The stereotype of the strong black woman was killing me.
As a college professor, writer, wife, and mother, my life was already hectic before COVID-19 rocked the globe.
My days typically followed a tight schedule filled with daycare drop off, meetings, teaching, writing, and more meetings. Oh yeah, and being a wife.
It never dawned on me that I was embodying the strong black woman stereotype, or how miserable it was making me.
I was thriving. I felt a sense of pride in my ability to balance my multiple roles and keep it all together. Whatever “it” entailed.
This, of course, was before the recent stay-at-home order.
I now find myself frantically trying to maintain the same level of work productivity, navigate life’s responsibilities, and homeschool a hyperactive and at times adorably ornery toddler.
In the process, it became painfully clear that I suck at being a wife and mom. Not totally, but maybe a little bit. I struggled to navigate our family’s new normal and my role within it.
It wasn’t until I found myself sobbing on the bathroom floor with the lights off. I realized something was seriously wrong.
I’ve experienced mild meltdowns on the heels of an especially traumatic life event before. I think we all have. But my bathroom rendezvous didn’t seem to make sense.
I was not distraught for any particular reason. Nothing catastrophic had taken place in my life, and my family and I were fortunate to still have our health intact amid a mammoth pandemic.
It was “Bubble Guppies” that pushed me over the edge. Who would’ve thought?
On a Monday morning, my daughter was indecisive about whether she wanted to watch “Bubble Guppies” or “Paddington Bear.”
Under normal circumstances, I would’ve shrugged this off as typical toddler antics. But this time, while scrambling to finalize last-minute preparation for a Zoom meeting I was dreading, I reached my wit’s end.
That’s when I found myself on the bathroom floor.
It didn’t last long. I quickly gained my composure, washed my face, and went on about my day. I convinced myself that I was being dramatic, that I had no right to sit in the bathroom crying like a spoiled child. After all, there was work that had to be done.
But why? Why didn’t I give myself permission to sit in the bathroom and ball my eyes out?
Both made me think about the strong black woman stereotype that many black women internalize, even to the detriment of our mental health. Black women are sexually objectified, told that we are not pretty enough, not smart enough, and not worthy enough.
We face discrimination in employment, education, the judicial system, healthcare, and in our everyday lives. There is a well-documented history of the invisibility and silence of black women. We are often overlooked and unheard.
You’re not feeling well? Take some medicine, you’ll be OK.
You’re stressed out and overwhelmed? You’re being dramatic, you’ll be OK.
You’re depressed and discouraged? You’re being overly sensitive, toughen up! You’ll be OK.
We are taught to grin, bear it, and to swallow our pain like cough syrup. Black women are expected to persist and embody self-confidence that doesn’t resemble the treatment that we receive. Our silence and invisibility shape the stereotype and the expectation that black women remain strong at any cost.
This is true even when it weighs on many of us like a two-ton weight. This pressure can have serious mental, emotional, and physical implications.
A study that examined the effects of the “superwoman schema” found that this stereotype made black women more susceptible to chronic stress, which can negatively impact health. Amani Allen, the
Executive Associate Dean and Associate Professor of Community Health Sciences and Epidemiology in the School of Public Health at University of California, Berkeley, was the primary researcher of the study.
“What [black women] were really describing was this idea of being strong black women and feeling the need to prepare for the racial discrimination they expect on a daily basis; and that preparation and anticipation adds to their overall stress burden,” Allen told Greater Good Magazine.
We can think of the cyclical relationship between the strong black woman stereotype and racial discrimination as a tag team.
Racial and gender-based discrimination directed toward black women has been linked to various long-term physical and mental health challenges such as high blood pressure, heart disease, depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts.
The strong black woman stereotype worsens existing stress because of the expectation that black women need to look strong and not discuss their challenges.
This can also impact help-seeking behaviors. Experiences with discrimination and the pressure to not express pain can impact how quickly a black woman might seek medical care, despite the need.
This can have a further impact on health disparities such as maternal death and breast cancer, both of which have a higher prevalence among young black women compared to white women.
I have learned to play the strong black woman role well, as an only child whose parents have both now passed. My friends frequently compliment my strength and resilience, commending my ability to persevere.
It turns out that my strength, resilience, and perseverance are slowly wearing on my mental and emotional wellness. It was not until I reflected on that Monday morning in the bathroom that I realized I had drunk the proverbal Kool-Aid of the strong black woman myth.
Apparently it’s taken a toll on me.
I noticed that I was becoming increasingly more impatient, my fuse was growing shorter, and I was not nearly as affectionate toward my husband. The change was so drastic that he commented on my behavior.
It’s difficult to be emotionally present when you feel pressured to be everywhere else mentally.
At first, I was defensive. But I had to be honest with myself and with my husband. Although my typical “I’ll handle it” approach to life seemed to work in the past, the added pressure of the stay-at-home order made me realize it had never worked.
Shelter in place was simply the straw that broke the camel’s back.
There is an expectation for black women to be superhuman. It’s maintained through the romanticized idea of our strength. I am not superhuman, nor am I some sort of Marvel character with nine lives. The stereotype of black women being strong is presented as praise of our character.
Sounds harmless, right? It even sounds like something to be proud of.
I realized that being a strong black woman is not necessarily a badge of honor. It is not an accolade to brag about. It’s nothing more than a stereotype that demonstrates our invisibility. I bought into it hook, line, and sinker. Simply put, our pain has no voice.
I decided to retire my pitcher of Kool-Aid, let go, and release myself of my two-ton weight.
But it was not as simple as flipping a switch. I had to release years of expectations and learned behavior, and I had to be intentional about doing so.
I first honestly reflected on how, to some extent, I unknowingly bought into my oppression.
Don’t get me wrong. This is not to minimize the nasty hand of cards that society has dealt black women. But it was important for me to be empowered enough to take accountability for my role in it all, however big or small.
I thought about all the stress I’ve experienced by going it alone when I could have asked for help. Not just during the stay-at-home order, but over the years. I could have been honest with myself about my needs and then honest with others.
I also chose to redefine strength. Strength is not carrying the weight of the world squarely on my shoulders. Instead, it’s taking on what I can. It’s being courageous enough to vocalize my vulnerabilities and needs to those I love about what I cannot.
Creating a balance was also instrumental. I had to learn how to create a balance between fulfilling my responsibilities and taking time for self-care. Then I had to accept and release.
I had to accept that I cannot and should not do it all by myself, and to fully commit to releasing myself of that expectation. I had to learn how to say no and, at times, how to choose myself before choosing others.
But I could not make these changes by myself.
I had to share with my husband what I was experiencing and ask him to hold me accountable for asking for help. Each day, I make a concerted effort to not unnecessarily overwhelm myself with tasks that I can share with him.
I now listen to my body more and if I feel my anxiety rising, I ask myself if I am feeling unnecessary discomfort. If so, can it be delegated? I am also intentional about taking time for self-care, even if it’s just taking a long bath with lit candles.
Sure, most times I have to tune out my daughter screaming at the top of her lungs while playing with my husband in the next room. But at least for those 20 or so minutes, I’m focused on my wellness instead of singing along to “Blue’s Clues” and tripping over building blocks.
Baby steps, right?
What’s your two-ton weight? What expectations are holding you down or holding you back?
Your weight might look similar or very different from mine, but it doesn’t matter. In this specific instance, your what is not as important as its impact.
Which areas require honest reflection, balance, and release and acceptance in your life? Many of us have multiple roles and others depend on us to fulfill them. I am not suggesting that we go rogue and neglect our responsibilities.
But I do encourage that we fulfill our responsibilities in a way that also serves us. Or at the very least, does not consistently leave us depleted.
After all, we cannot pour from an empty cup. Prioritize remaining full.
Dr. Maia Niguel Hoskin is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer, college professor of graduate level counseling, public speaker, and therapist. She has written on issues related to structural racism and bias, women’s issues, oppression, and mental health in both scholarly and non-scholarly publications such as Vox.