Hair, Stress, and Obesity

Inspired by the approaching MLK holiday, the topic under examination is the effect of culture on the obesity stats of different ethnic groups. A study done in 2012 (and some things can be counted on to not change very much) indicated that the internalization of weight stigma is much more likely to afflict African-American women with depression, than it is to affect white women that way.

Also, black and Hispanic teens are more likely than white teens to have bulimia. A startlingly counter-intuitive finding was that wealthy non-white people get more cardiovascular disease than their racial counterparts who struggle with poverty. Michael Hobbes wrote for The Huffington Post,

One explanation is that navigating increasingly white spaces, and increasingly higher stakes, exerts stress on racial minorities that, over time, makes them more susceptible to heart problems.

Here is one of those stresses. For, Rick Nauert, Ph.D., reported on research performed by a team led by childhood obesity expert Susan Woolford, M.D., M.P.H. Dr. Woolford’s co-investigator (and sister), Dr. Carole Woolford-Hunt, is an expert in the relationship between race and culture, as well as a counseling psychologist.

In America’s black communities, hair plays a major role. Entire books (and movies) have been written about the psychological aspects and racist angles around Afro-textured hair and Afrocentric styles. Hair issues, raised by schools and workplaces, are generating court cases even as we speak. An elaborate hairstyle with many braids and beads can be very alienating to white people, as a look that is “too ethnic.”

On the other hand, these same critics will also complain that natural hair, just growing out of a person’s head as Nature intended, is also offensively ethnic. A lot of white people are not satisfied unless black people “do something about” their hair, mainly straighten it, because white people simply feel more comfortable around straight hair.

It is a far-reaching topic, and these scholars tackled a small corner of it — the intersection of hair and obesity — with thorough attention. What bothers these researchers is that pressure from mainstream culture seems to force black women into making a very difficult choice between their hair and their health.

In the salon

There is chemically straightened hair, which adolescent girls are said to prefer, although that might be a matter of economics, because alternatives are much more expensive, tending to fit better with the budget of an adult with a paycheck. At any rate, young women tend to shy away from gym class, school sports, sweating, and showering without adequate hair protection.

Grownups don’t have it any better. Styles that require lengthy and expensive sessions with hair professional are vulnerable to the depredations of exercise, and especially moisture. The researchers found other studies indicating that among adult black women, almost half have avoided exercise at least once, because of anxiety about hair damage. Dr. Woolford said,

Something we hadn’t seen in the literature before was whether someone’s ethnic identity impacts physical activity, coupled with the idea that a stronger association with an ethnic group may make someone more comfortable with natural hair and therefore more willing to exercise.

Even in such a small sample, it was interesting to see an association between higher levels of ethnic identity and higher levels of reported physical activity. We also found an association between hairstyle choice and level of physical activity (measured by self-reported minutes of activity that increased heart rate, such as sports participation).

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Everything You Know About Obesity is Wrong,” 09/19/18
Source: “Struggle for ‘Good Hair’ May Factor Into Black Female Obesity,”, 08/08/18
Image by @eyeforebony/Unsplash

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

FAQs and Media Requests: Click here…

Profiles: Kids Struggling with Weight

Profiles: Kids Struggling with Obesity top bottom

The Book

OVERWEIGHT: What Kids Say explores the obesity problem from the often-overlooked perspective of children struggling with being overweight.

About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

Food & Health Resources