Can you really have it all? Can you be a “Strong Black Woman” (SBWM) who will have success, happiness, and get your fair share? How many times have you and your girlfriends had this discussion? Too many, right?
“Super Woman” is a label African-American women have worn for seemingly hundreds of years. It’s become a stereotype, an archetype that tries to trivialize the reality of everyday life for many black women who strive to be everything to everybody – all the time. In fact, it’s so expected that black women who strive for life/work balance find themselves stigmatized as “underachievers”.
History has laid the groundwork in defining the Strong Black Woman. During and after slavery, African-American women have had to play the role of “mother, nurturer, and breadwinner out of economic and social necessity,” according to Dr. Cheryl Woods-Giscombé, in her article, “Superwoman Schema: African American Women’s Views on Stress, Strength and Health”. Now, more than ever, the pressure is mounting as Black woman face an ever increasing racially charged world coupled with gender bias and sexual harassment. At work, Black women experience the “side eye” of some White women and the crude advances or demeaning treatment by some white male peers and bosses who make it clear that they really don’t welcome us at their workplace. It’s commonly accepted knowledge that African-American women have to work twice as hard to prove themselves. They are constantly making sure they’re exceeding expectations so they can have at least half a chance to get equal pay and a promotion.
Now, more than ever, the pressure is mounting as Black women face an ever increasing racially charged world coupled with gender bias and sexual harassment.
What’s the impact of trying to juggle all these roles? Giscombé and other researchers reveal that black women’s health is adversely affected in numerous ways: stress, depression, heart problems and all the other related chronic health issues that might occur. Self-care takes a back seat to job and family. In fact, Valerie Brown, principal of Lead Smart Coaching, writes that black women report the lowest rates of leisure time physical activity, and higher obesity rates than Black men, and Hispanic women. That’s the burden the Strong Black Women carries with her every day. “First, as women of color we must cultivate self-awareness and honor the full range of our emotions, including vulnerability,” Brown says in her essay, “The ’Strong Black Superwoman Syndrome”. “Second, we must recognize the negative internal monologue, which combined with stress, activates the threat-defense system, sending us in a downward spiral, and nurture self-compassion through self-care.”
The need to nurture oneself is a characteristic many Strong Black Women run away from for fear of showing any sign of weakness that might just cause them to let their guard down. The desired drive to be a stealth-like object, emotionally stoic being is what drives a Strong Black Women’s success, but it also can become the source of fatigue, internalized pain and longer term emotional distress. Perhaps Dr. Sinead Younge, an associate professor and Danforth Chair of the Department of Psychology at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Ga., sums it up the best, “May we, as Black women, use elements of this tradition to our benefit to continue to thrive and gain optimal health. I encourage Black women to be proactive with our overall mental, physical, and spiritual health. Self-care takes on multiple meanings, but essentially, it’s the idea that it is perfectly okay to make oneself a priority.”