The birth of a new stereotype about African-American women
Posted Monday, Sep. 05, 2011
By Myiesha Taylor
Special to the Star-Telegram
The surgeon general of the United States, Regina Benjamin, created news last month by attending the Bronner Brothers International Hair Show in Atlanta to raise awareness on the alarmingly fast-growing rates of obesity in America. What made this appearance different is that she did it in the context of tying African-American women's hairstyles and lack of exercise to a cause of obesity.
I was taken aback that our nation's highest-ranking physician and an African-American woman allowed herself to create a whole new hair stereotype for African-American women. A quick search on Twitter and Facebook shows that many non-African-Americans heard the surgeon general's comments and now believe that our hair is a cause for obesity.
If you ask most African-American women about their hair, they can talk for hours about the styles, techniques and products they use to maintain their hair. What they also may share with you if asked are the stories of non-African American friends and strangers asking such questions as "Can I touch your hair?" -- and sometimes touching without permission -- and how that made them feel.
As an African-American woman, I understand the daily questions and looks we get because mainstream society views our hair as exotic and/or strange. We all have to deal with the constant messages in the media that we don't meet the mainstream definition of beauty. If you don't think this is true, read the article published earlier this year by Satoshi Kanazawa in Psychology Today with the headline "Why Are Black Women Less Physically Attractive Than Other Women?" or recent stories about Transportation Security Administration personnel searching the hair of African-American women as they go through the airport screening process.
The current controversy over our hair is different though. This was not started by some outside-the-community publication. This was not started by a racist psychologist. This was started by an African-American woman who should have thought about how her words and actions would be received.
The surgeon general should have considered what the consequences of such a statement might be and how future generations of African-American girls and women would have to deal with this new stereotype.
I am concerned that this new hair stereotype will have damaging effects. How long before we see life and health insurance companies' asking women of color about the way they do their hair and, based on the surgeon general's remarks, deciding to increase premiums on African-American women? When will we hear the first story of an African-American woman who was not able to get a job because the potential employer decided her hair may increase the costs of employee benefits?
These are real concerns that should not have been created by what seems to be a bad attempt at a PR campaign. This "hair" campaign has taken our focus off the real issues that are tied to obesity.
A recent study by Clair Wang of Columbia University suggests that by 2030, 50 percent of American men and 45 to 52 percent of American women will be obese. Not just African-American men and women but all Americans.
So are Americans' hairstyles causing the rapid increase in obesity rates? I doubt it.
The reasons for the rise of obesity are complex, and there is not a single simple solution. Personal exercise routines are part of the solution, but that does not address issues such as access to quality food, toxic chemicals in consumer products, devastating funding cuts for physical education in our schools, families lacking economic resources, families lacking access to healthcare and many others issues.
I hope the surgeon general will revisit her position and take steps to try to undo this new stereotype she has created. We owe it to future generations to ensure that we deal with the issues that truly affect their health in ways that provide real solutions.
We cannot afford these efforts to get hijacked by bad PR campaigns that do little to improve the quality of health for all Americans. Dr. Myiesha Taylor of Keller is a practicing emergency medicine physician and holds a bachelor of science degree in chemistry from Xavier University of Louisiana. She is married and the mother of three children.