I AM SUPERWOMAN: The Superwoman Syndrome and it’s Affects on the Culture of Black Women

By Tyler Doggett

HOUSTON- In modern media, you’ll see the powerful stereotype of the unwavering successful, strong black woman on every TV shows and movie adaptations in 2018.

From political figures like Olivia Pope from Scandal and the entertainment world like the infamous Cookie Lyon from Fox’s hit series Empire, the persona of strength has often shifted from fiction to fact.

What was once seen on our screen is now expected to be reflected on to all women of color within our ever-growing society; placing most of our Black women leaders such as our forever FLOTUS Michelle Obama, Platinum-selling artist Rihanna onto a pedestal supported by the ambitions and expectations of people around the world.

This “Superwomen Syndrome” a term coined by clinical Psychologist Jazz Keyes, is a self-created persona that Black women have adopted into their sense of being that promotes managing multiple roles of a worker, a homemaker, a volunteer, a student, or other such time-intensive occupations to support their sense of independence.

Because of this ideology though, many of our Queens suffer from a sense of inadequacy not because they aren’t successful, but because they aren’t “successful enough” which can lead to a series of mental health issues like depression.

“I don’t think Maxine meant any harm, and I saw it as an affirmation of herself,” Kaila Story, an studies at the University of Louisville, said to The Washington Post, “But in these times and especially in this climate, with all of the violence affecting black girls and women constantly every day, we need to leave room for a more holistic picture and understanding of who we are as human beings, not stereotypes.”

This stereotype has a long history of being the foundation of many Black homes starting with the mother of the household. But, we didn’t see a strong image shift in our entertainment until it was created to combat common media troupes like the loud, broken English house servant Mammy, or overly seductive Jezebel or always angry and confrontational Sapphire monikers that are used throughout history to depict our ladies.

What once was a symbol of progressive and times, now places an almost impossible expectation on to Black women today who are, then ridiculed once they’ve fallen short of balancing the entire world.

Dr. Cheryl Giscombe developed Superwoman Schema: African American Women’s Views on Stress, Strength, and Health and has broken down the 5 key characteristics that lead to a woman having the superhero syndrome: Her Obligation to manifest Strength, her Obligation to suppress emotion, Resistance to being Vulnerable or dependent, Her Determination to succeed despite the limited resources and her overall Obligation to help others over an initial sense to help herself.

“You have to be strong. . . Society makes you have to be a strong woman. People in relationships make you have to be a strong woman. Our past makes us have to be a strong woman and it’s really annoying as hell,” One of the women in Giscombe’s focus groups said.

Black women have been projected to be the backbone of the culture but, who helps them when they’re supporting everyone else? “Damsel in distress” never really fit the black women of today. Instead, they are the decision makers, trailblazing through our community as a beacon of fortitude.

So even when these foundations of the family start to crack and crumble, the establishment that their holding up refuses to allow them to deal with their own emotional trauma because everyone’s selfishly relying on them while she “suffers in silence.”
“Their needed all the time,” Keyes says, “whether to make decisions, whether it be to make decisions, whether it be to clean up messes, they’re always the people coming in, being the savior.”

Does it feel personal yet?

These aren’t necessarily negative traits to have, but, it’s a gateway to the real problem that’s severely deteriorating the lives of Black women; depression, anxiety, and stress.
Amani Nuru-Jeter, associate professor of epidemiology, community health and human development of the School of Public Health at the University of California-Berkeley, expresses how the caretaker ideology does more harm to the mental health of the Black woman than the praise of their resilience boost their mental self-confidence.

“This slow deterioration may not be captured in a typical clinical encounter, because doctors are not measuring our stress hormones or the level of inflammation in our bodies,” Nuru-Jeter said to the LA Sentinel. “So often this sub-optimal functioning goes unnoticed until it becomes a chronic disease, such as the diseases we see Black women suffering from the most, like diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and hypertension.

Within 13.5 percent identifies itself as Black or African American in the United States, over 16 percent have a diagnosable mental illness according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration; roughly estimating to 6.8 million Black Americans.
Dr. Burnett- Zeigler is a clinic doctor whose experiences and research shows the downside of Superwomen syndrome.

“We are proud of our tenaciousness and never let the world see us crack.” Dr. Burnett-Zeigler said to the New York Times, “But we are suffering silently with the mental and physical health consequences of carrying the burden of family, work and community responsibilities, compounded by personal experiences of trauma and loss, all in an environment of pervasive racial and gender discrimination.”

Black women are the cornerstone of our culture; our loving wives, prolific daughter, powerful mothers, and the long history of strong women they have kept our family bond together. Your actions resonate throughout of communities.

You are phenomenal, extraordinary, and unrelenting. You are the true superheroes within our Blactivity. You are all of these things and more. But, even Wonder Woman had to hang up her cape and her shield sometimes and just be Diana.

This article originally appeared in the African American News & Issues.

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