After the birth of her second child, first, Kenyatta Duckworth’s hair started falling out.
“My hair was coming out by the handfuls,” she explains in her blog. “When I washed my hair, I left chunks of hair behind in the sink or bath tub. That was terrifying.”
The hair loss was the first sign of her thyroid disease. The second — significant weight gain. Despite having just lost her pregnancy weight, Duckworth, quickly gained 40 pounds and has struggled to return to her smaller frame of 150 pounds ever since.
Her weight gained has depressed her so much that she avoids going out or taking pictures.
“Being a professional athlete, my husband often gets invited to dinners and nice events, but if I can’t get away with a maxi dress, I am probably not going,” Duckworth says. “I avoid going out and being social as much as possible only going out when I have to.”
But Duckworth, 35, has now found a new eating and workout regimen that gives her hope.
She does this with the help of a new forum of other black women who are also making strides to lose weight and be healthy.
It’s a small stirring going on among black women when it comes to exercising. A tiny tour-de-force of sorts are coming together to try to take control of their health, offering encouragement, advice, and sisterly love to get moving.
Black Women Do Workout is a mission supported by over 128,000 Facebook friends who support each other in getting healthy.
And, though it may be not be a watershed event that lowers the bleak health statistics for African American women, founder Crystal Adell believes it’s a start.
“I knew for a fact that there were other women out there who were working out and I got so tired of people telling me ‘I didn’t know black women worked out,” says Adell, a former pharmaceutical manager from Texas. “So, I figured if I turned it around it would make us all feel differently.”
“It’s a grassroots effort to get more people to work out and to change the mentality that we don’t.” says Adell. “And, if we consistently stay in that frame of mind that we don’t work out, we will never be healthy as a race of black women. ”
About four in five black women are considered overweight or obese. Black women are at higher risk for 23 diseases and conditions — from asthma and AIDS to uterine fibroids and violence — more than any other minority group.
Cledra McCullers, 41 (pictured above, before and after she lost 51 lbs.), had high blood pressure and mood swings that needed medication. Her doctor told her that daily exercise would have the same effect as taking antidepressants.
Not wanting to be on medication, she exercised the 51 pounds away. But, it wasn’t easy.
“I was so heavy that everything hurt when I worked out and I could just feel the extra weight shake when I would jog,” McCullers says. “It was very challenging mentally and physically.
McCullers says the community of like-minded women of Black Women Do Work Out helped her immensely.
“When I see women training for fitness competitions or juggling kids, two jobs, and a spouse, I know I can do it too,” says McCullers.
Sonya Strider, 43, also realized that in order to combat her ailments, she had to make a change. In her case, it was Type I Diabetes.“When you get tired of looking at that person in the mirror, then you can do it,” says Strider, who has an 11-year-old daughter. “I had to be selfish about me in order to get this right. It’s just me time.”
The Facebook page and website fosters a community for women who are trying to get a grip on their weight struggles. They organize meet-ups, trade recipes or give workout advice, and support each other during training for events, like marathons.
“After I workout, I feel powerful with a sense of mental clarity that I can only get from working out,” McCullers explains. “It clears the ‘head trash’ that we all have, and helps me relieve stress and focus on my top priorities.”
Being one’s own worst enemy
Sometimes the most daunting and damaging factor preventing people from achieving a healthy lifestyle is the individual.
Small studies suggest that lifestyle factors, such as hair care, actually prevent some women from exercising.
In 2008, dermatology experts from Wake Forest University presented their findings at L’Oreal Institute for Ethnic Hair & Skin Research. They studied 103 African American women on the role hair plays in how often they exercise. A third of respondents cited hair management complications as the reason they don’t exercise or exercise less frequently.
Lead investigator, Dr. Amy J. McMichael, said that for black women, cutting off their hair is clearly not a solution.
“We have to figure out ways to address this issue, get some African American women in a forum or group meeting and talk about this,” McMichael said.
The U.S. Surgeon General, Dr. Regina Benjamin, brought public light to this hindrance while speaking at the Bronner Bros. Hair Show in Atlanta.
“When you’re starting to exercise, you look for reasons not to, and sometimes the hair is one of those reasons,” Benjamin told the the New York Times.
She then expressed the need to encourage women to look, feel and be empowered about their health.
But, Adell says it’s just a matter of making an adjustment.
“I’ve worked out with weaves in my hair and it was fine,” she says. “You just have to find a hairdo that’s comfortable. When you see how good your body looks, the last thing you’re gonna be worried about is your hair. People notice your body before they notice your hair.”
She also says that if a woman wants to be serious about her health, she will find a way around any problem. For many busy moms struggling to carve out me time, she suggests finding a gym with a play area similar to the ones found at Ikea stores.
“The more dedication, commitment and seriousness you have, you will lose the weight a lot faster,” she says. “The key is being clear about what you want, being focused and having the execution behind it.”