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BMC Obes. 2016 Jul 1;3:31. doi: 10.1186/s40608-016-0111-7. eCollection 2016.

No sweat: African American adolescent girls' opinions of hairstyle choices and physical activity.

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Child Health Evaluation and Research (CHEAR) Unit, Department of Pediatrics, University of Michigan, 300 NIB, Room 6D20, Campus Box 0456, Ann Arbor, MI 48109-5456 USA.
Department of Graduate Psychology & Counseling, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, MI USA.
Department of Society, Human Development and Health, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA USA.



Obesity prevalence is higher among African American adolescent (AAA) girls than among non-black girls. Lower levels of physical activity (PA) likely contribute to this disparity; this may be impacted by hairstyle concerns.


In 2011, focus groups were conducted with AAA girls 14-17 years old (n = 36) in Michigan (n = 9), California (n = 11), and Georgia (n = 16). Groups addressed perceptions of hairstyles, exercise, and relationships between the two. Groups were recorded, transcripts reviewed, and themes identified. Adolescents completed a standardized ethnic identity (EI) measure and a survey addressing demographics and PA. Linear regression was used to examine associations between self-reported activity and participants' characteristics.


Four themes emerged: 1) between ages 8 and 15, when concerns about hairstyles began, participants changed from "juvenile" (natural) styles to "adult" (straightened) styles; 2) participants avoided getting wet or sweating during exercise because their straightened hair became "nappy;" 3) braids with extensions and natural styles were viewed as better for exercise but not very attractive; 4) participants almost universally selected long, straight hairstyles as most attractive. In Michigan and California, EI was positively associated with levels of PA (p < 0.05) and overall having extensions was also positively associated with levels of PA.


A preference for straight hair may contribute to AAA girls avoiding certain activities due to concerns about sweat affecting their hair. Furthermore, EI and hairstyle choice appear to be associated with levels of PA for some participants. Efforts to increase AAA girls' PA may benefit from approaches that address hairstyle choices and EI.


Adolescents; African American; Disparities; Ethnic identity; Physical activity

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