WE’RE TALKING ABOUT HAIR?: Olympian Gabby Douglas was the first African American to win a gold medal in the all-around gymnastics category, but some people were more interested in her hairstyle. (Photo: Bob Daemmrich/Newscom)
What do Oprah Winfrey and Gabby Douglas have in common besides being hardworking African American females, and history-making ones to boot? Well, as you’ve probably heard by now, both came under fire last week because of issues with — wait for it — their hair.
It is no secret that within black culture hair is a pretty big deal — especially for women. Whether it’s one’s hairstyle or method of hair care, there is no shortage of opinions regarding the subject. Black women of all shades undoubtedly can say that at one point in their lives the status of their tresses has been a hot topic of conversation — and frustration.
Last week, when Oprah released a tease for the September issue of her O Magazine, where she graced the cover donning an all-new natural ’do, the chatter began immediately. In the article, O contributor Ruven Afanador said, “For the first time ever, Oprah’s appearing on the cover of O without blow-drying or straightening her hair.” Afanador writes that Winfrey enjoys wearing her hair naturally, because it makes her feel unencumbered.
But not everyone agreed that Oprah’s hair was legitimately “natural.” A controversy emerged in social media about what actually constitutes “natural,” because for some the remnant of any past chemical treatment means it’s not truly natural. Oprah needs to stop lying to herself, the detractors declared.
Soon after that, reports started circulating about criticisms of U.S. Olympic gymnast Gabby Douglas’s hair, that some black women didn’t like the ponytail or how she uses a gel to grease it back.
But why all the hubbub? What is it about black women’s hair that is deemed so worthy of scrutiny by other black women? It’s been said that a woman’s hair is her glory (1 Cor. 11:15), and if that is the case then why is the personal choice of her having a natural hairdo versus a relaxer so controversial?
Evan Miles, a writer for Journey Magazine, sought to unearth the societal implications associated with black hair and the roots to African American history and culture in his provocatively titled article, “Is a Black Woman’s Hair Her Glory or Gloom?”
Miles believes that for centuries, African Americans have been stripped of their heritage and forced to comply with a European cultural worldview that encouraged a new standard of beauty. According to him, “This meant taking the very essence of their being and denouncing it.” This is why Miles believes, perhaps more than ever, why black women are so adamant about regaining ownership of their hair and their own personal identities. According to him, black women’s various hairstyles “exude confidence” and self-beauty. He believes that it’s not only what is on the outside that matters, but also what lies deep within.
GOLDEN GIRL: Douglas waves to fans at the London Games following her gold-medal victory. “What’s wrong with my hair?” she said after hearing the criticism. “It can be bald or short, it doesn’t matter.” (Photo: Brian Peterson/Newscom)
So if beauty is only skin deep, and what is inside your head is of more importance than what is on top, why is someone like Gabby Douglas included in this debate? After the social media storm debating Douglas’ choice in hairstyle surfaced last week, the 16-year-old gymnast remarked that she was confused by the commotion. “I don’t know where this is coming from. What’s wrong with my hair?” she said. “I’m like, ‘I just made history and people are focused on my hair?’ ”
And Gabby, of course, is right. Why is it so easy for us to lose focus when it comes to black hair?
Reading the many stories in the press this past week got me to thinking again about this complicated subject that is a black woman’s hair. In my quest for understanding, I began reflecting on my own personal journey with hair — the ups and downs, the highs and lows, and the path to self-discovery and self-esteem.
In my 26 years of life, my identity with relation to my hair has seen many twists and curls. Like many black women, I once sustained my silky strands by way of a relaxer. Four years ago, however, I decided to forgo that method to go “natural.” My hairstyles over the course of my lifetime have been a diverse extension of who I am and a direct correlation of my personality. Being natural for me has been less about a healthy head of hair or making a statement, and more about learning to redefine my own personal standard of beauty.
Granted it takes longer for me to achieve my desired look each morning, because of all the deep conditioning and blow-drying that I do, but I wouldn’t trade that diversity for the world. I love my hair and appreciate the fact that I can be different while being a reflection of God’s diverse creation. I’ve got an eccentric personality, and like my shoe or handbag collection my hairstyle is an extension of who I am as a person.
I feel like India.Arie said it best in her song “I Am Not My Hair,” when she sang:
“I am not my hair/ I am not this skin/ I am not your expectations/ I am not my hair
I am not this skin/ I am a soul that lives within.” Our hair, India reminds us, does not define us. It does not make us a better person or friend, and it does not determine who we are at the end of the day.
God created us in his very image, and he does not make mistakes. Instead of questioning his handiwork, we ought to embrace our unique style and diversity. So if rocking a weave or slappin’ a perm in your hair or wearing your hair natural is what makes you happy at the end of the day, then by all means love yourself and do you!
In late May, just before the start of summer break, an energetic group of friends were playing in a park near their grade school in a suburb southwest of Chicago. One by one, the kids climbed along the edge of a footbridge and jumped into the pond below. There was laughter and splashing until one of the children, an 11-year-old African American girl, struggled after a jump. Before her friends could help her, she sank below the surface and drowned. Forty-five minutes later, divers pulled the girl’s body from the pond. The fifth-grade honors student didn’t know how to swim.
Sadly, tragedies like the one above become almost commonplace during the summer months, as more young people seek relief from warm temperatures at swimming pools or beaches. According to the Centers for Disease Control’s (CDC) May 18 “Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report,” the drowning death rate for African Americans is nine percent higher than that of the overall population and 116 percent higher than the overall population among those aged 5–14 years. Why is this?
Water safety experts agree that several factors can contribute to drownings in any demographic, including lack of supervision, failure to wear life jackets, absence of pool barriers, etc. However, the main reason that continues to emerge with regard to African Americans is the lack of swimming ability. And, since the American Academy of Pediatrics’ 2010 Technical Report on the Prevention of Drowning revealed the majority of drowning incidents resulting in the death of an African American child were more likely to happen in a public pool, often at a motel or hotel, parents should be particularly mindful of possible risks associated with water-related activities during upcoming summer trips. While it’s important to discuss what can be done to change these disturbing statistics, let’s first examine why many African Americans haven’t learned how to swim.
Why Don’t More African Americans Know How to Swim?
Agnes Davis, owner of Swim Swim Swim I Say, a swim company located in New York’s Harlem/Upper Manhattan area, believes some African Americans haven’t learned how to swim because “there’s a generational influence.” In other words, if a person’s parents or grandparents never learned how to swim, they are less likely to learn, asserted Davis, who gives lessons to children and adults. Lee Pitts, the Senior Aquatics Director for the Boys and Girls Club of Broward County in Florida, agrees. He said, “There is no generational consistency in terms of people handing down (swimming) skills from generation to generation.” For instance, while African-American parents often pass down their love of football, basketball and track and field, this doesn’t tend to happen with swimming. Harriett Navarre of the USA Swimming Foundation’s “Make A Splash” program confirmed these assertions. “Make A Splash” is an initiative that aims at providing water safety education and swim lessons to families at an affordable price. Navarre revealed, “According to the research studies the USA Swimming Foundation conducted via the University of Memphis in 2008 and 2010, the primary deterrent to learning to swim is family history. If a parent does not know how to swim, there is only a 13 percent chance that a child in that household will learn how to swim.”
Kathy Jordan of the Nile Swim Club—an African American-owned swim club in Yeadon, Pennsylvania, that’s been in existence for more than 50 years—believes “a fear of water” is another factor. Davis concurred and said, “There may have been a past drowning” that dissuaded a person from having the desire or confidence to learn how to swim. In many cases, however, no specific incident led to a person and, consequently, their family having a fear of being near or in a large body of water. The fear simply may have been passed down from generation to generation because of an upsetting story that continues to live on.
Another reason swimming isn’t as commonplace in the African American community is that many men and women have typically perceived it as one form of recreation they could either take or leave. Davis said, “There has to be a change of mindset. We don’t think it’s important. We look at swimming as a luxury; it’s not. It’s a life-saving tool.” Jordan continued, “(The importance of learning how to swim) needs to be more in the forefront of people’s minds. They don’t tend to think of it until it gets warm. It should be thought about in the fall and winter months, too. It needs to be on everyone’s mind year-round.”
SURVIVAL THRILLS: Experts say parents should make swimming lessons for their children as important as activities like ballet, piano, and Little League.
The historical lack of access to beaches and pools has long been cited as a reason why many African American children and adults don’t know how to swim. “If you don’t have access to them,” said Pitts, “you’re gonna fall behind.” While segregation doesn’t tend to keep the average African American person from swimming today as was the case in the past, access to pools can still be difficult for some. Pitts said when officials in urban areas—which don’t have “country clubs or upscale recreational centers”—are allocating resources and the resources are scarce, “swimming pools are low on their lists” because they’re expensive to maintain. This is why municipal park facilities with pools and independent, neighborhood swim schools are so valuable to their communities.
An additional factor that should not be overlooked was mentioned by both Pitts and Davis—hair upkeep. The thought of getting water and chlorine on hair that’s been recently relaxed or otherwise straightened is reason enough for many African American females to avoid pools and beaches.
But maintaining a hairstyle should not be an excuse for avoiding something as important as water safety, said Davis. She is also saddened by the fact that people will purchase “the best new sneakers, cellphone, or jacket, but aren’t willing to spend money on swim lessons.
Pitts expressed a similar frustration. While activities like ballet, piano and Little League are fun, he said, “we need to allocate a set amount of money” for swim lessons. “We should make sure we put just as much emphasis on swimming as we do on reading, writing, arithmetic, and science. … It’s not a luxury. It’s not a sport. It is a necessity.”
Make Learning How To Swim A Priority
Swimming must become a priority within the African American community in order for it to become more commonplace. Navarre said, “We now know that by teaching kids to swim, we are, in effect, increasing the chances that their kids will learn, and their (grandchildren, too).” And, Pitts suggests, “Get ‘em early.” He says it will be harder to get them into swim lessons once they “get up to around 13-14 years old” because, at that time, they might have other sports competing for their attention or be experiencing physical changes that make them more embarrassed about wearing a swimsuit. “Capture (your kids) before all of the other stuff kicks in,” he advised.
Kim Burgess is another big advocate of teaching kids how to swim. The executive director of the National Drowning Prevention Alliance (NDPA), Burgess believes preventing kids from drowning is her “ministry” and “calling from God.” She said, “It is not likely a child will die playing basketball or football or soccer, but if they don’t know how to swim they will surely die if (they have a problem in water and) no one is around to save them.”
Navarre revealed, “Many of the American Red Cross’ Learn-to-Swim providers have partnered with ‘Make a Splash’ to offer Parent and Child Aquatics lessons. This is a way for children to acclimate to the water with their parent. Children can start in these classes as early as six months.” This is around the same age Kay Smiley, Aquatics Program Specialist at the YMCA of USA, said parents can begin enrolling their children in “Y” swim classes. Visit YMCA.net to find a location near you. Jordan revealed, “We get them around two years old and, by three years old, they’re jumping into the 11-foot end.”
Which Type Of Instruction Is Best?
Experts differ in their opinions about whether individualized- or group lessons are better. Jordan said, “If (one) parent is proficient, that’s fine. The one-on-one works really well.” This would also work if a relative is a competent swimmer, as was the case for Davis, who was “first taught by a family member” and doesn’t “have any recollection of not swimming.” One resource for parents desiring to teach their children how to swim is Pitts’ DVD, “Waters: Beginner’s Swim Lessons for Adults and Children with Lee Pitts,” which can be obtained at LeePitts.com.
Smiley said, “For children aged six to 36 months, the parent or guardian is the first and best choice for teaching a child how to swim.” This is why the YMCA offers Parent/Child Aquatic classes; they offer the best of both worlds—parental involvement plus the guidance of a certified teacher. Smiley said, “The program helps strengthen and support families and offers an opportunity for the parent to spend uninterrupted time and bond with the child.” However, by age three, she said children “usually begin to socialize and are old enough to attend classes without a parent or caregiver.” At this age, according to Smiley, they should be able to follow simple instructions, communicate with adults and other children, cooperate with the instructor and understand what’s expected of them. In most cases, however, parents will probably seek out a certified swim instructor. Navarre advised, “Children must absolutely learn from a certified lessons provider. If you are not a certified provider, enroll your child in lessons.”
When attempting to select a swim class for one’s child, Smiley suggests parents first get recommendations from someone they trust then observe a class. She advised, “Stay through an entire class and watch how the adults interact with the children. Notice how behavior is managed and keep track of how much class time is spent sitting on the edge or waiting for a turn. See if the class is well organized and make sure there is at least one lifeguard on duty and a swim instructor actively watching the class. If you don’t have time to observe a class, ask a supervisor to describe the focus and class activities. Find out how children are placed in the proper class and what will be expected of your child,” said Smiley. Be sure to also “check the instructor’s credentials.” Inquire about staff training and certifications, as well. YMCA of the USA recommends instructors have current “Y” Swim Lesson Instructor, CPR Pro, First Aid, and Emergency Oxygen certifications. Experts also warn parents to make sure the ratio of students to teacher is appropriate. Navarre explained, “If the child is in a group lesson setting, we recommend that there be no more than six children for each instructor.”
When contemplating whether you’ll be able to afford lessons, remember that “Make a Splash” partners with more than 500 Learn-to-Swim providers across the nation who commit to providing a percentage of their lessons for free or at a discounted rate and/or providing their communities with free water safety education. Your YMCA, local swim schools, and neighborhood recreational centers also may offer scholarships.
Establish Rules Before You Need Them
In addition to learning how to swim, experts agree parents and children must also have water safety rules in place. That means, they need to know how to keep themselves safe whenever they are in or near a pool or a natural body of water, such as an ocean, lake, river, pond or stream. A common tip for parents is that they must be present when children are in water. Navarre said, “Children need to know that they cannot get into a pool or body of water without asking permission.” Once they have that permission, they must be supervised. Smiley said, “Parents’ constant active supervision is key to a safe outing around the pool and/or water.” This includes keeping children “within arms reach at all times” and never leaving them alone for any reason. Parents also shouldn’t assume another adult is watching their child. This can be accomplished by always having a designated “Water Watcher” who isn’t texting, reading or drinking alcohol. Share these tips with babysitters, nannies, grandparents, and anyone else who watches your children.
Dr. Julie Gilchrist of Centers For Disease Control (CDC) warned that “inappropriate supervision” can lead to drowning before you realize what happened. She said, “Parents don’t realize drowning can happen very quickly and very quietly.” She revealed, “A child could’ve already experienced irreversible brain damage” in the time it takes for an emergency response team, such as 911 paramedics, to arrive. The CDC’s report on unintentional drownings revealed nonfatal drowning injuries may result in long-term disabilities such as memory problems, learning disabilities, and loss of basic functioning.
Navarre said children and adults also need to get into the habit of making sure a lifeguard is on duty. Smiley added, “When arriving at the beach, the water park or pool, find a location near a lifeguard.” Jordan agreed and said, “Obey the lifeguard. They have the ability to see what’s going on (in the water).” Since municipal beaches and community pools are officially open for the summer, spotting a lifeguard at those places should be easy. However, finding one in the hotel or motel during your family vacation may be difficult. Kathleen Reilly, the Pool & Spa Campaign Leader at the Consumer Products Safety Commission, said lot of hotels and motels have pools, but “you swim at your own risk.” She said, “They won’t often have the budgets to have lifeguards present. So, parents have to be vigilant.”
Another rule parents should have is that everyone in the family must learn basic cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) techniques. The CDC’s report indicates that, the more quickly CPR is started—as in the case of a bystander attempting to help a drowning victim—the better their chance of survival. The American Red Cross offers CPR classes in different locations around the country. Visit the Red Cross to find a class near you.
SPLASH CONTROL: Parents shouldn’t assume another adult is watching their child, say safety experts. Always have a designated “Water Watcher” who isn’t texting, reading or drinking alcohol.
While these tips are great for moms and dads with children of all ages, they will likely end up providing the most amount of reassurance to parents of grammar school- or middle school children who are old enough to have play dates or sleepovers with friends. Gilchrist said, “When kids are five to 14 years old, they “spend more time at their friends’ houses,” so it’s harder to monitor their activities. It’s even more difficult for parents of teens to monitor them, so additional rules may be required. For example, even though teens aren’t legally permitted to consume alcohol, drinking is often associated with drowning incidents involving them. According to the United States Lifesaving Association website, alcohol can impair swimming ability and judgment, which may cause them to take risks they wouldn’t otherwise take.
So, if your child hasn’t yet learned how to swim, make sure they learn how this summer. Learning how to swim could save his—or someone else’s life—and may have additional practical applications. Smiley said, “After learning all the strokes and safety skills, people can move on to learning how to play water polo, synchronized swimming, skin diving and snorkeling and competitive swimming.” Pitts stated that equipping a young person with the ability to swim could also lay a foundation for them to have a career that’s hinged upon a person’s ability to swim well, including marine biology or underwater photography. He also commented that learning how to swim would open up additional doors to someone who goes into one of the armed forces.
If your child’s school doesn’t have an aquatics program, consider contacting the principal to see if you could help create one. Navarre said, “There are many school districts that are partnering with swim lesson providers and blocking off a few hours a week to take students to swim lessons during the school day. If every school district could implement a program similar to this, then every child would receive the opportunity to learn the life skill of swimming.”
Perhaps your church would also allow you to create a swim club. Jordan said churches “block out time” at her swim school and divide their reservation into both recreational- and instructional time. Another option, according to Davis, is to rent pool time at a local college and hire a swim school to bring in instructors to give church members lessons. Churches could even invite their pastors to get involved in promoting the importance of learning how to swim, said Gilchrist. In the event church members can’t afford swim lessons, Navarre—who recommended churches consider providing transportation for members to get to and from swim lessons—said they could hold fundraisers to raise money for scholarships to make lessons more affordable.
And, if you’ve never learned how to swim, consider taking lessons. Navarre said, “If the parent does not know how to swim they should join their child in lessons. There is no way they will be able to help a child in danger if they, themselves, do not know how to swim.” Smiley added, “Parents, children and even grandparents” can take lessons. “It’s never too late,” she said.
Wade (Safely) in the Water
Check out these websites for more information on water safety and diversity in swimming.
• Diversity in Aquatics Drowning prevention/Diversity in swimming.
• International Water Safety Day Water safety/Drowning prevention.
• Swim For Life Drowning prevention.
• USA Swimming Drowning prevention/Diversity/“Make A Splash” tour with Cullen Jones.
I lay the flat iron down next to the sink, and when I lean in close, I see the gray is creeping up again. I wonder if I should do something about it, thinking of all the ways I’ve worn my hair through the years, how my hair tells the story of my life.
My earliest memories include collard greens and thick cut bacon and sitting on the floor between my mother’s legs — or my cousin’s or aunt’s legs — as she sat on the couch or on the glider on my grandmother’s porch and worked the comb through my hair.
Whoever got the honor of trying to get me to sit still that day would spread a glob of hair grease on the back of her hand. She’d part my hair and with her index finger, run a line of hair grease down that part, pulling my hair tight into cornrows, or just three braids. Or four. It was years before I knew the white girls didn’t use hair grease and that it was best to keep that information to myself.
Eventually, I started getting my hair pressed. I don’t know how that started or why, but I’d sit in a kitchen chair while my mom heated up the comb on the red-hot eye of the stove. At least an hour passed getting my hair to go from natural to straight while hair grease sizzled and smoke rose up to meet the ceiling before slipping out the window into the air outside. The first time I told a White girl I don’t wash my hair every day — or even every week, for that matter — I thought she’d fall right over. So I stopped telling people that, too.
One year on summer break from elementary school, I let my hair go. Wore it just the way God made it. And when my mother took me with her to visit at a nursing home, the woman in the corner asked my mother about her son. My mother doesn’t have a son. And my hair was soon forced back into compliance.
In middle school, my mother took me to Mrs. Spicer’s house, where a hair salon was set up in the basement. I guess Mom decided it would be easier on everyone to pay someone else to press my hair instead of fighting with the hot comb in the kitchen on a Saturday afternoon. So, twice a month after school, I’d get dropped off for the washing and the drying and the combing out and the pressing, and I was lucky if I got out of there without having my scalp burned at least once.
Eventually, we caved in to the chemicals that mark the point of almost-no-return, and relaxers became the order of the day. I would keep my hands away from my scalp on the day I knew I’d be getting a touch-up, a necessary precaution to keep the lye from burning my scalp. For years, I treated my hair this way because it was easier to wear my hair straight than to deal with the people who wanted to know things like, “Can I touch it?” or “Do you use a pick for that?” or “Does your hair even get wet when it’s like that?” or “Can you hide things in there?”
In my thirties, I let my hair go again. And it was good. It was very good, and I wore it like that for years. When I finally changed it, it was because I wanted to and not because of the questions or the fears. I just wanted Halle Berry’s haircut for a change.
I keep staring at my reflection and the gray that’s creeping back, and I think it might be time to let it go again and wear it just the way God made it.
This essay originally appeared at The High Calling, an online magazine about work, life, and God. It is reprinted here by permission.
As if chemical relaxer burns, alopecia, and unnecessary poverty from the staggering cost of sew-ins and lace fronts wasn’t enough, our hair has found another way to potentially kill us.
U.S. Surgeon General Regina M. Benjamin, who is black and no stranger to black women’s hair concerns, issued a warning last month against the common excuse of skipping exercise to preserve a hairstyle. According to the New York Times, Dr. Benjamin’s remarks to Bronner Bros. International Hair Show attendees aligned with a 2008 study where a third of the women cited their hair as a reason they exercised less often.
“For shame,” I’d like to say, but I’m just as guilty — maybe even more so because my hair is chemically relaxed. I’m in no danger of the regression from straight to curly to kinky that happens when moisture strikes pressed natural hair. I can identify, however, with the sinking feeling brought on by rain when I’ve just dropped $50, $75 or $100 (or more) to get my hair done. And, in case you didn’t know, weaves and wigs aren’t exactly waterproof nor are they cheap. Given the investment, I absolutely think twice before willfully dismantling a style through sweat from a vigorous workout.
Biblically, our hair is our glory, our individual object of pride. When Mary anoints the feet of Jesus and then washes them with her hair, the symbolism of the act of sacrifice is as much about the cost of the oil as the fact that she willingly sullied her hair to honor the Lord. Then and now, regardless of whether we grow ’em or buy ’em, we hold our tresses in high regard. We capitalize on our locks’ ability to influence the jobs we’re offered, determine how we’re treated and even how we’re admired. Ignoring the historical and social context of black women’s hair makes it easy to ridicule the expense of it all and downplay its significance.
But our hair is not as significant as we make it, particularly if we allow it to compromise our bodies so dramatically. Our hair was meant as a covering, not a cross to bear.
Exercise isn’t just for overweight people, and those who don’t engage risk more than obesity but also hypertension, higher levels of bad cholesterol, poor sleep, and increased fatigue. Beyond that, if it’s our desire to positively participate in a movement of God with a broad impact on the world around us, physical health must trump physical beauty, even as the two coexist.
Whether well coiffed or not, we still exist for a greater purpose that we can’t be ready to fulfill if we’re falling apart. We can’t be spiritually strong if we’re physically worn down.
As good stewards of the bodies God gave us — that still belong to Him — we have a responsibility to maintain ourselves as much as possible to fulfill our individual callings. And if that means exercise at the price of a few bad hair days, then so be it. Just keep the flat iron ready for after the workout.