Chlorine and Curls: Why Many Black Women Won't Go Swimming

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Tiera Sutton, lifeguard at the Newark YMCA Tiera Sutton, lifeguard at the Newark YMCA (Jenna Flanagan/WNYC)

Swimming is a great form of exercise, a refreshing summer activity and an important life skill. Yet African American women seem to be, let's say, less than enthusiastic.

"Oh no, black women don't swim." Michael Hawkins, an instructor at Hair Design Institute in Manhattan, often hears that from clients, students and some stylists when the subject of swimming comes up. "She's not getting her hair wet. No that's not gonna happen."

Most African-American women wear their hair chemically straightened or relaxed.

To get that look, stylsts often use a chemical called sodium hydroxide to re-shape black hair into a straighter form. But pool water can be detrimental to that.

"A lot of the chlorine in the water, sometimes the salt or whatever works against the actual relaxer that you put in the hair. So over time you end up having breakage or hair shedding, coming out, things like that."

If it's not properly cared for, black hair, especially in a relaxed state, won't grow long. But this isn't just about damaged hair.

"The hair issue is not just a beauty issue for black women," says Ann Mourning, an assistant professor of sociology at New York University who specializes in race and ethnicity. "It traditionally has all this other meaning that went well beyond sexual attractiveness. It has everything to do with being a respectable, worthy member of the community."

Mourning says black women's complex relationship with their hair can be traced back to antebellium America, when long straight hair was the one of the most symbolic markers of beauty. She says from there it's no surprise that the country's first black millionaire, and the first American woman ever to earn a million dollars, was Madam CJ Walker, who developed a line of beauty and hair care products specifically for black women.

"Not just making them beautiful, but also making them respectable," Mourning explains. "Giving them the kind of image which is consistent with that of a 'lady' of society."

But Mourning says there's more to the swimming issue than just hair. The smaller numbers of African-American swimmers can also be traced back to segregation.

"Not only were public pools off limits to black people, but there was also this sense that that would just be an unbearably intimate kind of place for blacks and whites to mix," Mourning says.

At the Newark YMCA, classes for swimming lessons are packed this summer, as instructors say they usually are. May Burnette, brought her 7-year-old son Solomen to swim class at the Y. Her relaxed hair is loosely combed back, revealing a few centimeters of her natural hair underneath. She says swimming has been a big part of her life since she was 4.

"Growing up, I had locks, so my hair wasn't a big deal to me," she says. "I never thought about it. The chlorine destroying my hair -- my hair's a mess right now, and the reason I'm not in the water is because I'm actually gonna get my hair done tomorrow. But I'll be in the water next week without a cap."

Teria Sutton, a 19-year-old lifeguard at the pool, wears her hair relaxed, but says she's become accustomed to swimming with it.  

"You might have to, you know, wash it more often because of the chlorine," she says, trailing off. A little extra conditioner helps too.

Sutton says it was important for her to conquer her fear of deep water but speculates some of her girlfriends hesitation to do the same has less to do with hair and more to do with a fear of not knowing how to swim well.

"I think it's a cover," she says.

But looking out at the afternoon's swim class, gender, race and notions of beauty still seem to be an issue. The class at the Y is mostly boys.


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Comments [11]

TJ from Uk

Hi girls,
I am a black female competitive atlhete. My swim coach told me to shave my head. There must be better options . I stopped using relaxers 3 years ago, went natural. My very thick, curly hair is below my shoulders. I want to win, swim, be a girl, ank keep my hair?! Productsa. Advice

Dec. 21 2013 11:07 PM
Sally from Sydney

Interesting article, and the comments are interesting too still a lot of debate and mixed opinion about what the chlorine does to relaxed hair

Apr. 27 2013 04:22 AM

I was in Colorado not to long ago on vacation, and I wanted to go swimming. My hair started getting very very dry. I was desperate for shampoo and conditioner that wouldn't dry my hair out. THANK GOD my sister (who has amazing hair) brought the Shielo Hydrate Shampoo with her ! I tried the Shielo shampoo for the first time and I was amazed how great this stuff is! I didn't even have to use leave in conditioner like I always do. So soft!! Then I got home, where the water is a lot better! I always have to use leave in conditioner and use deep conditioner on a daily basis. I get split ends and hair breakage, and they said your hair can't split along the hair shaft, well mine does. I will have to use this on a month to month basis and see if it improves that, I hate split ends!

Jan. 08 2013 10:27 AM
Tyra N

I have relaxed, colour treated hair and the Shielo Hydrate Conditioner is fantastic to use after both of those processes. Nice smell. I use it with each shampoo. Love this product!

Oct. 28 2010 12:13 PM
Mazi from CHICAGO

It is really sad ..the self hatred that black people seemingly will always have..Sisters ..there is nothing wrong with the way your hair grows...Animals have no problem with being what they were created to be..But many of us do..Many black people say they love god and obey god ;but they hate the way their "god" made them...insane...Black people really need to analyze the current effects that old and modern day slavery has on us..We were and still are taught by our former and current slave masters that we are less than human...How can that be when we have MELANIN..Caucasians are dying very rapidly due to exposure to the sun...Think about that...The sun gives us life..We live in a solar system..HOW COME THEY CAN'T TAKE NORMAL AMOUNTS OF SUN WITHOUT GETTING SKIN CANCER ? How can we claim to love "god" and hate ourselves at the same time?...Love yourself....

Aug. 06 2010 12:24 PM

I really enjoyed this article. More so than anything, I love the dialogue it is provoking. If anyone wants to continue the discussion I'm blogging on facebook about hair care and right now, specifically about black hair care and swimming. Check it out and lets continue the discussion:

Jul. 29 2010 10:01 AM
mysslovely from Florida

I used to have a relaxer all through childhood and I went swimming atleast 5 days a week since I was about 9yrs old especially being on the swim team. No damge done to my hair because of the swimming being that my nana was a cosmetologist she suggested that my mom throughly rinse out my hair and condition at night while washing it 2xs a wk. On the flip side as an adult I have found that my hair being in it's natural state it the easiest thing for me. My hair was damaged more as a teenager using dyes, relaxers and alot of heat and not properly taking caring of it. I wash my hair 2-3xs a week now and condition it every other day. My hair is healthier than ever and long. Most black women are taught that you get "nappy" hair when you swim so they don't want to do it and they teach their kids that and it is a vicious cycle. If you take care of your hair, no matter if you swim or not it will grow, and be healthy!! Oh and another SN: A number of black ppl as whole do not know how to swim and they need to learn!!

Jul. 25 2010 07:40 PM
DontWorryAboutMyName from Toronto

Here we go again...another article that stereotypes black women and being anti-waterbabies. This is complete BS. I am of 2 parents who come from the West Indies and hence, the very same thing that "we" black women are afraid of is what surrounds these islands in the Caribbean. Every woman has their choice to go swimming or do water-related activities but if there are some women who want to avoid the work of getting their hair back to a normal state after being in the water, then that's them. I had a relaxer for 7 years and my hair has always been mid-back length. I went swimming and managed to survive growing it out of that relaxer. The chlorine or salt if you are at the beach, only damages your hair IF you do not wash your hair and condition it as you usually do afterwards. Otherwise, the water does no damage. If your hair breaks or falls out, that's on the person for not taking care of their hair. If one is so worried about that, put it in braids or wear a swimming cap. You know how many girls I saw do that when I was in Trinidad this year? Ok, not much effort there and I knew they were foreigners like myself. How about this for an idea? Try going chemicals. For me, it works cuz' whenever it rains, I wet my hair and allow it to dry into it's natural curly state with mousse/wrapping lotion or black gel...and when it's a sunny day, I straighten it with a flat iron. Just a thought...

Jul. 22 2010 11:55 AM
Becky from Brooklyn

I have chemically relaxed hair and its natural state is dry and course. I disagree with the idea that chlorine in the swimming pool causes relaxed hair to break and hair shed! Seriously! I think many are reluctant because if takes a lot more time and effort to wash, condition and style our hair.

I spend a lot of time in the NYC public swimming pools and beaches without a swimming cap. I always go on a Sunday morning, so I can go to the hair salon after my day at the pool.

BTW, I used to have locks for 8 years and my hair in other natural styles for 5 years. At the end of the day, relaxing my hair is the most convenient and comfortable style for me.

Jul. 22 2010 10:02 AM
Tee from NewYorkJersey

A NYC news item reported there were 8 drowning deaths so far this summer, all young people swimming in unauthorized areas or in areas where no life guard was on duty. This is a tragedy that is reported out each year during the swimming season.

Beyond the issues of hair which I am convinced black women will not get past -- as a black woman with a short natural hair style for over 15 years I can say this with impunity – is the issue of ensuring our children are introduced to the joys of safe swimming as early in life as possible.

There is not enough push or interest to introduce swimming into physical education programs at our urban public schools, i.e. schools in the Bronx, Brooklyn and Manhattan have less impetus and resources to engage city officials and public and non public resources to ensure our youth are exposed to safe swimming habits and indeed taught to swim early in life.

Jul. 20 2010 12:17 PM
Denise from Montclair, NJ

I had shoulder length locks in Arizona. I went on a swimming exercise campaign some years back. The chlorine so utterly destroyed my locks that I had to cut them off and start over again. That's like a white woman having to cut off her mid-back length hair, because she decided to get in shape. Now that's a problem! Don't you think??

Jul. 20 2010 11:01 AM

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