat up over a new issue. I am so over it! Our hair is just a mask for far more complex issues that are yet to be addressed. Instead, we should address the lack of work out facilities and healthy food options in Black communities, and the fact that Black women are largely single mothers and/or primary caregivers; as such, it leaves little time for mothers to put their health first. I believe mental health is the real reason we are not exercising more. I started growing my hair out natural two years ago and it is my hair and my salon appointments that kept me on schedule. It is my commitment to my health, not my hair, that motivates to workout. This is not an either/or situation. You can have great hair (even straighten) and keep a rigorous workout schedule. If we really want to help black women to improve their health, let’s start discussing the real issues–and it is not the hair.

    • Denene@MyBrownBaby

      Ty—I totally get your fatigue. But I think Dr. Ivor made an excellent point about the many issues that plague our communities and contribute to unhealthy lifestyles. This, from her post:

      “The key to fighting back this obesity plague that has invaded our communities is to start teaching our kids to live a healthy lifestyle. Yes, I recognize the realities—the things that work against us: we live in communities where we dont feel safe sending our kids out to play; there are less parks and green spaces for physical activity for our kids; our neighborhoods tend to be food desserts, devoid of major grocery stores with fresh fruits and vegetables ready for purchase; we work demanding jobs that leave us too tired at the end of the day to cook a balanced meal or head outside with our babies. I get it. This isnt about beating ourselves up when we miss the mark. Its about making the best choices every chance we get and teaching our kids to do the same.”

      While your hair may not be a hindrance to your workout routine, the fact of the matter is that it is ONE of the many reasons why some black women don’t work out, and I love that even Dr. Ivor, a pediatrician who knows the stakes, was honest in saying that even she was affected by the “hair or exercise” debate with her own child. I admit, too, to almost falling into the “hair vs. swimming” trap this summer with my girls, who wear their hair in locs and twists respectively. On more than a few occasions, especially after spending 2 hours conditioning and palm-rolling the one daughter’s locs and four hours detangling, washing, conditioning and twisting the other daughter’s hair, I considered banning them from the pool—one of their summertime loves. It had nothing to do with a lack of access to the public pool, nothing to do with the fact that we don’t have farmer’s markets in our area of town, nothing to do with the fact that I’m busy as all get out and work for myself and am generally exhausted every second of the day from being a mother and hustling to get checks. It was about me not wanting their hair to get messed up. And when I really pared it down and thought about the message I was sending my daughters—the same exact one that was handed down to me when I was young—I gave myself a mental kick in the ass, told them to go get on their suits and took my girls to the pool.

      What I’m saying is that this conversation is REAL, and we do not do our moms a service by ignoring it or pretending that it doesn’t exist. Personally, I’m happy that Dr. Ivor is speaking on it.

    • I agree with Ty. It’s not the hair. I think a conversation about the culture of fat within African American communities is far more a factor than hair. When you have family members who accuse you of “not eating”, say you have no “meat on your bones”, self-deprecate their cooking skills when you decline second helpings – that culture is at the root of the AA obesity epidemic. Not hair. Hair is just a scapegoat for deep-seeded disapproval and jealousy.

  6. Sometimes honesty is a hard thing to hear. Case in point; my daughter has a natural, curly texture. At 11yrs old, she was tired of curls and wanted it straight. We optd for a blow-dryer & flat iron rather than chemicals and she was happy. At 12yrs, the rules changed. She wanted a texturizer and bangs. I obliged and she was thrilled. However, before each change we always talked about where her motivation was coming from; had to be sure that it had nothing to do with her friends or a boy. Gladly, as summer rolled in a& out and soccer practice has begun, she prefers to throw a good conditioners in it and wear a sporty pony tail.

  7. i just found your website looking for information on what to do with black kids hair when they swim. i have 5 kids, 2 white, and 3 adopted that are black. they all swim competitively. i wish there were more black kids swimming on teams. it’s a great exercise! until this year, we didn’t have any hair issues. now my 12 yr old wants her hair relaxed and wants it down all the time. before i’ve kept it in braids and that worked great for swim. now, i braid it and she takes it down the next day! that is too much work for 1-2 days of braids. i am open to any and all suggestions! thank you!

    • Clicked on this link from the obesity article, and I just wanted to say that I wore my hair straightened and relaxed for years without letting the style impact my exercise habits….I think it is more the elaborate crimping and curling that women try to protect for days on end that keeps them from the gym. The daughter who now wants her hair “swinging in the breeze” is following a trend, so if she is agreeable, get the microbraids for her – it lasts and she can let it hang or pin it up. It is wash and wear for a few months…

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