The Toll On Our Health When We Try to Be Superwomen (There’s Research)

As Black women navigate life, we are tasked with balancing work, family, wellness, and many other responsibilities. While managing these things, we often develop invisible capes. They symbolize our innate and inherent trait, the ability to be superwomen. Although this role is multifaceted and notably impressive, over time, it puts a lot of wear and tear on the physical, mental, and emotional health of Black women collectively. This conceptual framework is commonly referred to as The Superwoman Schema (SWS); it explores the experiences of women, with an emphasis on Black women, as we attempt to exceed societal expectations and defy stereotypes, as stated by the National Library of Medicine.
The Superwoman Schema Defined
According to Berkely News, SWS is characterized by a few things, including the following:

Feeling obligated to present an image of strength
Suppressing one’s emotions.
An intense drive to succeed.
Feeling a strong obligation to help others.
Resistance to being vulnerable.

Over time, as we displace our needs to consistently portray an image of strength or continuously put others before ourselves, little by little, ounces of pressure accumulates. Eventually, we are left with pounds of stress. This burden can lead to chronic conditions and many health issues.
How It Manifests in Black Women Over Time
An article from the American Heart Association delves into where SWS starts and how it manifests as Black women age. They gathered information from Amani M. Allen, an associate professor of community and health sciences and epidemiology at the University of California-Berkeley School of Public Health. According to Allen, being a superwoman begins when Black women are little girls, and it ages with them as they become teenagers and continues into their womanhood. SWS and its harmful effects are amplified as Black women are forced to approach both racism and sexism in their journeys of life.
Black women experience the impact of centuries of racism and the residual aspects of unfairness that exist within our systems today. Black women typically earn less than their counterparts of other races. For example, in 2019, compared to white non-Hispanic men, the pay gap for Black women was 38%, as stated by the American Association of University Women. Along with that, we may face limitations regarding opportunities in the workplace. Additionally, Black women face harsh health outcomes, as we often experience a lack of attentiveness in health facilities, and there are so many health disparities impacting us as a collective. To shield ourselves from these things, we tend to suit up in armor that temporarily aids us in suppressing our emotions so that we can appear strong while protecting ourselves from vulnerability. However, this may work temporarily; beneath the surface, all those emotions brew until we can no longer contain the steam. From there, we can be steered down a dark path with doors leading to things such as depression, heart disease, obesity, sleep problems, and much more.
The Historical Context
In an interview with Fox 26 Houston News, Dr. Christine Beliard explained how SWS is connected to history and the necessity for Black women to have safe outlets to be free of their vulnerability. “We have a unique experience. For generations, our ability to be worth anything was based on what we could produce, even literally, who we could produce,” she said.Dr. Beliard went on to refer to the times of enslavement in America and how Black women were never given the chance to relax or to not be at their best. Productivity was constant and mandatory.
“A lot of the work really is, not that you must go to therapy, but finding a safe space. If you must be hyper-vigilant and take care of this at work and home, you can’t be vulnerable. If you are in a state of hypervigilance, you are in a traumatic response. So, it is important to find a trustworthy space, a place where you can be honest.” she says. “Even if it is therapy or a good girlfriend, you cannot hold that in. We are like pressure cookers. If you hold that in, put on that top, and turn up that heat, it will come out in one way or another.”
SWS is a result of the united effort of Black women as we strive to be dependable and admirable members of our communities while simultaneously exuding excellence to defy false stereotypes of aggression, laziness, and loudness that have historically and unjustly been associated with us. Together, we can deconstruct SWS and evolve into the habit of acknowledging our feelings and the necessity for our wellness holistically.
The Negative Impact of Being a Strong Black Woman
In a wonderful interview with Northwestern Now, Northwestern Medicine clinical psychologist Inger Burnett-Zeigler explained the negative impact of being a “strong Black woman” and highlighted some things Black women can do to strengthen their vulnerability and wellness. She said, “For too long, being strong means avoiding or denying how you really feel. It is holding painful experiences, like trauma, in shame and secrecy. We deal with things by pushing our feelings aside, keeping our eye on the prize, and getting the task done,” she explained.”This is how we survive. We are afraid if we slow down long enough to think about all the difficult things we’ve been through and our pain, we’ll fall apart.
Furthermore, Burnett-Zeigler noted, “Some black women do not have the necessary tools to cope with their feelings healthily. As a result, they may engage in unhealthy coping strategies such as eating unhealthy foods, drinking alcohol, using illicit drugs, being sedentary or a workaholic,” she says. “On the other hand, many Black women do have healthy coping resources such as utilizing spiritual and religious practices. Also, they may be involved in organizations such as sororities, women’s groups, volunteerism, or charity clubs.
Superwoman Schema is evidence of the resilience of Black women and a reminder of the immense societal pressures we face. While we are intelligent, talented, ambitious, and strong, we should also be allowed the space to be vulnerable and authentic. Let’s start making room in the narrative for more self-compassion as we pave the way for generational healing and our collective well-being.
Here are some things we can do:

Evaluate and prioritize your feelings and be kind to yourself.
Seek support. Finding a therapist and talking with friends and family are healthy ways to discuss your feelings and to feel understood.
Set boundaries, try to refrain from stressing yourself out with tasks, and sometimes you have to say no.

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