“It’s handled.” You know her because you’ve seen her so many times. She’s bold, fierce – an unflinching, seemingly invincible black lady. “But you got me twisted OG. I’m always gonna eat.” In media, you can see the idea that the black woman, being this superwoman … The caricature isn’t only used to shape fictional personalities in in pop culture. It’s also a standard to which society holds all African-American women. And it is that mindset that is passed down to African-American girls and women, from generation to generation. But there’s a problem. I don’t think it’s very sustainable at all, and if it is sustainable, if a person survives living this way, we would need to take a really good look at their health.
I think this “superwoman syndrome” is suffering in silence. Hey, fam. I’m Imaeyen. This Sunday on AJ+ we’re looking at what the ramifications are when society expects black women to be “super. Two of the most popular dramas on American television right now center on black women with seemingly limitless emotional strength. Scandal’s Olivia Pope is known as much for her wardrobe as her ability to endure. And How to Get Away with Murder’s Annalise Keating spends each season carving out solutions for law law students who refuse to stay in their lane. “Never take a learning opportunity away from another student, no matter how smart you need everyone to think you are.” Annalise and Olivia have repeatedly showed audiences how to win. And those wins almost always come at the expense of themselves.
The fictional creations are two examples of what clinical psychologist Jazz Keyes calls the “superwoman syndrome.” Black women are always in this state of figuring it out, conquering it all, being this warrior, being of infinite strength. The black superwoman persona didn’t originate with Olivia Pope, Annalise Keating or any of of the countless black female characters who exhibit the same attributes. Before the black superwoman character was a part of any script or screenplay, the idea of it was being handed down within the black community. In her 2011 book “Sister Citizen,” Melissa Harris-Perry said the strong black woman stereotype was developed to combat tropes like the mammy, the jezebel and Sapphire. These are gendered stereotypes you may recognize. The mammy was born out of a post-Civil War America longing for antebellum days. She’s an asexual grandmother type dedicated to fulfilling the needs of a white family – much like Hattie McDaniel’s character in Gone with the Wind, who literally was called Mammy. There’s the jezebel, which hypersexualizes black women. It depicts black women as having inappropriate and insatiable sexual appetites – much like you see in many music videos.
And then there’s Sapphire, which you know more commonly as the angry black woman stereotype. She’s loud, emasculating and verbally abusive, like Gabrielle Union’s character Eva in 2003’s Deliver Us From Eva. The superwoman idea was meant to buck stereotypes like those. And now Keys says it’s become part of black women’s subconscious. “This This is something that’s subconsciously embedded in our psyche, and also in others, that black women can endure so much or have endured so much and still rise to the top.” There are even songs dedicated to this idea, like Karyn White’s aptly titled “Superwoman,” which spent 18 weeks on the billboard charts between 1988 and 1989. “I’m not your superwoman…” That song is one way you may have seen the superwoman syndrome embodied. Here’s another on the opposite side of the spectrum: “I’m a strong black woman.” Keyes says the mythology surrounding the black superwoman can be as empowering empowering as it is detrimental.
The thought of always being seen as strong and resilient may seem complimentary. But the superwoman ideal has some substantial negative effects on black women’s health. It’s so impactful that psychiatric nurse Cheryl Giscombe has spent the last 15 years studying the psychological stress and health of black women. She’s developed what she calls the “black superwoman schema” and says there are five characteristics of the black superwoman. “One is a perceived obligation to present an image of strength. The second is a perceived obligation to suppress emotions. The third is resistance to vulnerability or dependence on help from others. The fourth is a motivation to succeed despite limited resources. And the fifth is prioritization of caregiving or providing care to others, and balancing that with self-care. Giscombe says these factors are very likely impacting black women’s health in ways that aren’t really being considered or widely researched. She added that the superwoman schema can affect things like sleeping habits, relationships and even diet.
The Centers for Disease Control says more than half of African-American women older than 20 are obese. African-Americans also develop high blood pressure more often and at an earlier age than their white and Hispanic counterparts. Even within that that troubling statistic, there’s even more worry for black women. More of them have high blood pressure than black men. Then there’s the effect of network stress. That’s when you carry stressors because someone in your circle is experiencing stress. “When we compared directly experienced stress to network stress, we found that for African-American women, network stress was just as powerful a contributor to overall emotional distress as was personally, directly experienced stress.” Giscombe says those stress levels may help explain black women’s morbidity in cancer rates. “Some of the statistics related to morbidity related to breast cancer may be stress-related because African-American women are not more likely to experience breast cancer, but they’re more likely to die of breast cancer, and some of that is related to delayed health-seeking.” And then there’s something else. Could it be possible this superwoman complex is having an adverse effect on black birth rates in the U.S.? “African-American women have twice the rate of low birth weight, preterm delivery and infant death, or infant mortality.
And it cannot be completely explained by things such as limited insurance or limited access to healthcare.” Giscombe says those disparities still exist even among highly educated black women. She believes health professionals should consider the superwoman schema when researching illnesses and prescribing healthcare regimens. She wants more researchers to try and determine the direct links between the superwoman schema and African-American women’s health. Both Giscombe and Keyes say a substantial factor in black women’s health stems from their focus on caregiving. This even plays out in in fictional portrayals, like when Olivia Pope was driven to kill and Annalise Keating spiraled into alcoholism. “They’re the host, so everyone needs them all the time, whether it be to make decisions, whether it be to fix things, to clean up messes.
They’re always the person coming in and being the savior. No one paid attention to the fact that they were suffering in silence, until the point of them having a nervous breakdown or turning to alcohol.” Keyes says even while these superwomen are breaking down, they’re not allowed to to process their own emotions because everyone else is relying on them. “The superwoman syndrome is that part where, often at night, we’re suffering in silence because we’re never saved. No one’s ever ‘cape-ing’ for us. This is a lesson that really resonated with her after she became a mother. “My daughter expedited my healing process in a way that nothing else could have ever done. And I believe it caused me to really take a deep evaluation into what what did I believe about my womanhood. I didn’t want her to associate her life as a black woman with your ability to endure and withstand a great deal of pain and still be able to say, ‘Well, I’m strong enough to get through that.”’ Both Keyes and Giscombe say the first step to ensuring the health of black women is reminding them to take care of themselves.
They believe philanthropy starts with self. “At some point, you’re going to have to learn how to save yourself. And that is that radical self-love and that radical self-care.” Hey guys, thanks so much for watching. Don’t forget to like, share and subscribe. And guess what? We just started a brand-new show called “Because Facts” on Facebook Watch, and I would love for you to join us there. We will see you next Sunday, when we are back with another awesome video.
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