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Member Research & Reports

Member Research & Reports

IUPUI Professor Finds Hair a Barrier to African American Women’s Physical Activity

In early January, Social and Behavioral Sciences professor in the Indiana University Richard M. Fairbanks School of Public Health – Indianapolis, Dr. Kathryn Coe and colleagues published the study, “Hair as a Barrier to Physical Activity among African American Women: A Qualitative Exploration.”

[Photo: Dr. Kathryn Coe]

African American women face unique sociocultural barriers to physical activity engagement that may contribute to their low physical activity levels and high cardiometabolic disease burden. One barrier reported in recent research is that being physically active can have an undesirable effect on African American women’s hairstyles and hair maintenance.

Because the underlying factors that may contribute to this barrier are not clear, the purpose of this study was to explore hairstyle maintenance as a barrier to physical activity among African American women and to identify effective strategies for overcoming this barrier with a culturally relevant physical activity intervention.

Through a qualitative study, data were collected from focus groups comprised of 23 sedentary and obese African American (AA) women (median age = 38.1 years, median body mass index = 39.8 kg/m2). These data were analyzed using content analysis, and three key themes emerged from the qualitative narratives of the participants:

  1. Impact of perspiration on hair and hairstyle maintenance
  2. Image and social comparisons
  3. Solutions to overcome hair-related barriers to physical activity

With the first narrative, impact of perspiration on hair and hairstyle maintenance, the participants shared that perspiring while engaging in physical activity negatively impacts many of their hairstyles. Time and monetary burdens were also associated with physical activity-related hairstyle maintenance that further contribute to this issue.

The second narrative theme of image and social comparison focused on how an African American woman’s hairstyle is an important part of the image and the social comparisons made by non-African Americans regarding the hairstyles and maintenance practices of AA women.

As for solutions to hairstyle maintenance barriers, participants described a variety of potential styling techniques that may help alleviate maintenance concerns, including braids, locks, and natural hairstyles. However, no styling technique was uniformly endorsed by all study participants.

Findings highlight the significance of hair in the African American community and provide additional insight on appropriate intervention design strategies to overcome this sociocultural barrier to physical activity. Future research is needed to corroborate and further expand on these findings.

Read the full study, published in Frontiers in Public Health.