Get to Know: Patti O’Brien-Richardson, The Woman Behind Curls On The Move

Dr. Patti O’Brien-Richardson is a Life Health Strategist, author and creator of Purge it with Patti, and CEO and founder of Move it Nation, a non-profit organization whose mission is to help busy professionals, women, and youth move their bodies, minds, and souls. Her multicultural health interventions have been featured in Elle, and Body & Soul magazine. She currently teaches cultural health courses at Rutgers University Biomedical and Health Sciences, has several national health and wellness certifications, and holds a BA in developmental psychology, a Masters of Science in education, and a Ph.D. in health.

Van Buren: What is a Life Health Strategist?

O’Brien: I help professional women and adolescent girls in their lives to strategize healthy outcomes.

Van Buren: How did Curls On The Move Come About?

O’Brien: In my prior life before I was a researcher, I was an educator. I worked in high schools in Brooklyn, New York. I was a special educator. As a special educator you are a general content educator. So, you can go to Social Studies, Math and English, supporting all of the students, not just students with learning disabilities. I was able to be in all the different disciplines. My specialty was health and physical education.

One of the things I noticed as a physical educator, I noticed girls coming in to gym and they would sit on the bleachers. The boys would play. They would play basketball, volleyball, most of the time they would be active. The girls on the other hand were sitting on the bleachers. This is a school in New York they call co-locating school, which are several schools occupying one building. This particular school building had six different schools occupying its space. On the floor that my school was on where I taught there were two schools on that floor.

In a typical physical education class from 9am to 3pm you would see several different gym classes. So I was able to see so many different gym classes, no matter what school it was or which period I always saw the same thing, girls sitting on the bleachers, boys playing.

I decided to ask the girls, “Why are you sitting on the bleachers?” or “Why aren’t you participating?”

It really took sitting with them, getting to know them, talking with them, because I was still looked at as an authority figure.

As I sat with them, one of the themes that emerged was their hair. They did not want to mess up their hair; they did not want to destroy their hair style. They had spent too much money on their hair. Having sweaty hair was a huge concern, not being able to have access to the school showers and not having enough time to change out of their sweaty clothes. Those were their concerns. I also found that there was no requirement for them to be physically active. The only requirement that they had was to change into their uniform. So, as long as they changed into their uniform, they could sit on the bleachers.

That was really interesting to me. Over the course of two years I noticed this consistently. At the end of the two years I was accepted into a doctoral program to pursue urban health and one of the classes I took, I was asked to do a research project. I chose this topic. I wanted to explore this more. Why are these girls sitting on the bleachers? Why is their hair an issue? Why do they care so much about their hair?

When you look at the data around childhood obesity, you find that at the top of the list is girls and women of African descent. That is a concern, when you have a population that is at risk for obesity at such an influential age who are unwilling to be physically active. It’s basically a prescription for future obesity. That was a concern to me as a black woman and as a mother of daughters.

I brought in some Zumba DVD’s, I brought yoga mats, and I brought jump rope for double dutch. I actually tore my Achilles tendon jumping rope.

In response to my research project I drew up a short survey and I administered it to 56 girls across several schools. It had questions such as, “What are some reasons why you don’t participate?”

That’s when I saw things even more clearly. The theme of hair emerged, but also the issue of boys in gym, issues around their bodies; where they are with their bodies. They haven’t yet emotionally grown into their physical bodies. They’re children living in these grown bodies. Some of the things they shared really made me sad as a mother and as a black woman. Some of the comments made were, they didn’t want their bodies to shake during gym, and they don’t want their bodies to move. They don’t like the attention they get from boys.

I tried very hard to zero in on what they were saying regarding their hair, their body image and having boys there who are developing their level of sexual confidence. There’s a whole world in high school in which these kids are facing.

This is where I started to get deeper into Curls on the Move, it sort of developed. What I learned from that initial research was that these girls, their hair is so important to them that it’s actually preventing them from being physically active and they don’t care that they’re failing gym. Many of them were doing summer school for gym, but they would rather do that than mess up their hair.


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