Hair Harassment in Urban Schools and How It Shapes the Physical Activity of Black Adolescent Girls

  • Patricia O’Brien-RichardsonEmail author


Hair harassment can be defined as the direct or indirect unwanted, unwelcomed, and offensive behavior made either explicitly or implicitly typically towards women or girls of African descent, based on the texture, look, or subjective assumptions of their hair. The purpose of this investigation is to explore the hair experiences of adolescent girls of African descent in physical education class, and how these experiences shape their decision to participate in physical education class. Thirty-seven adolescent girls of African descent attending school in an urban, low-income community participated in focus groups and follow-up interviews relating to hair experiences. Strong themes of hair harassment emerged occurring socially via peers, physical touching of hair, and verbal comments regarding their hair during physical education class, and society-imposed harassment stemming from pressures to constantly have straight or neatly styled, non-sweaty hair. During the stage of adolescence, girls are exploring their identity and making decisions about who they will be, how they should look, and behave. Findings from this study suggests harassment and bullying policies in schools should extend to include hair harassment for its propensity to influence the self-image of girls and their decisions to participate in physical education class.


Hair Harassment African–American Girls Physical activity 



  1. Abrahamson, R. (2016). Teacher’s aide fired after calling Michelle Obama a ‘gorilla’ in racist Facebook rant. Retrieved February 18, 2018 from
  2. Agyemang, P., & Powell-Wiley, T. M. (2013). Obesity and Black women: Special considerations related to genesis and therapeutic approaches. Current Cardiovascular Risk Reports, 7(5), 378–386. Scholar
  3. Awokoya, J. (2012). Identity constructions and negotiations among 1.5—And second-generation Nigerians: The impact of family, school, and peer contexts. Harvard Educational Review, 82(2), 255–281.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Bates, K. G. (2014). The army reconsiders its opposition to cornrows and dreadlocks. NPR. Retrieved December 7, 2017 from
  5. Bowen, F., & O’Brien-Richardson, P. (2017). Cultural hair practices, physical activity, and obesity among urban African–American girls. Journal of the American Association of Nurse Practitioners, 29(12), 754–762. Scholar
  6. Browne, R. C. (2006). Most black women have a regular source of hair care—But not medical care. Journal of the American Medical Association, 98(10), 1652–1653.Google Scholar
  7. Byrd, A., & Tharps, L. (2014). Hair story: Untangling the roots of black hair in America. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin.Google Scholar
  8. Duncan, S. C., Strycker, L. A., & Chaumeton, N. R. (2015). School influences on the physical activity of African American, Latino, and white girls. Journal of School Health, 85(1), 43–52. Scholar
  9. Ellis-Hervey, N., Doss, A., Davis, D., Nicks, R., & Araiza, P. (2016). African American personal presentation: Psychology of hair and self-perception. Journal Black Studies, 47(8), 869–882. Scholar
  10. Griffith, D. W. (1915). The birth of a nation [silent film]. Thousand Oaks: DW Griffith Corporation.Google Scholar
  11. Harushimana, I., & Awokoya, J. (2011). African-Born immigrants in U.S. schools: an intercultural perspective on schooling and diversity. Journal of Praxis in Multicultural Education, 6(1), 34. Scholar
  12. Hill, J. (2012). Gabby Douglas’ hair draws criticism. ESPN.COM. Retrieved December 3, 2017 from
  13. Hobdy, D. (2013). Florida school threatens to expel African American girl for wearing natural hair. Essence Magazine. Retrieved December 17, 2016 from
  14. Huebschmann, A. G., Campbell, L. J., Brown, C. S., & Dunn, A. L. (2016). “My hair or my health”: Overcoming barriers to physical activity in African American women with a focus on hairstyle-related factors. Journal of Women’s Health, 56(4), 428–447. Scholar
  15. Johnson, A. M., Godsil, R. D., & MacFarlane, J. (2017). The “Good Hair” Study: Explicit and implicit attitudes toward black women’s hair. Retrieved January 2, 2018 from
  16. Lazar, K. (2017). Mass. charter school students sent to detention, banned from prom because they wear braids. Boston Globe. Retrieved August 27, 2018 from
  17. Levi, J., Segal, M., Thomas, K., St. Laurent, R., Lang, A., Rayburn, J. (2013). F as in fat: How obesity threatens America’s future. Retrieved August 27, 2018 from
  18. Lincoln, Y. S., & Guba, E. G. (1985). Naturalistic inquiry. Newbury Park: SAGE Publications Ltd.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Mahr, K. (2016). Protests over black girls’ hair rekindle debate about racism in South Africa. Washington Post. Retrieved December 2, 2016 from
  20. Maltin, L. (1980). Our gang: Life and times of the little rascals. New York: Crown Publishers Inc.Google Scholar
  21. Mele, C. (2017). Army lifts ban on dreadlocks, and black servicewomen rejoice. New York Times. Retrieved February 12, 2018 from
  22. Muhammad, G. E., & McArthur, S. A. (2015). “Styled by their perceptions”: Black adolescent girls interpret representations of Black females in popular culture. Multicultural Perspectives, 17(3), 133.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Navarro, A. (2016). A beauty vlogger did a Bantu knot tutorial and had no idea—now the internet is mad. Teen Vogue. Retrieved August 30, 2018 from
  24. Opie, T. R., & Phillips, K. W. (2015). Hair penalties: The negative influence of Afrocentric hair on ratings of black women’s dominance and professionalism. Frontiers in Psychology, 6(1311), 1–14.Google Scholar
  25. Phillip, A. (2015). Zendaya blasts “Fashion Police” host Giuliana Rancic’s ignorant red carpet diss. The Washington Post. Retrieved from
  26. Qureshi, S. (2004). Displaying Sara Baartman, the ‘Hottentot Venus’. History of Science, 42(2), 233–257. Scholar
  27. Richards, B. D. (2014). Ethnic identity on display: West Indian youth and the creation of ethnic boundaries in high school. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 37(6), 978–997. Scholar
  28. Robinson, C. L. (2011). Hair as race: Why “good hair” may be bad for black females. Howard Journal of Communications, 22(4), 358–376. Scholar
  29. Rudman, L. A., & McLean, M. C. (2015). The role of appearance stigma in implicit racial ingroup bias. Group Processes and Intergroup Relations, 19(3), 374–393. Scholar
  30. Terkel, A. (2014). Black female soldiers criticize army’s new hairstyle rules as racially biased. Huffington Post. Retrieved December 7, 2017 from
  31. Thompson, C. (2009). Black women, beauty, and hair as a matter of being. Journal of Women Studies, 38(8), 831–856. Scholar
  32. Versey, H. S. (2014). Centering perspectives on black women, hair politics, and physical activity. American Journal of Public Health, 104(5), 810–815. Scholar
  33. White, S., & White, G. (1995). Slave hair and African American culture in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Journal of Southern History, 61(1), 45–76. Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature B.V. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Rutgers University – Newark, Honors Living and Learning Community (HLLC)NewarkUSA

Personalised recommendations