Prioritizing Health Or Hair?

U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Regina Benjamin recently said many women, particularly those who spend lots of time and money on their hair, tend to skip much-needed exercise to maintain their locks. Some see this as a narrow topic and thus are confused about why she would focus on it. Host Michel Martin gets two perspectives from United Health Group's Dr. Reed Tuckson and The National Center for Public Policy Research's Jeff Stier.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Just ahead, we will hear from the star and creator of the web comedy series "The Mis-Adventures of Awkward Black Girl." That's coming up in just a few minutes.

But first, Dr. Regina Benjamin, the surgeon general of the United States, recently called for women to put their health ahead of their hair. Dr. Benjamin spoke recently at an international hair show in Atlanta, Georgia. She said that too many women are foregoing exercise because they are worried it will ruin their hair.

This has sparked an interesting reaction of the role of the surgeon general. Jeff Stier, senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research, said that he thought her comments about health and hair were, quote, "bizarre." So we've invited Jeff Stier to join us on the program today. He's with us from New York.

We're also joined by Dr. Reed Tuckson. He's the executive vice president and chief of medical affairs at United Health Group. He is a former commissioner of public health for the District of Columbia, and his group sponsored the Healthy Hair Symposium at the Bronner Brothers Hair Show in Atlanta. He's with us from Minnesota Public Radio. And I welcome you both, and I'd like to thank you both for joining us.

REED TUCKSON: Thank you.

JEFF STIER: Thank you.

MARTIN: And I wanted to just - to tell you that when we posted this topic on NPR's Facebook page yesterday, we were interested in what people might have to say about it. We received nearly 700 comments in 20 minutes. And since yesterday, the total number of comments is at least 2,000 comments. So I want to start by playing a couple of these comments for you, some of them that we recorded this morning. It takes a minute, but you'll get a flavor of the kinds of response that we received. Here it is.

HEATHER BARCLAY: My name is Heather Barclay(ph). I live in Reston, Virginia. A lot of comments that were received were this is crazy, this is sexist, whatever. As a black woman, I understood exactly what the surgeon general was saying.

There are some black women who go get their hair relaxed. They spend a great deal of money. It's usually about $80 to $150 to get your hair relaxed, and it lasts for a long time. And going to exercise would not be conducive to having relaxed hair because you'll sweat the straightener out.

I do think it's good that the surgeon general said this. There's a lot of heart disease and obesity in our culture, and really, hair should not keep somebody from exercising. I understand why it does, but it shouldn't keep somebody from exercising and being healthy.

EDIE STIP: My name is Edie Stip(ph). I'm from Morganton, North Carolina. When you're 16 years old, you control so very little in your life, and my hair wasn't very easily controlled, either. I have naturally curly hair, and I despised first period swimming so much in high school I nearly flunked for the lack of participation.

I didn't enjoy going to my next class looking like a drowned rat. I am not African-American. I'm white, and after reading a lot of the comments, I think it crosses racial boundaries. But now that I'm older, I'm 46, I could care less about the dead stuff on top.

MARTIN: Well, there you go. So Mr. Stier, I'm going to start with you. You were quoted in the New York Times, which was covering Dr. Benjamin's appearance at the Bronner Brothers Hair Show, saying that you thought it was "bizarre," that the surgeon general should engage on big issues. Why do you think it was bizarre?

STIER: Well, I think you mischaracterized what I said. I did not say that her comments were bizarre. The New York Times told me that she was making this a pet cause, that it wasn't just one offhanded comment. But this is being an initiative of the surgeon general.

MARTIN: I'll just quote what you said in the piece, and you can tell me whether you were characterized accurately. You 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." So what the New York Times said. That's what you said.

STIER: That's absolutely correct. I think taking this narrow issue on as her pet cause, focusing on this portion of the population who - not everybody says they don't exercise because of their hair - I recognize it's a legitimate issue. But making this a pet cause of the big office of surgeon general raises questions to me, that if this is the best she can do for a pet cause, to me it raises questions of the very role of the surgeon general. Should the surgeon general's office even exist?

MARTIN: Well, Dr. Tuckson, let me ask you this. Do you think that this an appropriate role for the surgeon general? And do you think this is small? You were the person who sponsored the event at which Dr. Benjamin appeared.

TUCKSON: Well, of course it's an appropriate role. Look, we can't continue to try to fight the serious health challenges that are confronting this nation, and in this case, African-American community, with pamphlets and sloganeering. We've got to go deeper than that.

Any professional in health care, and certainly in the public health world, clearly understands that the social determinants of behavior and the social determinants of disease are extremely complex, and they are very intimate.

For the surgeon general to say I want to be successful as the leader in this country to fight the fight for obesity, and in this case trying to get more people to exercise appropriately, she's got to deal with fundamental, root-cause issues.

So to say that her engagement in this particular tool in the larger fight is somehow narrow or bizarre, is inappropriate. What we need to do is to get down to where life is really lived, how decisions are really made, and what she is doing is to recruit an army of people in that fight who have a real role to play. In this case, 60,000 hair care professionals. To enlist them to help them with their customers, to develop positive attitudes about health, to eliminate the barrier that hairstyles have and hair maintenance and hair costs have to exercise, and to help them to teach appropriate nutrition and diet.

No question that in the African-American community, as we heard from - and others - even in all of American communities, the role of the professional hair care industry and their salons are a cultural force within these communities.

I would hope that anyone that is observing this issue would give her credit for being a professional who understands her business. If this was all that she was doing, maybe one could have an argument. But this is not all, and to suggest that the issue of hair is the only strategy that she is using to combat the issues of obesity and exercise, would be inappropriate characterization of her agenda.

MARTIN: Mr. Stier, one of the reasons I think your comment caught our eye is that you are attached to a conservative think-tank. And since she's urging personal responsibility in this area, I would have thought that this would have been an attractive argument for her, for...

STIER: Absolutely, and I think it's appropriate for her to make comments at a Sunday conference. That's wonderful. For her to make this issue a pet cause, she doesn't get so many arrows to shoot, and if this is the arrow she's choosing, this is the one thing. And frankly, Dr. Tuckson, you may be more intimately involved with her activities, but for the most part, the country doesn't know who she is.

She has not played a prominent and important role teaching personal responsibility. I don't disagree with this one comment; I question the whole role of this surgeon general and whether or not this office is even appropriate anymore, whether they're doing any good.

TUCKSON: Well, please do me a favor though, as you do this. Please, let's just make sure that whatever the side issues are that people may have, let's don't diminish or make controversial important interventions that are designed to try to save human life.

What is irritating about all of this, is that it distracts us from the fight for health and the prevention of disease. Let's keep our mind on those things.

MARTIN: OK, hold on, we only have a minute left, so Mr. Stier, I'm going to give you the last word here. If you don't think the surgeon general should take this on, then who should?

STIER: No, I think it's appropriate for the surgeon general to talk about exercise and talk about the issue of obesity and talk about distractions. There are so many initiatives that the left is pushing that are actually a distraction. I think we ought to be talking more about exercise and barriers to exercise, and less about bans on foods that the government doesn't want us to eat, limiting advertising for so-called junk foods.

I think those are the actual distractions. And I'd be happy if we could find some common ground here and agree that we ought to be talking more about exercise and less about interventions that don't work.

MARTIN: Actually, Mr. Stier, I had given you the first word, so I'm going to give Dr. Tuckson the last word. Dr. Tuckson, briefly.

TUCKSON: I just really appreciate Mr. Stier's last comment. I think that he has accomplished something that's very important. So we actually have started a discourse where it sounded like we were in difference, and now we have come to an agreement. This is, I think, a great model. Let's move forward and partner everywhere we can to try to prevent disease and promote health. And I think that we've achieved a very good goal here today.

MARTIN: All right. Dr. Reed Tuckson is vice president and chief of medical affairs at United Health Group. He was with us from Minnesota Public Radio in St. Paul, Minnesota. Jeff Stier is senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research. that's a conservative think-tank. He was kind enough to join us from our studios in New York. Thank you both so much.

TUCKSON: Thank you.

STIER: Thank you, Dr. Tuckson.

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