America has a proud tradition of freaking out when the surgeon general offers helpful health tips (see: Dr. Joycelyn Elders). So it almost seems like Dr. Regina M. Benjamin was looking for trouble when she made a point about obesity, black women, and hair.
According to the New York Times Benjamin's intention was actually to shed light on one of the possible reasons that African American women have a higher obesity rate than any other demographic group. Earlier this month at the Bronner Brothers International Hair Show, she said many women aren't exercising in part because they don't want to mess up their hairstyle. Benjamin explains:
"Often times you get women saying, ‘I can't exercise today because I don't want to sweat my hair back or get my hair wet.' When you're starting to exercise, you look for reasons not to, and sometimes the hair is one of those reasons."
Now Benjamin is getting flak for focusing on a "niche issue" — that affects not only black women, but everyone with high-maintenance hairstyles.
Unsurprisingly, Benjamin's suggestion that people should work around their hair issues in the name of being healthier prompted some grumping from the National Center for Public Policy Research. Jeff Stier, a senior fellow at the conservative think tank, said:
"The role of the surgeon general is traditionally, and appropriately, to take on big issues ... I don't know whether the surgeon general's role is to engage in smaller issues like this. It strikes me as bizarre."
Here's a theory: Perhaps Stier finds the topic strange because he has a short haircut that doesn't require much styling.
It's true that styling issues may not be the main reason many women avoid exercising. As Dr. Pamela Peeke, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Maryland, notes, at the end of the day "many women are just plain exhausted." However, it is a bit harder to squeeze in some exercise during your lunch break if your choices are to remain sweaty for the rest of the day, shower and go to your afternoon meeting with wet hair, or get a new hairstyle.
Plus, Benjamin was speaking at a hair show. It seems like an appropriate time to mention the issue, and it's not like Benjamin is launching a national campaign demanding that women start doing their hair differently. According to the Times,
As surgeon general, Dr. Benjamin has introduced new fitness initiatives, released a report on tobacco smoke and unveiled a new icon to replace the old food pyramid. But it's her unusual stance on hair and health that is likely to garner the most attention.
It doesn't matter what work Benjamin is actually focusing on. Clearly she's ridiculous because she commiserated with other women about something that doesn't affect most dudes.