28 August 2012

Guest Post: Exercise, The Enemy Of The Afro?



It’s been almost three months and my love affair deepens by the day. It was a slow burner to start and I felt put upon and drained of my time and energy. Then came the compliments, and an awareness of the physical changes in me. Finally like the season, I blossomed and developed a full blown crush….. on my hair (what else would I have been talking about?) Though it hasn't been plain sailing; indeed quite the contrary.

Exercise is not my friend, it is my enemy. The problem is my somewhat rotund physique ensures the gym is a necessary evil I must endure to curtail the inevitable onset of obesity. What was once an unpleasant task of a twice weekly exercise regime, in the days of braids, where I’d invest in sweetly scented sprays, sheens and oils to mask the smell of sweat (grimace but you know it’s the truth) and slept after a quick blow dry; has become an arduous rigmarole since the onset of natural hair. Now my hair is no doubt cleaner thanks to my twice weekly washes, deep conditioning, nightly twist outs and detangling. There is however the bitter joy in the morning, trying to style an uncontrollable mop of angry hair still to fully dry out from the night before.


I am a member of an infamous gym, regarded as such for its diabolical customer service, 1990s music videos on repeat (God forbid they play music that featured since the millennium), moody staff,  faulty machinery, broken air con machine; dilapidated crumbling walls, changing facilities that smell of rotting animal and a general sub standard service. Its sole reason for continued trade is its proximity to public transport, lack of viable competition and that it’s located in a poor neighbourhood where people don’t feel empowered enough to write letters of complaint and report them to the papers.

It’s summer, I’ve gained a few too many pounds and now sporting the tiny afro, more of my face is on display and the chubby cheeks, cute age 11, aren’t a redeeming feature on a 30 year old single woman looking for a man. 


It is funny how little notice I've taken of other women and their hair dilemmas in the past – that’s because braids weren't threatened by exercise, in fact they embraced it. But now with every bead of sweat, I know I’ll be punished; forced to spend what should be sleep time reviving my inconsolable hair, so I watch with avid interest to see how the other ladies manage.

There’s the girl with the hard face who only smiles when there are men in the vicinity, whose relaxed short crop is so newly permed you can smell the chemical relaxer oozing from her pores as she sensually struts on the cross trainer (often in very short shorts - which she clearly customised from a previously respectable pair of trousers and a circa 1990 crop top). She once proudly proclaimed that she avoided sweating to save her hair. It seems her inspiration for exercise is less the working out and more the working men.

There is the beautiful Nigerian girl with the trendy long weave, who loves her hair as much as life itself. You can tell by her incessant stroking and touching, whipping her head at every opportunity for the most grandiose effect. With every bounce of that hair, you can see her jubilation and heightened sense of worth. She relies on a bandana, but there’s so much hair, I’m not sure how effective it proves. We once talked about going natural – before I actually did it - and how we’d manage with all the exercise. She looked me straight in the eye and without even the faintest hint of irony, proclaimed with pride that her hair was indeed natural. She mustn’t have seen her natural hair for more than fifteen minutes every four weeks for the last ten years. That’s the time in-between weaves when she’d wash it, quickly cover it in a baseball cap and run to the salon hoping nobody spots her on the bus.



Then there’s the ultimate embodiment of fitness herself. She’s on the treadmill running effortlessly at a pace you hoped only sub human athletes (high on dope) ran at. Her natural tight curls (never wrapped, just free to bounce in the wind), has not even a strand out of place and where sweat ought to be running down her face (as mine is so fast it momentarily blinds me causing me to trip and hit my head with such force the staff run to my aid), her precision perfect make up glows flawlessly, radiating the perfection of her soul. Compared to the women who refuse to exert any real energy for fear of their hair becoming embroiled in sweat, this light skinned Zimbabwean beauty runs as though she’s possessed. She sports a lycra two piece, sculpting her J-Lo butt and six pack. Me on the other hand, I wear a t-shirt with jogging bottoms a size too big to accommodate for the ‘guddush’ ‘guddush’ movement of my arse defying the laws of gravity every time I run.

The most interesting sight to behold for me, remains the assortment of head gear proudly on display. The scarves, bandanas, do-rags, even tights are all tightly wrapped round women’s heads to contain the beast within. Most shocking was the shower cap (not in the steam room, as one may reasonably assume, but on the treadmill). The woman had conditioned her locks, put on her cap and was pounded the treadmill for the ultimate deep conditioning steam.

The end of my workout beckons and I drag myself to the mat area to endure the mandatory five minute waste of time, abs session. Shocked by the sight in the mirror, my once substantial afro has shrunk to an unrecognisable half-inch, reminding me of the African school girls I so regularly mistake for boys, but for the mandatory dangle of gold earrings to remind you they are female. I am wearing no earrings. Full steam ahead I go. Dropping to the mat and rising again like a deranged jack in the box. Then out of nowhere, a man stands directly behind me, he pays me no mind (he mistakes me for a boy) and with no shame or even the hint of humour, lifts his top up, tenses his abs and gawks at his own reflection. He turns from side to side, getting a good view from every profile and after a full five minutes (which is a long time to stare at yourself in a public forum) he drops his t-shirt, gives himself a smile and saunters off, without a glimpse of embarrassment.

Spent from an exhausting session of exercise and people watching, I trudge home where the real work of rectifying my hair begins!...

Calamity Jane

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