The Health Crises Of The “Strong Black Woman”

To be quite honest with you, I loathe the term, “strong black woman.” It implies that somehow, we are infallible and someone who people can cast all their problems on. I have to admit that while I’m honored to be held in such high esteem, I respectfully decline. I wish that many of my counterparts would respectfully decline as well. Trying to live up to this persona has hindered the growth of and left a lot of women with missed opportunities. Every day that we wake up and attempt to live up to this standard of being “strong”, we cause ourselves undue stress which negatively influences our health. Now you might be thinking that I’m reaching and/or asking yourself, how so? If you just take a moment and think about what it means to be a “strong black woman” then you’d understand my point. For example, black women have the highest prevalence of chronic illness and disease out of any one group in the country. High blood pressure, diabetes, obesity and heart-related illnesses are all common place among us. Much of this can be directly attributed to some type of stress. And that’s just the physical toll. Mental health among black women has wreaked havoc on us, our communities, and our families for many years, but is only recently starting to garner attention. The stress one is subjected to while attempting to live up to this “strong black woman” image can be brutal. How many of us are the “responsible” or “go-to” person in our families or circle of friends when others experience financial hardships? Or what about those of us who have taken on the simultaneous tasks of going to school, working a job, (both full-time) and raising a family?

As some of you may know, I was diagnosed with scleroderma, an auto-immune disease, in the summer of last year. Prior to my diagnosis, I had subjected myself to an overwhelming amount of stress. In the spring of 2015, I had this goal to complete my master’s program in 18 months because that was my way of making up for lost time. I had just received my bachelors in the summer of 2014. I worked full time, completed two internships, and was raising my son making things work. During my second internship I made the choice to forego my full-time job to work part-time at the hospital twice a week so that I could complete my internship that was the equivalent of a full-time job. To say the least, I was doing the most. I had a poor diet, severe emotional and mental stress and my money situation was horrible. I was robbing Peter only to find out that I still couldn’t pay Paul. I had made the conscious decision to take on a gigantic task of doing the unthinkable in 18 short months and subjected myself to elevated amounts of chronic stress.  We have burdened ourselves with taking on the problems of everyone that enters our space, determined to find a resolution. And for what, to be overlooked, not appreciated and/or celebrated. The “strong black women” is not just about standards others put on us, but the ridiculous standards that we hold ourselves to as well. I could have easily taking the 24-36 months to complete my master’s program with less stress, but I had something to prove. But to who though?

There are so many problems with the “strong black woman” persona that it’s sickening. For all its grandeur, being deemed a “strong black woman” has quite a few negative connotations and lived experiences for many. Case in point, we are oftentimes the industrious work horses of the labor force but are rarely compensated for it, or we are ostracized for exhibiting our mental acumen, unless requested, (in which you probably won’t receive due credit anyway). We are also relied on by many as the bread-winner and caretakers of both our immediate and extended families. And for what, only to wake up and have society spit in our faces by labeling us with demeaning stereotypes that depict us as “ghetto,” “ratchet,” “baby-mama,” or welfare queens. When we’re not being verbally assaulted or dehumanized; there is the constant attack of our sons and daughters, whom we’ve given life to, that are slaughtered in the streets. And this isn’t just about Black Lives Matter. This goes beyond that, this is a centuries old conditioning that has rendered us helpless but placed us in a position to be “strong”. We do it for us, for family, for love, but most importantly for survival.

If black women want to move beyond surviving, we must approach this issue with urgency. The overall health implications of this “strong black woman” persona are damaging. We must reprogram ourselves and teach our girls differently. Not only is this a heavy burden to carry but one that shouldn’t be passed on to the next generation of women.  From birth we are subconsciously raising our young ladies to be survivors while coddling our boys (more on this in a later post) as we’ve been conditioned to be their protectors because they are undoubtedly born with a bounty on their lives.  I don’t have all of the answers as to how to remedy this problem, but what I do know is that we must change up how we handle stress and care for ourselves. One thing that I’ve learned working in human services is that self-care is critical. It’s okay to seek therapy, counseling, or even psychiatric help if necessary. The word “No” must also be adopted into our vocabulary and praise should never come at your expense. We can no longer allow the scars of our past, societal or self-imposed standards to dictate our futures or that of future generations.