Hair or History: What's Behind African-American Views on Swimming?

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Swimming classes at Newark YMCA Swimming classes at Newark YMCA (Jenna Flanagan/WNYC)

Some African-American women believe activities like swimming are out of the question. That’s often because they're concerned that the chemicals in chlorine will further damage already chemically processed hair.

In Chris Rock’s popular documentary "Good Hair," music producer Andre Harrell says he often takes hair-related issues into consideration before dating a black woman -- like, will she be willing to accompany him to steamrooms, bathhouses, beach trips or swimming pools?

Later in the film, actress Nia Long comments that her relationship with a man has to be really special for her to get her hair wet in front of him. She says, “Taking a shower together could be more intimate than having sex.”

It’s fair to say most black women do not wear their hair in its most natural state. Instead, the hair is often straightened with a chemical called sodium hydroxide, or NaOH.

Get ready for a chemistry lesson…. Here’s how it works.

On its own, sodium hydroxide, also known as lye, is used as a chemical base to manufacture paper, textiles, drinking water, soap, detergents and drain cleaner.

But in any black hair salon it’s known by its common name, “relaxer.” It comes in a cream form and is applied, by a professional cosmetologist, over the roots of the hair.

Michael Hawkins, a senior instructer at Manhattan’s Hair Design Institute, explains that every strand of hair has three layers: the cuticle, the cortex and the medula. Once applied to the hair, the relaxer opens up the cuticle layer and penetrates the cortex, breaking down chemical bonds so that the hair can be reshaped into a straighter structure.

Once that’s complete, the hair has to be rinsed out and cleaned with a neutralizing shampoo to harden or stop the action of the chemicals and seal the hair. It’s then "softened up" with a deep moisturizing conditioner.

Hawkins says concern often arises because that chemical process can strip what little natural moisture there was in the hair. And chlorine, which is an acidic chemical and has ions that are part of common salt, works against the relaxer, an alkaline. If not propertly cared for, hair can break or even shed.

A cynic or person of non-African background might suggest that these women not chemically relax their hair. They could wear it natural and short and swim all they want. Unfortunately for black women, the issue of the appearance of our hair goes waaaaaay deeper than that.

Having long straight hair has been a standard of beauty for European women for centuries. White women have even been known to use everything from flat irons to blowdriers to attain the straight look that was believed to be more manageable and controllable -- the way a lady of society should be.

And at no time (in my opinion) were the rules of society more restrictive than during the Victorian era/antebellum America.

A woman’s hair was considered her ‘crowing glory’ and was never supposed to be cut. African-American women by contrast, have a tighter curl, often called "kinky," that doesn’t grow long. Mostly because it doesn’t need to.

Trichology, the study of hair, says the purpose of those strands on someone’s head is to protect the scalp from the sun. Hawkins says Europeans tend to secrete much more natural oil in their hair than people of African descent, making the hair heavier and holding more heat close to the scalp. Those natural oils, Hawkins says, also make the hair stand up better to the the stripping conditions of pool or sea water.

Everyone has to wash their hair after swimming…but if you’re black it’s probably more urgent that you wash it immediately and condition it as well. And this does not include the time it may take to re-style it to what ever look you had before jumping in the water.

It’s easy to see how this much time and energy can be unappealing to a kid whose mom may have just paid $60 to $100 to get it done in the first place.

However, NYU Sociology Professor Ann Mourning says vanity isn’t to blame for the fewer numbers of black swimmers. It’s access to swimming pools and segregation.

It’s no secret that summertime activities in poor urban neighborhoods are more likely to include an open fire hydrant than aquatics.

But Mourning says when segregation was the law of the land, swimming pools were considered to be far too intimate of a place for blacks and whites to mix. Some pools even had rules that if a black person put so much as a toe in the water, the entire pool would need to be drained and scrubbed clean. To back up this exclusion and remove the burden of responsibility for it, theories were created that blacks simply weren’t geneticallly or physically suited for the water. As a result, Mourning says many African-Americans didn’t learn to swim and some even developed a phobia of it. They ended up teaching their own kids to fear the water as well.

Which brings me back to hair.

Tiera Sutton, a 19-year-old lifeguard at the Newark YMCA, has no such fear of the water, obviously. She's always in the pool -- and she wears her hair relaxed. She says as long as the washes and conditions her hair after work, she’s doesn't have any problems with it breaking or shedding. She says hair fears and the pool may just be an easy way for an adult to cover any embarassment about not knowing how to swim or swim well.


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Comments [9]


Sorry, I need to make a correction in my previous comment.

I meant to say that the author of this article, not the senior instructor at the hair design institute. And also, i meant to say "does not grow long", not "does not grow".

Nov. 01 2011 11:44 PM

I'm only a teenager and I even know that what the author wrote about black people not being able to grow long hair is untrue. How can someone, let alone an adult, be so ignorant and clueless to try and say that a group of people cannot grow their hair long! That is outrageous!!!! Are you african american? Do you possess the type of hair african americans have? Have you gone to Africa, and I mean every part (because Africa is such a diverse place) and saw the long beautiful hair many women have over there? I DIDN'T THINK SO!

The reason natural hair appears to be short is because of severe shrinkage. Also, the reason some women with relaxers tend to have short hair is because they aren't caring for it probably considering that the chemical bonds in the hair were weakened to make it straight.

Anyway, we are all human beings and unless you have a medical condition pertaining to the growth of your hair, we ALL grow our hair at an average of 1/2 an inch a month. I'm still disgusted that a senior instructer at Manhattan’s Hair Design Institute can sit here and actually write that black people's hair does not grow. He should be ashamed of himself for putting out lies.

Real African history is not written in our biased textbooks, but it's time for this world to wake up!

Nov. 01 2011 11:39 PM
LishaMarie from New Orleans, LA

Yes, most black women hair are relaxed. The cost to maintain relaxed hair is one reason why swimming on a regular basis is not an option. The main reason why black women relax their hair is because they do not know how to maintain or grow their hair in its natural state. For many years black women were taught the European standard of hair care. Having relaxed hair makes it easier to follow European hair care standards. The process is a lot different when caring for afro-textured hair in its natural state.

Ladies, afro-textured hair can grow long! It grows healthier and better without using any heat such as flat irons and blow dryers. There is a natural hair movement rising.I have seen and met women with beautiful long kinky hair. They are women who through trial and error learned how to care for and grow their kinky hair long. I am not talking about the afro and dread locks. Styling our hair is a lot easier than you think. It just take time, patience, and practice at first. I decided to give up the relaxer 6 months ago. Since then my hair has been growing like weed! 3 inches of hair growth so far. I have not been to a salon since I decided to go natural and will never relax my hair again.

Visit my blog at

Apr. 24 2011 10:07 PM

I will never forget inviting a black person to my party, and after they left i noticed a big greasy disgusting jerry-curl juice stain on the back of our 4,000 sofa.

Filthy dirty vile ne-groids!
NEVER AGAIN! Do you really want to stew in the same water black people do? Hell Noooooooooooooo!!!

Apr. 22 2011 04:23 PM
petagay from Ohio

In response to Cancann's comments:
First of all, you don't know anything about black hair. Our hair grows as long as any other race of people's hair with or without relaxers. My mom and all her sisters had jet black hair that came to their waist. All they did was keep it oiled, brushed and wore it natural. They use to swim in the lakes in Alabama. They wore real long braids or pigtails when swimming.

Black women's hair does not grow long. When they have long hair as your mother and sisters did, it is because they are of mixed blood - a black women of pure sub-Sahara Afircan descent does not have long hair.

Sep. 23 2010 06:14 PM
VI ANOMALY from Powder Springs, GA

When I read the article it did have a point about hair. It may be the main reason for some not the majority. For me personally I don't want my hair wet period. Not necessarily because its straighten. Maybe I just had my hair done in a style which cost $$45-$50, if I get my hair wet not only will it be a waste of money the salons are now closed I'm looking a hot mess, not going to happen. Or I just don't want to get wet I like relaxing in the shade. That's my vain side, but not everyone is vain. I liked CanCann's opinion very good point. I grew up on an island surrounded by water and cannot swim. Can you explain that? Its amazing cause some of us spend like every week at the beach and never go into the water. A lot of times we have parties on the beach and don't go in the water its more for the kids. Anyways both parties have very good points the issue may not be about hair but much more and it varies from each persons personality.

Jul. 24 2010 12:51 PM
Gregory A. Butler from Harlem, New York, NY

This story was beyond awful and reeking with liberal racism!

The reporter could have explored the real barriers to Black women participating in swimming.

Like the minimal number of public swimming pools in poor Black communities.

Or the lack of free or low cost swimming classes in inner cities.

Or the fact that many municipal public pools have a serious problem with what in NYC is known as “whirlpooling” – boys and men sexually harassing and even sexually assaulting girls and women at poolside and in the water – and the fact that these pools often don’t have adequate security (or the security they do have don’t see “whirlpooling” as a problem) to protect their female patrons from sexually abusive males.

Or the fact that many Southern cities with significant Black communities drained their municipal swimming pools and filled them in with concrete rather than integrate them back in the 1960’s.

No, let’s not talk about any of that.

That might involve challenging American institutional racism – and make some of the White listeners uncomfortable.

Instead, lets blame Black under-representation in recreational swimming on Black women’s hair!!!!!

Yes, that’s the easy way to do this story!

“They” don’t swim because their hair isn’t normal like ours is!

Talk about Othering!

Typical liberal racism at work!

Jul. 23 2010 03:11 PM
Julia Chance


As a beauty a journalist who's worked and written for most of the leading magazines aimed at black women, it's a fact that concerns about maintaining straight hair keeps a number of us from exercising regularly period, especially swimming. Can't tell you how many hair care articles I've written addresses how to deal with relaxed hair after gym sessions and swimming. I always kid that our hair preoccupation is the reason we have no black women on the Olympic swim team. Fortunately there's a natural hair revolution occuring that's allowing us to exercise healthy lifestyle options. I wrote about it here:

Jul. 20 2010 06:14 PM
Cancann from Ohio

This comment is outrgeaous. First of all, you don't know anything about black hair. Our hair grows as long as any other race of people's hair with or without relaxers. My mom and all her sisters had jet black hair that came to their waist. All they did was keep it oiled, brushed and wore it natural. They use to swim in the lakes in Alabama. They wore real long braids or pigtails when swimming. When the hair is wet, it is very easy to comb. When it's dry, it frizz up very tight, that's why people who wear their hair natural, oil it really good and style it while its still wet or they would dry it to press it out, or whatever. I love my hair natural or straighten but I mostly like it natural. I think African Americans has the best hair because we can do a lot with it and look good.

Most other race of people are intimitated by our natural hair, especially when we were wearing the Fros.

My old wise uncle once said that we praise our Lord when our hair is set up towards the heavens. And everything that is up right toward heaven is worshipping this is why the Jehovah created us with thick kinky hair that stand up in continual worship of him. PRAISE THE LORD FOR THIS CROWN.

It's not true that black women do not like to swim because of their hair. I did my hair really nice Saturday morning and went swimming Saturday evening. Naturally, I wore a swimming cap but my hair still got wet, but so what. I just redid it. I will never sacrifice my fun because of being afraid my hair is going to get wet, come on.

Jul. 20 2010 03:46 PM

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