Surgeon General: Don't Let Hair Get In The Way

Correction Aug. 8, 2012

We gave an incorrect name for the contest. It is the Third Annual UnitedHealthcare Hair Fitness Competition.

Dr. Regina Benjamin wants a culture of fitness, and she's asking black women to stop worrying about their hair, and hit the gym. She's promoting a contest for the best gym-friendly hairdos.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Later in the program, as we're learning more about the life of the man accused in the shooting at the Sikh temple this past weekend, we're taking a closer look at his involvement with white supremacist groups. And we'll also talk about the mental health issues that may - or may not - play a factor in these terrible events. We'll have those conversations in a few minutes.

But first, we're talking about a unique approach to improving the nation's physical health with the surgeon general of the United States, Dr. Regina Benjamin. Since she took office in 2009, she's been working along with other key players in the administration, to promote a national culture of fitness. We're going to talk about a few of the different ways she's gone about that.

But as part of her plan, Dr. Benjamin has focused on an issue that she says keeps too many women out of the gym - concerns about messing up their hair. To that end, she recently participated in the third annual Hair Fitness and Workout Contest in Atlanta. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The name of the contest is the UnitedHealthcare Hair Fitness Competition.] The competition awarded thousands of dollars in prizes for stylists who created the best exercise-friendly hairdos. And I should mention she was a judge; she was not styling hair.

Joining us to talk more about this, and other issues affecting the nation's health, is the surgeon general of the United States, Dr. Regina Benjamin. Dr. Benjamin, welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

DR. REGINA BENJAMIN: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Could you talk a little bit about the event? Can you just tell us, what was your favorite style...

BENJAMIN: Oh...

MARTIN: There was a lot on the line here. The prizes were actually, like, several thousand dollars.

BENJAMIN: Right, $5,000 to the grand prize winner. They were - it was pretty exciting. There were 10,000 hairstylists at the Bronner Bros. Hair Show. It's the largest hair show in the world. And as you know, the obesity rates are tremendous in this country. It's a public health issue. Two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese, and a third of children. And so it's a real issue.

There are studies that show that when we ask women - and particularly African-American women - why don't you exercise? And they would say, well, I just spent a lot of money on my hair, I don't want to sweat(ph) my hair back. I ask a number of my older patients - my older, white patients; they say the same thing: I'm not going to go messing up my hair when I came from the beauty parlor. So we decided to try to at least get rid of one barrier - find an exercise-friendly hairstyle.

MARTIN: And I know this isn't your area, but can you just describe the style that you preferred?

BENJAMIN: Well, there were so many different styles, and it's personal. And so one of the things that we noticed over the last three years is that there are different type styles. This year, it seemed to be a number of the shorter cuts or either - pulled them up. That made it easy; that they could rinse their hair and just let it dry out, and go back to work. It was those type of ways that they can do it themselves, that the women can go back into the workplace with - themselves.

MARTIN: Not having to go back to a salon to get their hair done.

BENJAMIN: Right. And not having to spend 30 minutes on your hair. Something that your hair could be drying while you're showering, and so you can get back into your routine. So that was part of it. But more than the hairstyle was the idea that - we had 10,000 stylists there. And what we learned in the past two years is that women - or anybody; basically, women - see their hairdresser more than they see their doctor. So because of that, we wanted to engage these hairstylists to become our ambassadors; to have them - to talk about health while they have their clients in the chair.

We have to go where people are, with public health. No longer can I just put out a surgeon general's report, and hope somebody will go to the library and read it. I've got to be where they are. And so these hairstylists, I'm engaging them to talk about healthy things such as high blood pressure and diabetes. We can give them the good information so that they can get that out.

We have a campaign called Million Hearts, where we want to prevent a million heart attacks over the next three years. And you just do the ABCs. Take an aspirin a day, keep your blood pressure under control, keep your cholesterol under control, and don't smoke. The hairdressers can take that message to their clients.

MARTIN: Did you think they were receptive?

BENJAMIN: Oh, they're very receptive. In fact...

MARTIN: Because you could see a scenario where they would think, that's not their job. I mean, their job is to make you look pretty.

BENJAMIN: They are, but many of them will say you can look good and be healthy and feel good, at the same time. So we actually had - from last year - several of the stylists who brought their clients there. There were two that were really very moving stories. One lady said she had come off of insulin because she started working out. Another one had lost 30 pounds, and it was because her hairdresser talked to her; her hairdresser encouraged her. She signed a commitment. This hairstylist has several salons. All her clients will sign this - I mean, she'll encourage them to sign this commitment to live healthier and exercise and eat right. This lady lost 30 pounds. When she'd go get her hair done, the entire salon would talk about her, encourage her, keeping her going.

And it was a culture. People trust their hairdresser. They confide in them. And so having them encourage it, it was very fun - and just very moving to see how the entire community in that beauty shop really helped her.

MARTIN: You know, we covered this last year. As you mentioned, this - the Bronner Bros. Hair Show in - which is held in Atlanta - is the largest hair show in the world. We covered this story last year, and we talked about some of the criticism that was directed at you for actually participating and sort of highlighting this. Some critics said it was just too small to merit concern, or merit the attention of somebody at your level. And I wondered how you respond to that.

BENJAMIN: Well, obesity is a public health issue. It's a major - a real public health issue. As I said, two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese. This leads to diabetes, hypertension, strokes, amputations. It affects not only their families and their communities, their working; it affects the economy. This is a public health issue, and we can't just sit there and give a report, and expect them to go to the library. We've got to go where they are. Health is no longer in a doctor's office and the hospitals alone. Health is where we live, where we learn, where we work, where we play, where we pray. Health is in everything we do.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm speaking with the surgeon general of the United States, Dr. Regina Benjamin. I keep going back to the hair piece. Well, there are two questions I have about that. One is, you mentioned that excess weight is an issue for all Americans. But it seems to affect African-Americans more profoundly; that the obesity rates are higher in the African-Americans community. And I wonder why you think that is. And I'm also interested in the hair thing - again, focusing on African-American women because amazingly - this was in the news - when the Olympic gold medalist Gabrielle Douglas was criticized on Twitter. I don't know that this was a widespread thing, but it became a thing where people were saying, oh, you know, her hair wasn't sufficiently groomed; and, she should do something about that hair. And of course, there was - people were saying, you know, how dare you, you know, at a time of such achievement.

But I have to ask you - and I think it has to be said - I think this is primarily African-Americans making that criticism. So I'd like to ask, number one, why you think the excess weight issue seems to be hitting African-Americans harder. And number two, do you think that the issue around hair is part of why it's hitting African-Americans harder?

BENJAMIN: Well, I don't know if it's why. But first, I want to say that we are very, very proud of Gabby Douglas. I mean, she was amazing. And she's an inspiration to all of us, especially young girls looking at her. She's as healthy, as fit, as anyone could be. If our entire nation was healthy and fit as she was, it would be tremendous. So we're very proud of her. I thought her hair looked pretty good. I mean, up there doing flips in the air, landing on this little - small beam, her hair looked pretty good. So that criticism was very disappointing to see. And I would just basically ignore it and just be very proud of her.

As far as the hair goes, hair has always been important to women in general. African-American women in particular, we spend a lot of money on our hair. We spend a lot of time on our hair. It's important that we look good, that we feel good about ourselves. And our hair is an important part of that. I see it in all races. I see it with patients who have cancer and have to be treated with chemotherapy. It's a part of your mental health as well. So I'm not surprised that we're emotionally invested in our hair.

Why are African-American women more overweight than others? The obesity rates are higher. We have health disparities, and obesity is just one of them. We have other health disparities. Part of it's lifestyle. Part of it's genetics. Part of it is improving the way we eat, the way we exercise, the way we make things a part of our everyday life. We can enjoy it, and we can have a good time doing it. We can stop telling people what they can't have, what they can't do, and start telling them what they can do. They can eat healthy meals that taste good. We can exercise, and make it fun and not dread. We don't necessarily have to go to the gym. You can walk; you can fly a kite with your kids; you can dance. And that's what we really want to make the conversation about; journey to joy, as I call it.

MARTIN: The whole question of excess weight in the population at large, and with specific groups, is complex because it involves so many issues. Like, it involves things like whether there's access to fresh food; the cost of that food; the whole question of, you know, schools cutting back on physical education, and parents feeling it's not safe for their kids to play outside - or not being available to supervise them. Do you feel that the administration's getting the balance right in promoting the things that people can control within themselves, and addressing the policy issues that, you know, other groups identify?

BENJAMIN: That's certainly what we're trying to do with the first lady's Let's Move program - is addressing all the things that you're saying, and we're trying to do it on a - not just for children, but for adults as well. And we want to bring the attention to the American people; give them the information; let them make their own decisions, their own choices, but make it easier for them.

For example, I visited some schools. And one of the schools in North Carolina, all the kids live within two miles of the school. Only two kids in the entire school walked to school, and one rode a bike. Everybody else carpooled. So we have a program, through the Department of Transportation, that's called Safe Routes to School. They're giving the school grants to try to get kids to go to - you know, walk - and exercise - and go to school. They have something called the Walking School Bus, where the parents pick their kids up, and walk them to school as a group; pick them up in the evening, and walk them back.

Getting the exercise, doing the things. We have to make it easier. And that's what our role in government is - to make the healthy choices, the easy choices.

MARTIN: If you and I were to get together four years from now and talk about the nation's health, what kind of conversation do you think we'll be having?

BENJAMIN: I hope we will have moved away from the sickness and disease, to focusing on wellness and prevention. And our goal, in the National Prevention Strategy, is to increase the number of Americans who are healthy at every stage of life. Whether you're 2 or 92, we want you to be healthy.

So in four years from now, I hope that we will have increased the number of people who are healthy, and increase our nation's attitude about health; that we take control of our own health; that we are healthy in everything that we do - everything from clean air to safe walking paths, to driving, to seatbelts, to everything we're doing - having affordable and accessible healthy foods. All the things that we - we're talking about, I'd like to see that moving in that direction.

MARTIN: Dr. Regina Benjamin is the surgeon general of the United States, and she was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C., studios. Dr. Benjamin, thank you so much for speaking with us.

BENJAMIN: Thank you, and have a wonderful day.

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