The trope of the “strong Black woman” may seem like a positive stereotype, but Black women have reported that the stoicism prescribed to them can take its toll on their mental health. A new study further examines the stereotype’s effect on Black women’s overall health. It found some behaviors protect their well-being while others are harmful.
Amani M. Allen is the lead author of the study and associate professor of community health sciences and epidemiology at the University of California, Berkeley. Allen and her collaborators launched a study in 2012 as part of the African American Women’s Heart and Health Study. They surveyed 208 Black women living in the San Francisco Bay Area on the links between social and environmental stressors.
In a focus group, Allen found many African American women adhere to the “strong Black woman” schema to cope with the stress of discrimination. From there, she told Berkeley Research, she decided to delve deeper into the effects of this stereotype.
Researchers often refer to the “strong Black woman” stereotype as the “superwoman schema.” Allen et al.’s study defines the “superwoman schema” as having five elements: perceived obligations to present an image of strength, suppress emotions, resist being vulnerable, succeed despite limited resources and help others.
A study that came out earlier this year in Sex Roles found Black women who adhere to this form of self-silencing report struggling with depressive symptoms.
Allen’s study, however, found that certain behaviors associated with the “superwoman schema” — like presenting an image of strength and suppressing one’s emotions — seemed to diminish the negative health effects that racism and sexism cause.
Other traits — like having an intense drive to succeed and feeling obligated to help others — seemed to exacerbate the negative health effects of discrimination.
Discrimination has been proven to have negative health effects on those who experience it. Black women describe racial discrimination as a persistent stressor, and chronic stress harms one’s health. In addition to stress, racism impacts resources like housing, education and employment, all of which are important factors in achieving good health, according to the American Public Health Association.
In this study, participants were asked to rate their experiences of racial discrimination in contexts like housing, employment, work life, school life, earning credit for loans and mortgages and health care. They also rated how they identified with facets of the “superwoman schema.” Finally, each participant underwent a physical exam. Researchers noted their height, weight, blood pressure, blood sugar and inflammation, among other health indicators. They then combined this data to come measure “allostatic load,” which indicates the level of chronic stress in the body. Chronic stress has been proven to be detrimental to physical health and even contribute to illnesses like diabetes and heart disease.
With all of these factors combined, the researchers found links between adherence to the “superwoman schema” and allostatic load. Some of the results contradicted previous studies. For example, psychological studies, such as that featured in Sex Roles, showed that suppressing emotions is negative for one’s health. However, Allen et al.’s study found that women who reported suppressing emotions had lower levels of allostatic load.
The report suggests this finding makes sense because anger — a common reaction to discrimination — is bad for one’s health.
“Indeed, AA women report ‘pent up’ anger due to emotion suppression, due in part to their efforts to avoid being labeled as the ‘angry black woman,’ and describe this form of emotion suppression as distressing,” it says. “However, studies also report anger as a particularly damaging emotion, which has been associated with numerous poor outcomes.”
Feeling the needs to succeed and help others both showed higher levels of allostatic load in the participants.
Overall, the study suggests researchers need to continue taking complexity into account when it comes to analyzing how people cope with stressors such as racism.
“Our findings affirm the need to consider individual variability in coping and potentially other psychosocial processes involved in the stress response process, and offer several insights that may help elucidate the mechanisms by which racial discrimination gets ‘under the skin,’” it says.