strong black woman, study, health
(Image: Shutterstock)

Study Shows Possible Positive and Negative Health Effects of ‘Strong Black Woman’ Schema

The trope of the “strong Black woman” may seem like a positive stereotype, but Black women have reported that the stoicism prescribed to them can take its toll on their mental health. A new study further examines the stereotype’s effect on Black women’s overall health. It found some behaviors protect their well-being while others are harmful.

Amani M. Allen is the lead author of the study and associate professor of community health sciences and epidemiology at the University of California, Berkeley. Allen and her collaborators launched a study in 2012 as part of the African American Women’s Heart and Health Study. They surveyed 208 Black women living in the San Francisco Bay Area on the links between social and environmental stressors.

In a focus group, Allen found many African American women adhere to the “strong Black woman” schema to cope with the stress of discrimination. From there, she told Berkeley Research, she decided to delve deeper into the effects of this stereotype.

Researchers often refer to the “strong Black woman” stereotype as the “superwoman schema.” Allen et al.’s study defines the “superwoman schema” as having five elements: perceived obligations to present an image of strength, suppress emotions, resist being vulnerable, succeed despite limited resources and help others.

A study that came out earlier this year in Sex Roles found Black women who adhere to this form of self-silencing report struggling with depressive symptoms.

Allen’s study, however, found that certain behaviors associated with the “superwoman schema” — like presenting an image of strength and suppressing one’s emotions — seemed to diminish the negative health effects that racism and sexism cause.

Other traits — like having an intense drive to succeed and feeling obligated to help others — seemed to exacerbate the negative health effects of discrimination.

Discrimination has been proven to have negative health effects on those who experience it. Black women describe racial discrimination as a persistent stressor, and chronic stress harms one’s health. In addition to stress, racism impacts resources like housing, education and employment, all of which are important factors in achieving good health, according to the American Public Health Association.

In this study, participants were asked to rate their experiences of racial discrimination in contexts like housing, employment, work life, school life, earning credit for loans and mortgages and healthcare. They also rated how they identified with facets of the “superwoman schema.” Finally, each participant underwent a physical exam. Researchers noted their height, weight, blood pressure, blood sugar and inflammation, among other health indicators. They then combined this data to come measure “allostatic load,” which indicates the level of chronic stress in the body. Chronic stress has been proven to be detrimental to physical health and even contribute to illnesses like diabetes and heart disease.

With all of these factors combined, the researchers found links between adherence to the “superwoman schema” and allostatic load. Some of the results contradicted previous studies. For example, psychological studies, such as that featured in Sex Roles, showed that suppressing emotions is negative for one’s health. However, Allen et al.’s study found that women who reported suppressing emotions had lower levels of allostatic load.

The report suggests this finding makes sense because anger — a common reaction to discrimination — is bad for one’s health.

“Indeed, AA women report ‘pent up’ anger due to emotion suppression, due in part to their efforts to avoid being labeled as the ‘angry black woman,’ and describe this form of emotion suppression as distressing,” it says. “However, studies also report anger as a particularly damaging emotion, which has been associated with numerous poor outcomes.”

Feeling the needs to succeed and help others both showed higher levels of allostatic load in the participants.

Overall, the study suggests researchers need to continue taking complexity into account when it comes to analyzing how people cope with stressors such as racism.

“Our findings affirm the need to consider individual variability in coping and potentially other psychosocial processes involved in the stress response process, and offer several insights that may help elucidate the mechanisms by which racial discrimination gets ‘under the skin,’” it says.

Related Story: During Suicide Prevention Week, People of Color’s Mental Health Struggles Cannot be Forgotten

Latest News

women in politics

Women Remain Vastly Underrepresented in Local Government, Despite Conventional Wisdom Suggesting Otherwise

Vice President Kamala Harris and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi sat behind President Biden during his first speech to a joint session of Congress on April 28 — representing the first time two women held such important and high-ranking political offices. Even after such a historic moment, the reality…

voter restriction

Florida Follows Georgia’s Lead, Approves Racist Anti-Voter Restrictions Aimed Primarily at Democrats and People of Color

Not content with letting Georgia be the only state in the South demonized for its bigoted and racist attacks on voter rights, Florida has jumped into the fray in issuing its own series of new and highly controversial “Jim Crow-esque” anti-voting restrictions aimed specifically at disenfranchising Democrats and voters of…

Kentucky Derby

Inspired by Protests Over Breonna Taylor’s Death, Humana and Kentucky Derby Festival Launch Diversity and Inclusion Initiative in Louisville

Ahead of the 147th Kentucky Derby on Saturday, May 1, Kentucky Derby officials and Humana (No. 25 on The DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity list in 2020) have announced a new equity initiative meant to make the race more accessible and welcoming to everyone, regardless of race, gender, age…

crimes against human ity

‘Crime Against Humanity’; Global Report Says the US Should Be Prosecuted in International Criminal Court for Ongoing Police Murders of Black Americans

In what has been described as a “devastating” report, human rights experts and lawyers have investigated and released a 188-page analysis of the ongoing police brutality and killing of Black Americans in the U.S. Their verdict: the country is guilty of “crimes against humanity” and should be prosecuted for its…

Tokyo, Olympics

Tokyo Olympics to Encourage Significant Increase in Gender Equality Among Event’s Corporate Sponsors

Besides simply being a showcase for some of the most talented and athletic men and women on the planet, the organizers of the Tokyo Olympics are hoping their event this summer can also help promote significant change in corporate culture, both in Japan and around the globe. Bloomberg’s Ayai Tomisawa…

AbbVie Joins Over 400 Leading US Employers in the Human Rights Campaign’s ‘Business Coalition for the Equality Act’

Originally published on LinkedIn. AbbVie ranked No. 19 on The DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity list in 2020.   AbbVie has joined a group of over 400 corporations and leading U.S. employers to support the Human Rights Campaign’s “Business Coalition for the Equality Act,” an initiative advocating for federal…

Accenture and Goodwill Develop Virtual Experience To Help People Impacted by the Criminal Justice System Enter the Workforce

Originally published at Accenture is ranked No. 5 on The DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity list in 2020.   Goodwill Industries International has teamed with Accenture to develop an innovative virtual experience called Project Overcome. The experience is designed for people impacted by the criminal justice system who want to…