A Link Between Hair and Weight: Andrews’ Carole J. Woolford-Hunt Featured in Time
On August 25, 2016, Time magazine published an article about research that was coauthored by sisters Susan J. Woolford, M.D., M.P.H., pediatrician at the University of Michigan and Carole J. Woolford-Hunt, PhD., psychologist and Department Chair of Graduate Psychology & Counseling at Andrews University, along with David Williams, PhD., sociologist at Harvard University. The article, entitled “How Hair Style Could Be Linked to Weight in Teen Girls,” cites the researchers’ findings that an additional potential reason may exist for why African-American adolescent girls have a higher prevalence of obesity than Caucasian or Asian adolescents.
While researchers have documented widely the higher rate of obesity in African-American teenage girls, they have also noted that this correlates with the tendency for them to often be less physically active than their peers. However, Woolford and Woolford-Hunt explore the question of why young black girls have a lower rate of activity.
While no factor serves as the only variable and many young African-American children grow up without access to resources like gyms, coaches and leagues, research by Woolford and Woolford-Hunt suggests that hair choice could be yet another factor.
The article references the visibility of black hair in the media, recalling the scandalous “nappy hair” comment regarding the Rutgers University women’s basketball team that cost Don Imus his job in 2007. It also mentions the more recent 2012 and 2016 criticism of American Olympian Gabby Douglas and her hair.
The sisters write, “We have come to believe that the strong American cultural preference for straightened long hair might be affecting black teens’ willingness to choose natural hairstyles over straightened hair styles. This they believe may be related to their ethnic identity and may affect their ability to exercise regularly as the straightened styles revert to natural when exposed to sweat or moisture.” After arriving at this hypothesis, the two conducted a study.
The study which was recently published in BMC Obesity, tested their theory through recruiting “participants from socioeconomically diverse churches in Michigan, Georgia and California in 2011.” A total of thirty-six African-American adolescent girls completed two-hour focus group sessions and filled out surveys to “assess their ethnic identity and their self-reported level of physical activity.”
After reviewing the results with other key researchers, they “analyzed the data and found common themes in the transcripts and associations between participants’ reports of physical activity, their ethnic identity scores and their hairstyle choices.”
According to the article, “Individuals with higher ethnic identity scores, who identified more closely with their race, chose more ethnocentric hairstyles that require no straightening, reported greater levels of physical activity.”
Four main themes emerged from their data. The first being that concerns about hair and hairstyles began between the ages of eight and 15 and participants reported that they changed from “juvenile” or natural styles, to “adult” or straightened styles. Second, participants reported they avoided getting wet or sweating during exercise because that would cause their straightened hair to get “nappy.” Third, braids with extensions and natural styles were apparently not viewed as very attractive, according to study participants. And the final theme that emerged from the data reported that participants almost universally chose long, straight hairstyles as most attractive. Some participants did think short natural hair was “OK” but that it “only looks good on some people.”
“I can definitely relate to the idea of hair being a factor in exercise/overall health,” said Rebecca Coleman (Andrews University alumna, 2016, Masters in International and Community Development) said. “I am natural, meaning my hair is not chemically straightened, but on the rare occasion that I flat iron it I make sure to do it on a Friday so it's straight for Sabbath.”
Coleman continued: “The reason is that once I hit the gym again on Sunday, my straight hair will be ruined. However, overall, I put a higher priority on exercise than my hair, but for those girls who don't, something as simple as a hairstyle can jeopardize their health."
Melanie Reed (senior, architecture) concurs. “I’ve never had an issue with maintaining my weight because I think exercise is more important. I played sports all throughout high school,” Reed said. “You just have to find what works for you. If you need to put in extensions or weave to make it easier, then do that. Exercising is really important.”
“Honestly I think it might be black hair in general,” Reed said. “I know girls who don’t want to deal with their natural hair if they work out too much. So straightened or natural, either way you might just have to consider what your priorities are.”
Although the study does not claim that all African-American adolescent teens feel this way, the similarity in reports across state lines was shockingly consistent, with nuances such as teens in Georgia viewing natural hair as more acceptable than teens in Michigan viewed it.
The sisters acknowledge the limitations of their study, the small sample of the population, but admit that what they did find suggests a connection between ethnic identity, hairstyle choices and activity level.
The article concludes with mentioning that “rigid beauty standards aren’t good for anyone, but when they are particularly hard – or actually impossible – to achieve among some ethnic groups, they affect the development of positive ethnic identity and may rob young people of a chance at a healthy and active life.”
The link to the article and the information reported can be found (http://time.com/4456756/hair-styles-black-teenagers/).