I often look back on the days of my youth, even as just as a young black woman in her early 20s. And of course, it's the less favorable memories, the ones I regret, that stick out the most. The time I said something I shouldn’t have to a friend. The time I completely dove headfirst into a relationship I knew wouldn’t end well. The time I didn’t speak up because I was afraid of sticking out.
Maybe you can think back and have similar moments to cringe at. But the world we now live in today, where health is at the forefront of our minds, has started to add more moments to my list of regrets. The time I slept with the fan on and woke up with a sore throat, but was met only with my grandmother’s chiding remarks. The time when I had a cold but my mother sent me to school despite the danger. Or the time I felt a pain in my stomach, though I should voice my concern, but decided against it in fear of either being ignored or causing trouble for something that “ain’t nothin’ to worry about.”
For a long time, I didn’t quite realize experience like these, where my perception of my health was so intertwined with my family’s reactions, was not simply a product of my youth. It was a symptom of a larger problem within the black community, especially for black women. That is what Prof. Cheryl Giscombé, Ph.D. would call the “Superwoman Schema”.
In an interview with Medical News Today Prof. Giscombé expanded on her 2010 paper entitled Superwoman Schema: African American Women’s Views on Stress, Strength, and Health in the journal Qualitative Health Research. In it she explains:
“Researchers have suggested that health disparities in African American women, including adverse birth outcomes, lupus, obesity, and untreated depression, can be explained by stress and coping. The Strong Black Woman/Superwoman role has been highlighted as a phenomenon influencing African American women’s experiences and reports of stress.”
In this interview, Prof. Giscombé dives into her research and uncovers the subconscious reasons behind why I and so many other black women can think back on moments like these, where we were expected to display a strength didn't have, even from those who looked like us. This type of “overperformance” is born from the desire to dispel societal stereotypes or to fulfill the responsibility black women (black mothers specifically) feel from being the “backbone” of the African American family.
The fact that I’m not African American, but instead Afro-Caribbean, having grown up in a majority-black country, and still have these experiences as opposed to some of my other peers is a testament to how deeply ingrained this way of thinking is in black communities. And it doesn’t help that historically black communities overall have been at the bottom of the socio-economic totem pole, and are the most impacted by major health issues like diabetes, cancer, and even COVID-19.
I can’t help but think that these external issues are fortified by the fact that health is always addressed as a burden rather than a concern within the black family. Prof. Giscombé’s research took into account black women from across the age and education spectrums to find out why we take on this superwoman role. “
There were a number of reasons [for taking on the superwoman role], including historical oppression, gender- and race-related oppression and abuse. Many of the [women] talked about a history of experiencing verbal, physical, and sexual abuse.”
Reading the professor's research amplified the reality of this issue for my fellow black women, but it also did so for myself. As I grow into autonomy in a world where my health can be shaped by my own care, I find myself having to unlearn the desire to ignore the importance of maintaining it in the face of fear. As a person who’s been lucky enough to be generally healthy the majority of my life, I think about my internal reaction to taking care of myself as a black woman and how that differs from how the world will treat me.
Maintaining our health in modern America is undoubtedly an issue of privilege, from the ability to afford overpriced “healthy” food or medicine, all the way down to accessibility of quality healthcare. We have a responsibility to do our part and to vote for change, but in the meantime, I can’t afford for that disparity to exist within myself just as much as I can’t tolerate it continuing to exist in the world around me. Taking my health seriously when no one else does is one of the best things I can do for myself, and the same goes for you.
So, do the same as I did. Seriously think back on the way you've thought about your health, and what is within your means to become a better steward of the one body you have. You never know how impactful the value you place on yourself can influence not only your health but the way others, from your family to your physicians, treat your health as well.
Follow The Pink and the Black Project to learn more about black women’s health and the political role we all play in its improvement today.