FINA Chooses Tradition Over the Health and Emotional Support of Black Women by Denying Swimmers Soul Caps

I don’t know if you are as angry as I am about the swim cap for Black women, called the Soul Cap, being denied by the International Swimming Federation, otherwise known as FINA.

I have read many of the comments on various sites regarding this denial. Some people argue that the newly designed cap will give swimmers an advantage, while others argue that it can’t possibly give an advantage but, in fact, will slow the swimmer down. How about testing it, FINA? Then we would all know!

According to a July 15 article in the New York Times, Soul Cap’s inventors, Michael Chapman and Toks Ahmed-Salawudeen, designed their product to have extra room at the crown to fit natural hairstyles including braids, locs, Afros, and weaves. Two-time Olympic medalist Lia Neal, whose ethnicity is Black and Japanese, was quoted in the Times piece as saying that when using a regular swim cap, “I’m probably pulling on my cap upward of 20 times in practice.” In the same article, Danielle Obe, the chair and founder of the Black Swimming Association said, “We want to be included, all we’re asking for is to have a piece of equipment that has been designed to cater to the issue of hair, which is a significant barrier to participation in aquatics as a whole.”

FINA justified their ruling by saying that elite athletes “don’t require caps of such size and they do not follow the natural form of the head,” I ask, whose head are they speaking of? FINA took the easy way out and chose to remain in denial about the NEW, MOST NATURAL HEAD FORM, that must be considered.

in making this decision. There’s no consideration by FINA of the emotional strain and embarrassment these women might feel exposing frizzy hair each time a NATURAL HEAD FORM swim cap is pulled off.

Black hair is very different and much weaker than Caucasian hair. The cuticle layer (outermost layer of a hair strand) is always wide open, producing the frizz. Chlorine is a fierce enemy and fills each highly permeable and porous strand of Black hair, leaving it brittle and frizzier. Ultimately, chlorine will break Black hair at any place on the hair shaft.  

Without a cap that can comfortably accommodate thicker and curlier hair, many swimmers resort to straighteners. The National Institutes of Health warn that those using chemical hair straighteners have a higher risk of breast cancer. As many as 78 percent of these products tested and marketed to Black women contain hormone disrupting chemicals that increase the risk, not only of cancer, but also asthma, and fibroids.  

I was considered the Queen of Hair Straightening in my hair styling days, in southern New Jersey and Philadelphia. Working on Black and white women and men, young and elderly, with kinky, frizzy hair, both enlightened and saddened me. These people lived by the weather forecast and had to plan accordingly. They were terrified of rain and humidity. A simple walk on the boardwalk could make them unrecognizable in a few hours, unless their straightening was fresh. 

To blow out a curly, frizzy head of hair took a very long time and a hell of a lot of product and effort. (Thus, the birth of Dry Bars). Try holding your arms above your head for an hour. It hurts. 

Rather than straightening, more women and men of color now opt for hair extensions, a process that takes hours and hours, even with an experienced stylist, and costs a great deal more than a simple haircut. A protective dressing is applied to braids and extensions as they are being woven to protect the hair.

Many girls and young women avoid swimming because they fear emerging from the water with a head full of unflattering frizz. They wouldn’t be able to fit their hair into the typical NATURAL head-hugging swim cap, and, if they have braids or extensions, that look great and remove the fear of frizzing, those hairstyles wouldn’t fit into the snug-fitting cap either.

We have Black athletes that are representing our country. Shouldn’t we be doing all we can to make sure they are able to compete comfortably, without worrying about getting all their hair into a swim cap?

Not only is this unfortunate ruling affecting current elite athletes, but future ones, too. According to a Soul Cap official, 76 percent of parents report that their children would be more interested in taking up swimming if they saw a talented swimmer who looked like them and wore a swim cap that accommodated their hair, whether natural or braided hair extensions. 

How can this ruling be appealed? Where do we march? 

Rose Marie Beauchemin-Verzella is CEO, Director of Education, Beau Institute of Permanent and Corrective Makeup. For more information, go to the website.

Top photo: Shutterstock