Fears of Nappy Hair in the Outdoors

Scuba diving in St. Croix, UVA


“Don’t get my hair wet!” I’ve blurted many times in a breathless panic anytime water came dangerously close to my heat straightened locks. I always joked that water near a black woman’s hair is like kryptonite near Superman – and in some cases, it’s actually true. Real tears have been shed for hairstyles unexpectedly ruined from contact with water folks!

I was raised to be afraid of what water could do to my hair. As a young girl, the only places permissible to get my hair wet, were either at a beauty salon, or in the kitchen sink under the frenzied hands of my older sister. And an immediate straightening, braiding, or twisting followed the wash to make me presentable for public consumption.

If I had just had my hair “did”, water activities, like swimming or even a short stroll in the rain, were completely off the table unless I wanted to get in trouble with mom. If I did get in the water, I had to “protect” my hair with two rubber swim caps and a Holly Hobby-like bonnet. But the swim caps were never successful. The inevitable water leak would begin around the cap’s edges and shortly after, my hair would rebel from its straightening and revert to its native happy nappy.

Some people like to catalog the black woman’s hair obsession as a form of self hatred – “be natural” say some, but I’m not there – yet. And as a mother myself now, I get that my mom’s fussiness (and later my own) sometimes had to do with time and maintenance management. I cringe now as I recall the thick plumes of hair my poor mom had to corral on my head, wet or dry. So when she sent me to get a new “do” at the salon, she was also trying to buy herself a little break.

I remain a press-n-curl black girl from Oakland, but the difference is now I have learned to balance my hair styles with my outdoor thrills. I just work it in cycles. When I am in a mode for water activities, I keep my hair in braids or wait until my press is on its last legs. I have to admit, I envy the black women who have gotten off the hair obsession train and instead rock tight short fades or natural locks full-time. I don’t know if I will ever get there with those sisters, but never again will hair be a reason for me to miss out on a good swim.


Wow, reading this article today, I realize how I am so over it! I can’t tell you how grateful I am to enjoy my own natural hair and the freedom it has allowed me to take carefree pleasure in a wide-range of outdoor and nature experiences.

Also since the time of this writing, there has been an explosion of a “Natural Hair” movement that has elevated the discussion in beauty parlors and the blogisphere about natural hair care and its sustainable techniques to new highs. So now, I am proud to know and understand how to enjoy my native hair texture AND the outdoors.

What about you?

28 Thoughts on “Fears of Nappy Hair in the Outdoors”

  • Bravo Rue!!! Ain’t it true? A splash in the pool or breaking a sweat after a good workout is just not doable for some of us because we don’t wanna risk our fresh dos. I have to admit, I am sooo happy not to have to worry about that anymore. I’m glad that you figured out a way to do what you love while still looking and feeling fabulous!

  • LOL..thats serious business but I am learning not to be a slave to my hair. I make sure my water activites are close to a salon date then I dont have to worry 🙂

  • Thanks Barbara — I totally admire the freedom you have while rocking that short fade…maybe one day…

  • Boogie! You know hair is the MAIN culprit for keeping black women out of the natural world…I totally agree — we’ve got to free ourselves!

  • Thank you for bringing a refreshing take on this issue which has troubled and restricted us for so long. I appreciate your honesty. When it comes down to it, life is just too precious to limit myself based upon my “do”. Lani

  • Girl, you ain’t never lied. I love the water and looking forward to returning to it very soon. It’s nice because I’m wearing my hair natural for the first time. I know that I’ll return to a straight look later on and will probably schedule my shop visits close to outings that involve water as well. I love the versatility of our hair! It’s just a matter of comfort and confidence.

    Kimmy B.

  • Yes, the versatility of black hair gets lost in the conversation — we really can have our hair any way we want it. You rock that natural mane girl!

  • I can’t tell you how much better I feel knowing I don’t have to worry about rain, humidity, water sports, or exercise to ruin my hair! I have been natural for 10 years now and it is the most liberating experience. Have you tried natural hairstyles that don’t require heat? Things you can wear that won’t require you to restyle immediately after? Maybe then you can free up a little more room in your routine to enjoy water more!
    Great blog!

  • Thanks for your comment Leslie — I can only imagine the freedom you feel…it’s how I feel when I wear braids — which I am about to do for this summer!

  • Great post and blog! My first time here. And, I'm so glad that your hair is not stopping you from doing your thing – smiles!

    When were you in St. Croix? I had an uncle who lived there when I was growing up. We used to visit every year … ahh, those were the days!

    Winks & Smiles,

    1 half of The BlogRollers

  • Hi BlogRoller!

    Thanks so much for stopping by. I was in St. Croix last winter with a group of several friends — it was divine! Snorkeling was fantastic and the highlight of my trip! — come back and visit anytime!

  • I went away to camp for the first time when I was about 8 years old. Girl Scout Camp. One of my roommates was a black girl and we had a great time together doing all the activities…except for *anything* having to do with water.

    She refused to go swimming in the lake, and she had a special shower cap for the showers, and when we were out canoeing, she kept talking about how scared she was that she might fall in and get her hair wet.

    I really didn’t understand what was going on, and why she was so afraid to get her hair wet. What could possibly happen? Hell, by the end of the week at camp with no parents around and near-zero grooming, my hair was so snarled and tangled that I practically had dreads. Worried about hair? Wha?

    I felt bad for her, and kept trying to get her to go swimming, but it was a no-go.

    To this day I think about that girl. I wish that she could have relaxed and just enjoyed herself and not worried so much about her hair, you know? But those cultural things run deep. To her, it was unimaginable to *not* think about the consequences of letting her hair get wet.

    I think natural hairstyles are really pretty. There is some interesting info here, and also a photo of a woman with a gorgeous hairstyle.

    I’d love to see more women embracing that look, it rocks!

  • Hi MsLaura! Thanks! You're killing me with the Wiki, but that is exactly how my hair looks when wet! I like the natural styles too, but most often, I wear it straightened for a number of reasons — and I love it that black women have so many choices!

    That said, I think it's hard to understand the no-getting-hair-wet issue from the outside looking in. It's more than preference, it's also about the maintenance costs and time.

    It costs some of us an average of $75 for a routine shop visit. Home "dos" equal sweat equity of about 2 hours from start to finish.

    Even natural styles need more TLC than you think as black hair is delicate and breakage prone, so proper cleaning, conditioning, and styling is not an option. So for some — and especially true of our mothers when we were little, the issue is about cost and practicality. We rarely can just wash then run out of the house!

    Black women can wear whatever style they want that fits with their lifestyle and profession because they can; all I am suggesting is a balance, so that we don't forget the invigoration of a brisk hike under a gentle drizzle, or the rejuvenation a good swim brings.

    Thanks again for sharing Ms Laura!

  • Just got back from traveling and camping to National parks and forests for 10 days with my husband and 3 month old. I just rocked an afro through the whole trip. I go to the point where I haven't combed it since the beginning of June. As long as I was able to wash my hair, I was fine. We made a pit stop in Vegas to visit my son's great grandmother and her comment about my hair was, "I'm surprised you let it get that way." I tried to explain to her that it is healthy and why should I care that my hair is in its natural state? It's easiest this way while camping and hiking. She didn't get it….

  • Oh, I so relate. I didn’t realize it at the time, but going natural was the best thing for me and my ability to just enjoy being outdoors, getting wet and wet recreation activities. I still get my hair done – twisting, braiding, comb through. But I never let moisture or big hair syndrome keep me from getting out and about any more.
    oh, and mousse and gel are your best friend.

  • Oh, what a thoughtful, dead-on post! My mom used to do this to me when I was little—swimming wasn’t an option unless the hair was in corn-rows or, later, relaxed. But if it was a press and curl? Oh HECK no! I keep my daughters’ hair in twists and braids so that I don’t have to deny them a romp in the pool or a run on the soccer field or a play date in the sprinkler; I promised myself that I wouldn’t ever keep them from playing for the sake of a hairstyle. So far, I’ve stayed true to my promise. But I have to admit, even with natural hair, I still think long and hard before I get into the pool. It’s just ingrained. I’m trying to be better about it, though… promise!

  • I’ve had my hair loc(k)ed for about 13 years now. I’ve had it down my back at one point, but now I keep it between my ears and my shoulders. I remember being a young girl and feeling “trapped” because of my hair and the expectations of keeping it looking nice. Going natural was the single best thing I ever did for myself. I mountain bike, swim, do triathlons, run, whatever looks fun. But the most important decision I made was when I gave birth to my little girl 11-1/2 years ago and decided that she would know nothing but natural hair so that she can always experience the (hair) freedom that many of us don’t grow up experiencing. So I loc(k)ed it. Yeah I caught h*ll from family and friends while she was little, but it was worth it. Her locs hang just shy of her shoulders (we cut them) and watching her jump in the lake, the ocean or the pool to swim, sleep over at friends homes, play in the rain, pull her hair up in a ponytail, and then shake it free at the end of the day is a wonderful site. I felt that I owed her the gift of hair freedom. We’re camping this weekend, and although we are worrying about the weather, the sleeping bags, etc., we are not worrying about our hair.

  • What a difference a year makes — I now rock a natural “do” on most days….ah…free at last…

  • This article is pretty sweet. I’ve always been natural but would often press my hair. I’ve just recently found a hairstyle this summer that complements my outdoor lifestyle and still looks good: twisting my hair. I don’t wish to have dreads/locks because I redo them weekly but it is definitely a freedom that I could not afford before (esp. with humidity in SC!)

  • Thanks for your reply! I am so glad I am free from the hair issue since going natural, but now I use a lot of products to keep moisturized.

  • Great post!! Once splashing in the pool at the Paris hotel in Vegas was a cute little Black girl in pressed pig-tails trying like hell to keep her hair dry . Her mother was a permed beauty-queen type who rocked a cute swimsuit but kept out of the water, tsk. The kid was watching me in envy as I cannon-balled and floated. I swam near & played the devil’s advocate:

    “Why don’t you dive in?”

    “My mommy said I have to keep my hair dry.”

    “You’re in a swimming pool everybody’s getting their hair wet.”

    The girl looked around, I could see her pondering the logic. Mom was eagle eyeing listening. I smiled at Mom. They made eye-contact, Mom nodded and the girl dunked her head with glee, liberated. Yes, Mom could have gotten funky with me but I felt it would have been worth it.

  • I’m happy to see so many people moving away from perms and exploring ways to embrace their natural hair textures. I’m interested to see how the trend progresses. My daughter decided to grow/cut out her perm this past spring. However, she’s opting for the modern-day version of press and curl, which is flat-iron and something (I’m not sure what). She’s sporting a really cute short cut that also looks nice when air dried, which she did a lot as a counselor at a sleep-away camp this summer. Like your mother, I wonder what she’ll do as her hair grows back since she’s not interested in locks and thinks of braids as for children, as that’s how I handled the water and our hair issue when she was younger. She had thick long hair as a child, and that takes a lot of work.

    My daughter learned to swim at 8. I didn’t learn till I was 46 and had locked my hair.

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