Wednesday, August 24, 2011

I don't wanna mess up my hair!

This week, my friend, Dr. Regina Benjamin, the U. S. Surgeon General, attended the Bonner Bros. International Hair Show, to promote exercise as part of a healthy lifestyle, particularly among African American women. When asked why she attended the event, she said,

"Actually it’s the perfect event. My priority as surgeon general is prevention. Everything that we do is to try to build a healthy and fit nation. What we find when talking particularly with African American women - I’m later finding this with other women, too - was that when we talk about exercise, we hear, 'I don’t want to sweat my hair back or I don’t want to mess up my hairstyle. It cost me too much to get my hair done this week.'”

What I love about Regina's comment is her perspicacity and creativity in approaching a critical barrier to human health and well-being, seeking obstacles and solutions in seemingly trivial places. Hair styles, really? You bet. I've heard the same excuse from priests who have resisted wearing a biretta during mass. "Well, I don't want to mess up my hair."

Regina's interview, which can be seen on CNN Health here, points to a number of practical barriers to doing things that are good for us, whether it's getting to the gym or going to church on Sunday morning. "We haven't been able to make it to church, because . . . fill in the blank (the kids have soccer practice, it's my only day to sleep in, we have a family thing, we're renovating the downstairs bathroom)." I'm not trivializing these reasons/excuses/explanations, but simply suggesting that we should find ways of working around these other demands to make time to nourish and nurture our souls. Is the condition of our spiritual health really less important than soccer practice or the downstairs bathroom? Regina explains that she works out at night, so that if her hair gets messed up, it's no big deal, since she's at home for the rest of the evening anyway. Or you could get a lower maintenance hairstyle like mine, so that neither the gym, nor a biretta, nor hurricane force winds could mess it up.

Besides, there is a great deal of overlap between these different areas of our lives; they all have an impact on each other. When I was working in health care policy, we always promoted the holistic model of human well-being, encompassing the full spectrum of biopsychosocial health, and to this I would add spiritual health, as well. Shouldn't we be looking after our complete selves, without sacrificing any integral component? As a matter of fact, Regina insightfully points out that the hairdresser is the perfect place to talk about health issues, since people will talk about anything with their stylist. "When you’re sitting in the chair," she notes, "it’s a good place to have conversations about sensitive issues, public health issues… about getting HIV testing - everyone should get tested - things like diabetes and heart disease, strokes and getting your blood pressure checked." It's true. People talk to their hairdressers about everything. And on the flip side, I have hairdressers that confide all sorts of things to me, too, particularly when they know I'm training to be a priest. So, the next time I go and sit in the chair, maybe I should ask my stylist what he is doing on Sunday morning . . . or at least invite him to the gym for a workout.

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