Making Waves: Black Girls Can Swim Too!

Kazan_2015_-_Simone_Manuel copy

Olympic Gold Medalist Simone Manuel (By Chan-Fan – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=42503090)

As I’m sure we all can agree, this year’s Olympics in Rio will be a session of the Games that we won’t soon forget! In case you missed it, Simone Manuel made history by becoming the first African-American woman to win a gold medal in an individual event. In doing so, she shattered an age-old belief that Black people- and Black women in particular- don’t swim.  This belief had some validity to it because, for a long time, the notion of #SwimmingwhileBlack was constrained by a number of factors, such as segregated pools, socio-economic status, fear, and of course, hair.

Thanks to the phenomenon of “turning back” or reversion, water was once known as the arch-enemy of kinky-, coily-haired folks (and it still is for some).  A splash of H2O could turn the sleekest press-out back into an afro, and at the very least, crinkle even the finest perm, so many Black girls and women would avoid the pool like the plague.

Although wearing your hair naturally does away with those problems, the chlorine in pool water still presents a threat: chlorinated water can wreak havoc on textured heads because it strips precious oils from our already-prone-to-being-dry hair. As a result, Black hair and the swimming pool have not always been on the best of terms.

After my 1st swimming lesson

My Dad and me in Jamaica after my 1st swimming “lesson”

Though I grew up around Black people who swam (e.g. my parents, aunts, uncles),  it took me a long time to learn how to swim because I was terrified of water.  During my first trip to Jamaica when I was four, my Dad tried to teach me how to swim the same way he learned: by throwing me into the sea.  Sadly, I was not as fast of a learner as he was; I started sinking, and then I panicked, which only led to me inhaling and swallowing a lot of salty sea water.  Needless to say, I left the beach that day traumatized…with a newfound fear…and no desire to learn how to swim.

Luckily for me, I was forced to learn because my middle school had a pool. Eventually, I grew to love swimming, but I hated having to deal with my hair afterward, even though I was a natural teen.   For me, I wasn’t concerned about my hair turning back, but I still had to contend with getting the chlorine out, which meant frequent washing- with shampoos that weren’t made for my hair (i.e. UltraSwimTM)- and constant detangling.  As a result, my hair suffered and I experienced a lot of breakage back in those days.

Fun at the lake

My sister, cousins and me having fun at a lake in Northern Ontario- all armed with our swim caps

Now, as an adult, I really enjoy swimming, and my husband and I often go for a dip at the gym as a full body workout.  I would be lying to you, though, if I said that my hair is no longer a consideration at all.  Sadly, it still is.  If I know I won’t have enough time to invest in proper post-swim maintenance, I just won’t go; but this is something that I’m really working to overcome because I don’t like the idea of feeling trapped because of my hair. (However, I also don’t like the idea of it all breaking off either!)

Black girls can swim too!

Although Black hair may require some extra attention before diving in, it doesn’t mean you have to give up your dreams of becoming an Olympic swimming champion (or simply your aspirations of becoming a regular at your local pool) just yet.  As Simone Manuel has shown the world, It is possible for Black girls to swim- and with a full head of hair too!

Here are some tips for protecting your hair while swimming:

Before your swim:

  • Saturate your hair with coconut oil or leave-in conditioner before diving in– it will serve as protective barrier between your hair and the water
  • If you don’t have coconut oil or conditioner available, at the very least, drench your hair in the shower to minimize the amount of chlorinated water your hair will absorb once you’re in the pool
  • Plait your hair into 2 or more braids to prevent it from getting tangled
  • If you’re not concerned about making a fashion statement, wear a swim cap

After your swim:

  • Wash your hair with a sulfate-free chelating (formulated to remove mineral deposits) shampoo to help cleanse the chlorine from your hair
  • Deep-condition your hair to restore it to its normal moisture levels
  • Moisturize, detangle, and style your hair as normal

For the past couple of years, I have been using these methods whenever I go swimming, and so far, my hair has been faring pretty well.  So, if you have the desire to become the next Simone Manuel, please don’t let your hair get in the way.  Pull it back, slap on a cap, get in the water, and start making some waves– it’s no secret that there are enough obstacles out there, trying to keep us from achieving our dreams- so let’s not make our hair one of them!

Sources: The Science of Black Hair: A Comprehensive Guide to Textured Hair Care by Audrey Davis-Sivasothy, Saja Publishing, 2011

How do you take care of your hair when you go swimming?

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