6 Mar 2018
The Adverse Effects of the Superwoman Syndrome
The strong black woman was created to counter images of historical and gendered stereotypes such as the ‘MAMMIE’, the ‘JEZEBEL’ and more recently the ‘SAPPHIRE’. Let’s look at each caricature in more detail:
- The ‘Mammie’ – was a post 1940’s figure, the asexual grandma who dedicated her life to fulfilling the needs of a white family.
- The ‘Jezebel’ – The hyper-sexual black woman, who has an inappropriate and insatiable sexual appetite, who’s self-worth is determined by the male glaze and promiscuous relationships.
- The ‘Sapphire’ – The loud, emasculating, verbally abusive, strong, fearless, angry and emotionless woman, who fights for what she wants at all costs.
The ‘Sapphire’ stereotype has now become part of the Black woman’s subconscious, embedded in our psyche and that of others – i.e. it doesn’t matter how much hardship, discrimination, oppression, abuse or neglect she faces – she will still rise to the top!
This image of being strong and resilient, may appear on the surface as a compliment, or a testament to our ability and capacity to cope and overcome adversity and life’s challenges – but it has a negative and detrimental effect on Black women’s mental health.
Everyday life has a big impact on our mental health, and black communities in the UK are still more likely than others to experience problems such as bad housing, unemployment, stress and racism, all of which can make us ill i.e. common mental health problems such as stress, depression and anxiety can affect our sleeping habits, our relationships, our diets and maintaining a healthy weight. Many Black women are obese, develop high blood pressure, breast cancer or have a disproportionate lower birth rate (infant mortality).
Recent statistics confirm this:
- Research from the Mental Health Foundation suggests that African-Caribbean people living in the UK are more likely to be diagnosed with severe mental illness than any other ethnicity in the UK
- According to the Mental Health Bulletin, nearly 5,000 “black” or “black British” people per 100,000 accessed mental health services in 2014-2015
- 12.7% of those in contact with mental health spent at least one night in hospital that year. That’s more than double the percentage in the white population
- Post-traumatic stress is more prevalent amongst Black and Black British women
For the past 15 years Dr. Cheryl Woods Giscombe has been studying the psychological stress and health of Black women in the US, and has developed what she refers to as the ‘Black Woman Schema’ – 5 characteristics which Black women can be defined by:
- A perceived obligation to present an image of strength
- An obligation to suppress emotions
- An obligation to resist being vulnerable or asking for help from others
- Motivated to succeed despite limited resources
- Prioritisation of care giving in contrast to balancing it out with self-care
Can you relate to any of the above characteristics?
Have you had to alter your behaviour or conform to make others feel comfortable?
Have you ever been labelled as angry, aggressive or loud?
What impact has being a ‘superwoman’ had on your health or relationships?