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

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.