Saturday, October 20, 2012

BJJ and Black Hair: Training changes everything

Somehow, while training BJJ, the great destroyer of hair regardless of race or texture, I simultaneously found peace with my mane. My ends weren't splitting terribly and when stretched, it was hitting between arm pit and bra-strap length. Then, a few months ago while detangling my crown (a.k.a. the stubborn area) in the shower, I noticed large clumps coming out into my comb. Most people don't notice, but my previously thick, fluffy, free-form afro had turned limp, patchy and downright sad. I was in denial for a few weeks, but then I had to accept it. The head of hair that had been so resilient ..the one that had survived an accidental switch from ammonia based treatments to was damaged. Badly. Extra chemical processing, the effects of a long-term texturizer, permanent color and laziness using my balaclava (it's really a great solution for hair protection, check the link out) had resulted in the destruction of my hair.

For those of you unfamiliar with BJJ, even light practice involves a lot of friction with the hair against mats  (have a look at competition here) and hard cotton fabric (you could genuinely exfoliate with some gis). Large chunks of hair are easily pulled out (see horrifying cornrow story below), either getting caught under limbs or unfortunately caught up in an errant grip...and then there's the drying effect of frequent showers. BJJ exposes you to quite a few nasty bugs, so a spongy mass of hair that's gone unwashed just isn't a viable option.

Back when I had hair all over my head...

Training changed my hair routine. I used to deep condition twice a month, use hair masks monthly and keep my hair detangled. While I initially did more to protect my hair, after a while, the routine of training resulted in a diminished one for my hair. Saturday mornings were now about ginastica natural, not shea butter treatments. Gradually, I was doing little more than tossing in some leave in after post-training washes (with sulfate-free products of course:). The results have been evident.

Well, now, I'm once again looking at going natural and while in the past this has been a big decision (as it is for any Black woman who's spent a large part of her life with chemically processed hair), training has done to my hair expectations what it has done with so many other things in life. Going natural is now like cutting my previously enviable nails...something I must consider if I'm going to continue in this world of BJJ...and honestly, that's a bit liberating. The last time I tried (I failed after 9 months of growing my hair out), there was so much tied up in that...physical appearance, perception of cultural identity, learning for the first time how to address something that's been growing from my scalp my entire it's primarily a question of what BJJ will allow me to do and what will work best with my training habit.

Knowing I couldn't be the only one struggling with this, I decided to ask a couple of other Black women I knew that trained that might have different experiences...I wondered if anyone had been able to maintain straight hair, if training had tossed anyone else into the express lane of the natural hair journey, if anyone else had been able to make peace between the roughness of BJJ and the delicate nature of Black hair--so I found three other people, each with their own take on the journey, who were willing to share.

***Want to see my hair a year later? Click here!***

Marketta Parker-Blue Belt at Lake Area Brazilian Jiu Jitsu 
Honestly, I chose to go natural due to the fact that my new lifestyle and my current hairstyle, which was shoulder length relaxed hair, were not compatible. Within 3 months I had purchased a new house, started Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, AND decided that I was going to learn how to swim. It was the last two that that motivated the BC, and also it was also curiosity and being fed up with the chemicals too. I knew that training was going to cause wear and tear on my hair, along with the chlorine from the swimming pool so I decided that I was going to go natural. Now the decision wasn't that easy, in all actuality for weeks I was trolling YouTube and Google searching anything that dealt with natural hair. I love having my natural hair, I enjoy the fact that after training I can jump in the shower and wash it, and go. I no longer have to fear the rain as if I was a mugwai, or the wicked witch of the West. Do I miss my length? Sometimes, but I'm growing my hair out to experiment with twist outs, etc. Would I go back to relaxing or put altering chemicals in my hair as of right now? No.

*Marketta currently wears one of the most perfectly formed afros I've ever seen

Nyjah Easton-Black Belt 

How did you wear your hair before you started training?
 Before training I wore my hair about shoulder length. One of my favorite styles was the bob. I had a relaxer and wore it wrapped and straight most of the time.

Did training BJJ change anything?
BJJ training changed everything! lol I went from a relaxed shoulder length bob to shaven down. BJJ has allowed me to experiment with pretty much every hair style under the sun. I've rocked mohawks, natural fros, braids, cornrows and my latest, the shaved down look. I experiment with lots of color and have made a name for myself at the academy with the rainbow of hues I switch between every few months. My current hair style is very short with a permanent hue of red. My favorite hair color is blond but when training any hair that is longer than about 3-5 inches is subject to breaking because of the hair treatment. With the shaven cut I can color my hair as often as I would like and still have healthy hair.

What challenges have you run into while training? 
When training some of my biggest challenges were having people to pull and break off my hair. The worst feeling ever is when you have a freshly done hairstyle (which includes trimmed ends of course...hahah) and you can hear the hair breaking and pulling as you work to escape from a triangle. Or even better when someone's knee is your hair and you work to shrimp out and a nice patch of hair is on their gi pants. This was my first battle when I tried to keep the bob. I decided to try a new method and would wrap my hair prior to class and and wear a scarf during training. At first this was the best idea since sliced bread, but over time as my jiu jitsu improved I would sweat more and the scarf never stayed put. I spent more time adjusting my scarf and hair than I really wanted to. I decided to try braids and of course after you get over the week of barely being able to move your head from the tightness freshly done braids and cornrows add, they too would often get caught. I've actually had a full cornrow rip out and pull all of my hair along with it. After that I was forced to get a really low hair cut. This was the beginning of my natural hair journey which has been awesome!

What's your current regimen for hair care? 
I train 3x a day faithfully and as you could imagine, it can get very sweaty. In order to stay free of skin infections its important that I shower after each session. A few years ago I would wash my hair each time I showered. Because of this regimen my hair would get really dry and as a result would break of easier in my sessions. One day at the nail salon a lady with long beautiful hair who was also a Black athlete shared with me that she only washed her hair at the end of the week but she applied conditioner after each of her training sessions. This helps to keep it moisturized and rinses any of the impurities out. After getting this advise I tried it and it worked wonders for my hair care. I color my hair each month and apply hot oil treatments and deep moisturizers weekly.  As of now my hair is about 3 inches long, but I am in the process of growing out a fro and coloring it blond. This is one of my favorite styles aesthetically and the one my team mates miss the So the next time you see me on the competition scene I will be most likely with the blond fro.

After talking to these two ladies, I was thinking my hunch that having relaxed hair while training was true--it's basically a no-go if you want length past a few inches. The majority of Black hair styles, even natural styling techniques of braid, twist and knot-outs, are fundamentally incompatible with a regular exercise routine of higher intensity levels, and the lye involved relaxed hair breaks down already fragile and high-textured hair...but then I heard from Shakia, author of "I Wonder as I Wander", who might had some evidence to the contrary.

Shakia Harris-Blue Belt at Bowling Green Brazilian Jiu Jitsu 
When I started training in 2010 I never thought that my toughest sacrifice for jiu ijtsu would be my hair. Within months my body began to morph into this sculpted machine (all 155lbs of it lol) and while I was getting compliment after compliment about my shapely figure they were greeted by perplexed looks about my hair. It began falling out at an alarming rate. When I first started training BJJ I had long thick hair and after about a year I had huge gaps of missing hair and to hide it I would only wear my hair up in a ponytail. Anyone that knows anything about ponytails know it’s a BIG no-no and will cause further breakage.

Competing with my hair was the worst. After a match I looked like Sonic the Hedgehog. I tried every type of headband, clip, and elastic tie to no avail. My hair loss made me extremely self-conscious so I chopped my hair off and that worked for about two weeks. I had the hair stylist do a cute asymmetrical cut but once it began to grow, unevenly, I had no clue what to do with it. The in-between stage with the hair growth was a mess. I know it sounds crazy, it's only hair. But even at a young age, as a Black woman especially, you are praised for your hair. Now I had dry unmanageable hair and it was awful for me. I have dozens of friends that have beautiful short “dos” but with my big head the short hairstyle simply wasn’t for me. I made an executive decision and decided to weave it instead.

Weave Technique: Sew In Extensions -That is when your hair is braided and then the weave/extensions are threaded and sewn into the braid. Took about 2 hrs to complete the style.

Cost: Expensive. I luckily found a talented friend who did it for a steal. For the application I paid ONLY $60 (normally costs about $100) and then the price of the hair varies. I chose to get higher quality human hair which is most similar to my hair texture and that can cost anywhere from  $75 to $200 depending on type and the amount of hair you need.

Length of Use: You can keep the hair in for up to 3 months, with good (quality) hair. The best part is that human hair can be washed and reused for up to a year. Pretty good investment, worth it in the long run.

Training Pros:
•Your hair is completely protected. At no point does my actual hair (except for my bang) have any contact with the mat, which is awesome.
•Sewing the weave in gives excellent reinforcement. I never have to worry about it getting pulled out. Even if there is a little tug it isn’t going anywhere.
•Clean up after class is a breeze. After a couple brushes I’m ready to go.
•If some of it comes out during class, which isn’t often and only a couple strands if it does, it’s no big deal because it can easily be replenished
•it gives me incentive to play a top game, to prevent from having my head touch the mat

•if you don't do a tight up-do it will tangle and that's no bueno
•it's still human hair which means constant washing and styling to preferred design which can be time consuming

Initially I was really nervous about how this “new” hair would work. It was a big change for me because I had never worn extensions before. I felt so fake at first. I felt like I was cheating. As strange as that sounds I judged me for not being able to make what I had work. After a few weeks the new style really began to grow on me as I made it fit me and now I love it. I love how many options I have and that if I want to I can do something completely different with it. In all honesty it really is a lot of fun.

If this is something that other black women that train are considering I would recommend using HUMAN HAIR. I wash my hair about twice a week and I try not to put too much heat on the hair. I usually will put rollers in them at night to give the hair a break from the heat. Even though it can take the heat it definitely shortens its lifespan. Do yourself a favor and don’t go cheap--get the good stuff you will not regret it. Also wash it often! I wash the hair after every training session because you do not want to carry the germs from the mat with you. If you do not wash the hair I'm told that the braids underneath can mildew and smell terrible. Make sure you leave enough of your natural hair out to blend it in with the weave as to not reveal the tracks.

Headband like scarf with Velcro is a godsend during training. It’s adjustable and protects all of my exposed natural hair. Most beauty stores sell them for about $2-3 and its a satin on one side so your hair is smooth when you take it off. I will definitely be competing with one at my next tournament. I Of course tighten it as much as possible and it usually takes several hours or a few rough rolls before it starts to move. For class I do a low bun or a tight braided ponytail.

The only other women in jiu jitsu that I've seen have all had some type of braids or micros. I've never see any other forms and that made me nervous at first. I'm glad to know that I made a good investment. Weave and jiu jitsu can go together.

p.s. For extensions I would only recommend the sew -in I absolutely would not recommend you to train with extensions that are glued or worse clip-ins. They will most definitely come out.

A big thanks to all the ladies who contributed...hopefully, in a few months, I'll be able to write a post about everything I've learned transitioning from texturized to natural while training AND trying to grow my length back out. I plan on maintaining my post-training washings with either sulfate-free shampoos or either the conditioner only route. I owe a debt to the LOIS typing system for teaching me about my hair porosity...I had no idea I had low porosity hair and it explained why I've spent YEARS with moisturization issues (did you know that castile soaps open the hair cuticle? I didn't). So...stay tuned and maybe by some time in 2013, my poor head of hair will have recovered to some degree.
Fluffy and happy in China. 

Where I am now...not detangled or moisturized, but it is what it is.


Unknown said...

I just wanted to say thank you for writing this blog. You have covered many informative topics dealing with being a woman in bjj and it has really helped me to know what to expect. Even though we're as physically different as chalk is from cheese (I'm 5'5, 120lbs), the things you talk about still resonate.

In one of your entries, you write about how you wonder why you are doing this after your bjj class: I had that moment when I walked into my first class last wednesday, and now my answer to that question is 'I just learned a choke hold, that's why!' =)

So thank you, because reading your blog makes me feel less alone.

- Geraldine

Megan said...

Hi Geraldine!

I'm glad those painful first few months have helped you out. Are you the only woman in your classes?

Unknown said...

Hi Megan,

There is one other woman in the class with me so far, but our instructor makes us roll with the guys as well because our target is to be able to fend off men who are bigger and stronger than us.

So even if I were the only woman, the most practical thing would be to train with guys since I would be able to build my strength and technique more quickly. (The one guy I worked with was really gentle though, and I'm still trying to figure out how to let them know I'm serious about it without them going all out so that I will be able to learn something. But all that's part of the learning process right?)

Georgette said...

Megan-- though we too are different as chalk from cheese (I'm the whitest girl on the planet..) our hair issues are surprisingly similar. I just have to urge on you a book called The Curly Girl Handbook. It's for women of any color with any amount of curl in their hair-- and it is AMAZING. I can't recommend it highly enough. My hair is "swavy" in her terminology-- S-shaped waves-- but she covers everyone from kinky to tight spirals to loose spirals and on down. She agrees with Nyjah's recommendation to cleanse with conditioner. Also she advises against using anything with any SLS (sodium laurel sulfate) or ALS (ammonium laurel sulfate) or any silicone/dimethicone in it. (The -cones just make your hair waterproof so conditioner doesn't soak in... making it dryer and dryer!)

Sorry I'm so longwinded. But Curly Girl Handbook has enabled me to grow my hair BACK OUT despite training. Maybe it will be of help to some readers :) And it's cheap, only like $10 online.

SavageKitsune said...

SIGH....ARGH.....HAIR! My hair is very fine and will not stay confined with any tool or style. I am ponytailing it, braiding the ponytail and stuffing it under a swim cap, which is stuffed under headgear. I still have to take off the headgear and re-stuff escaping hair back into the cap at the nape of my neck after every roll. After class, when I take off the cap, the hair is in a ginormous knot. I lose a big handful every time I brush it out post-class. I can't believe there's any left on my head.

Two years ago, I got fed up and chopped it all off to about an inch and a half. That was great, from a sports perspective (and saved a lot of time in the shower...and airdried so quickly!), but I had to admit that I really disliked the way I looked with my hair that short. I had been hoping that it would spike out or curl a little or do something else cute without effort/product, but no such luck. :(

So I *still* can't figure out what to do about my hair. :(

Shark Girl said...

Yeah. Hair. I don't have enough curl to be curly, and it's not straight enough to lie flat and behave. It's in between. So, if I go really short, it sticks out at weird angles and takes me forever to style. And if I go longer, I have jiu jitsu problems.

So, I've given up. But, I am really excited to see what you come up with. I'll stay tuned but you must promise to post pictures!

Megan said...

@Geraldine-I think you'll come to appreciate your time training with the guys as time goes you said, if you have self defense in mind, it's the best way to go.

Any decent men will take you seriously as long as you take BJJ seriously. I found it takes a few months for them to accept that you're not just testing the waters, but that's true regardless of gender...people come a few times and never show up again ALL the time.

@Georgette...The CG method is where I learned how much damage bad product choices can do to hair. They really do have some great recommendations. I'm hoping that once I drop the chemical processes, I can treat my hair based on my natural texture only and not have to "compensate" for the weakening that happens from exposing it to relaxers (even though I only do it once every 8 months to a year)

@Savage...have you tried the zentai hood I referenced? My head's a bit on the large side, but it stays on nicely, sometimes even through triangle escapes. I train with a girl who has hair that sounds just like yours and she cut it down to about 3". It's really cute, but was definitely a change for her.

@Shark Girl...I can't say enough good things about the zentai hood. I honestly think if I had stuck with that, I wouldn't have half the issues I have now...I just got lazy and stopped putting it on. Not only does it protect, I've noticed that my hair also doesn't pick up the smells that the mats and gis love to share so much, and that it doesn't get half as tangled.

I'll totally post before and after pictures...I'll add a few to this post actually.

SavageKitsune said...

@Savage...have you tried the zentai hood I referenced?
I think having that material on my throat and jaw would drive me insane even *before* it got all sweat-soaked.

Megan said...'s one of those things...if you're not the kind of person that can wear chokers, it'll probably irritate you.

Anonymous said...

Hi Megan,
I'm another natural lady who trains BJJ, though I have been natural for many years before I started training.
I definitely can't wash my hair with shampoo after every session because it's so drying, but I do "wash" it after every session using a cheap/light conditioner. I shampoo and use a heavier conditioner once a week to get rid of buildup. This seems to work well for me.
My hair is long and for training I usually just pull it back in a bun...I end up getting some breakage but I figure nothing will be 100% perfect while I'm rolling around on the mat!

Deborah Clem said...

This is a worthy subject. I have long, slightly wavy, fine hair (mousey). I have not cut it because for me, a short cut would translate into daily styling and fussing to keep from looking like a drowned rat. After many BJJ years of experimenting with shampoos and shampooing frequency, I have found a modicum of success with a good Jojoba product, and 2-3 washings at the most. My hair likes extra conditioner, and the Jojoba seems to be a good choice for my hair type.

Unknown said...

Now that is a beautiful article. A lot of detrimental information!


Megan said...

@Anon-Yeah, I can already see that my hair is doing better. Regular shampoos are just brutal. I'd love to see some pics if you have any!

@Dagney-That's hair HATES Jojoba. I hear it's one of the oils with larger molecules (doesn't penetrate the hair shaft or something). I've got hair thicknesses ranging from thick to somewhat fine and it all just...gets angry (dry) when I use it. Conditioner is my life this days.

@Matua...I hope you found the information useful...thanks!

Denimqueen said...

I've been thinking about doing BJJ for a while now and I have to admit the hair thing has been something that has crossed my mind (also I have nose a piercing ). Of course this makes me sound so vain. So I'll stop here and say thank you for writing about your experiences with BJJ. Just knowing that there are other Black women out there representing is awesome. :)

Denimqueen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Megan said...

Hi Denim!

Yeah...the hair deal really made me question my vanity. Honestly, in my second year, my hair actually grew and got thicker, but that was while religiously wearing protection for it. If I don't, I lose it.

Unknown said...

Your post is a God send! I just started BJJ with my husband. Initially I was resistant and now I go even when he stays home! I love it, but I am also a holder of a state pageant title. I have been trying to figure out options to not only keep my hair (which I do by co-washing after practice, air drying and doing a leave in conditioner under a cap) but also look presentable afterward. It's difficult when you are rolling 4 days out of the week and still have a child to worry about and work! I was wondering if a sew in would be an option. I was worried at first about the friction and pull on braids when trying to break out of a submission but now I feel that this is a good move for me. Thanks!

Megan said...

Thanks Shannon! Are you relaxed or natural? I'm really curious how different hair holds up to training. My hair just isn't resilient enough to hold up to training and chemical treatment...I'm dying to get highlights again, but I'm a little reluctant.

Yolanda said...

I never encounter other black girls in bjj so I had no one to ask about hair issues.
Women training is a little rarer. So many times I was the only female, hiding my pms, my hair pains, managing my life, and wardrobe changes. So I just want to say thank you so for writing this blog.

I had mishaps once with a cheap weave shedding all over the mats.
Rolling and then trying to get my look presentable enough to go in business meetings after,so I was there with a full on blow dryer with teeth to re straiten my hair to continue my day.

Fibroid tumors have recently put a painful temporary stop in my training regime. But Im considering all sorts of hairstyles to make a return. This blog is wonderful and resourceful.

Megan said...

Thanks Yolanda!

Sorry to hear about the fibroids, but glad they're a temporary set back. It's really amazing how many medical conditions people train through.

I've never been one to try too many styles with my hair, but BJJ has trying even fewer...though my hair's finally growing out to a length where I want to try more with it.

Hope you're back to training soon!

Megan said...

Hi Anna!

I'll definitely say cover it up however you can. I thought my hair was hanging on just fine, but it all seemed to go to pot overnight. The balaclava is a total hair saver.

Thanks for commenting!

Unknown said...

I'm currently trying to figure something out. I work at a MMA facility so I literally go from work to the mat. My hair has to be done for class in the morning, then work right afterward, and training literally 10 minutes after I get off -_- I'm having the toughest time. My hair is about 6 inches all around but the shrinkage is real. I tried stretching it out so I could do a halo braid/twist but the sweat makes it shrink back up. The frizz is terrible lol I'm thinking of getting kinky twists or doing an up do.

Megan said...

I feel you hair is honestly the healthiest and longest it's been since I started training, but it is NOT cute right now. Styling is hair needs at least 2 days to "marinate" into most styles, and I've been training 5 days a week lately, so that's not happening. I embrace my frizz, but it has to be frizz with purpose. Mine just looks

I've honestly given up on anything that isn't free form (like a WNG). Styles are just out of the question and I'm getting tempted to start wrapping my head again. If I wore wigs, I'd be all over them right now.

Terre's Travel Boutique said...

Hi ladies.. I'm new to JJ and fall in-love with the sport. so far, I've lost over forty pounds within a year. I'm so happy I found this blog about hair issues.
well, My experience is not as drastic as others, but I do have a story.

My hair is in dreds wich I love very much and I take excellent care of it. It's been like this since 2004 while in massage school when I decided to go natural. I use vinegar, aloe, fresh squeezed lemon juice along with essential oils to help fight fungus, bacteria, viruses and other skin issues. I also use castile soap as a homemade shampoo without harsh chemicals.
apple cidar vinegar and aloe helps promote hair growth, softens and conditions the hair and skin.
However I decided to cut my hair because it kept falling over my sensei and I so he told me to do something with it. I cut them above the shoulders. I sometimes braded into two cornrolls or I put it in a bun which prevents it from coming down now. This works for me as a black woman going natural. By the way, I even use the apple cidar vinegar to spray over the body after swetting due to rolling. Good luck ladies.