Everyone always talks about stress. They say things like “eat better to reduce stress.” And, “exercise for 30 minutes daily to reduce stress.” But, what few online sources and magazines do is address the fact that Black women’s stress comes from a unique place. And, simply eating right or exercising does not always get to the heart of the problem. Some medical professionals call this the “Superwoman” phenomena. Whether it be described as a schema, complex, misnomer or disorder, it basically illustrates the Black woman’s desire and innate drive to conquer the world. Not only Black women suffer from it, but studies show that social messaging regarding Black women’s gender roles are key in dictating how this complex surfaces in the Black community. This ambition might originate from within but in most cases, comes from a deep-seated social messaging system which tells Black women that they have to overcome, challenge, beat, and win every single thing they do. And, the Superwoman Complex is a leading indicator of stressful lifestyles for Black women.
To be totally transparent, I am doing this right now. I woke up to a thirty pound baby sitting on my back leaning in for good morning kisses. I dropped off my toddler with her grandmother this morning after wrangling my kindergartner into his school uniforms and feeding him before shooshing he and my husband out of the door. I checked on the laundry while carrying my daughter and got her jacket on one handed while I put on my new boots. I arrived at work to check a slew of work-related emails while attempting to free up space on my cell to retrieve more voicemails. Meanwhile, I am starving and have only had a glass of water this morning that I had to share with my kids. Whew…I think I typed that all in one breath. But, you get the point. Not only are superwomen kicking butt in many differing social arenas like business, family, church, social organizations, philanthropic endeavors, and everything else, but they (we) are neglecting ourselves in the process. And this can be extremely stressful.
Deepak Chopra breaks down the science of stress and its impact on the human body in a recent article. In the piece, he describes not how to deal with stress but how many people do not understand the long-term impacts of extended periods of stress. He notes that the human body is designed for “fight-or-flight” wherein high levels of cortisol and adrenaline kick in to cause humans to enact self-preservation. But, these bouts of natural defense are not meant to last indefinitely.
“No one can healthily sustain the heightened alertness, quick burst of energy, rapid heart rate, elevated blood pressure, and other marks of the fight-or-flight response. Physically, the hormone rush must come to an end, leading to the opposite state – you become drowsy, lose energy, and have a hard time remaining alert and focused.”
He goes on to note that intense stress has major health impacts over time.
“As stress experts have asserted for decades, the low-level stress of modern life fools the body into triggering a borderline condition of fight-or-flight that isn’t good for us. ‘Normal’ stresses like being stuck in traffic contribute to hypertension and coronary artery disease, along with susceptibility to infections, insomnia, and much else.”
So, what does all this mean for Black women?
Black Superwomen and the Masking Response
The National Institute of Health published a study about two years ago which focused on social norms which contributed to the Superwoman Complex and how those messages might impact Black women’s health outcomes. In the study, they found that poor health outcomes were not conclusively correlated with high stress but that high stress lifestyles had a domino effect on other life-improving health regimens.
“Cultural and psychosocial factors of the Superwoman role, such as focusing on the needs of others and making personal health a secondary or tertiary priority, might explain delays in health-seeking behaviors, limited adherence to recommendations made by health care professionals, and lower rates of screening procedures for conditions that are treatable if caught in the early stages (e.g., breast cancer screening, colonoscopies).”
They went on to note that inefficient coping mechanisms only masked health and mental issues which could exacerbate them over time.
“The stress-related coping strategy (and often façade) of strength might mask distress and make it more difficult for healthcare professionals to assess health status accurately and recommend effective interventions for health promotion and stress management in this population (Edge & Rogers, 2005).”
Taken together, the findings line up with what many within the Black community have always known to be true: Black women are buckling under the familial, mental, and social pressures they face from society. This is not to say that Black women can’t “handle it,” but it is simply to say that maybe Black women shouldn’t have to “handle it.” Or, at least they shouldn’t feel like everything around them will crumble if they take a break, a pause, or a moment to care for themselves.
These issues do not only shine through when reviewing stressful lifestyles, they also take foot in the types of relationships Black women build with others.
“For example, a tendency to suppress negative emotions in the context of inadequate resources and responsibilities in multiple life domains might place a woman at greater risk for adverse health compared to a woman who has a great deal of determination to succeed, but also has the ability to express distress as a result of abundant tangible and emotional support from family and friends.”
The compounded environmental stress, which results from superwomen feeling as though it is unsavory to express their emotions, coupled with the desire to “go, fight, win” constantly, generates an endless cycle which continues into perpetuity. How can a Black woman address her own emotions and health needs if she has to be there for everyone else? And, if once she is there for everyone else, she is disallowed from expressing her own stresses and struggles, how is she to function at her best? These are the questions Black women should be questioning about themselves, their friendships and relationships, their workplace environments, and their social obligations. And they should ask themselves these questions often.
Though this is not just a Black women’s issue, this “Superwoman” complex has been proven to contribute to increased rates of heart disease, obesity, and reduced life span among Black women. Just think about it. If every single day is marred with mental anguish from start to finish, what does that mean for Chopra’s assertion that even normal levels of stress have dire consequences? What if, for just a few moments, we took some time to take a leisurely stroll instead of a stomping mini-jog to our next meeting? Or, what if we replied to emails after eating a healthy breakfast? To some, these things sound totally normal, but to the average superwoman, this is nothing more than a joke. But, it isn’t a joke. And the stress that compounds today could have drastic impacts down the line. That’s certainly no laughing matter.
This holiday season, between all of your planning, buying, cooking, juggling, and working, don’t forget to take a step back and reflect on yourself. This is one of the greatest gifts you can give to yourself. And, all those in your life who truly love you will want you to de-stress too. As a Black woman with a heart disorder, I will be doing it too. Superwomen need breaks. And, taking time for yourself does not mean that you are not meeting your obligations. It just means that you’re human. And that is perfectly okay. You don’t have to be super-human to be a superwoman.