Why Many Black Women Won't Go Swimming

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

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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