mental health

The Black Superwoman Syndrome

The Black Superwoman SyndromeEvery awkward (or maybe most) black girl’s favorite show right now is HBO’s Insecure.  And for those not-so-awkward black girls, BET’s Being Mary Jane, I’m pretty sure is high on the list.  These two TV shows document the lives of two Black female characters as they navigate through their separate life journeys. Though distinct from one another, what makes these two television shows a hit among black female viewers is the ability of the writers, directors, and actresses to capture what it means to be a black woman in America, be it an awkward or not-so-awkward black woman.  The ability of these shows to effectively tell our stories is what draws black women to them. Everything from Mary Jane’s and Issa’s complex relationships with men, the bonds that they share with their sister-friends, or the issues that they face while on their jobs are all issues that black women can relate to. What makes these shows so great and relatable is their cultural appropriateness and creative ability to depict issues that are not so glamorous, among them the strong black superwoman syndrome and mental health among black women.

The black superwoman syndrome is best described as the strength and fortitude that black women display when faced with personal and societal challenges (Woods-Griscombe, 2010). Rooted in history, the concept of the black superwoman syndrome is not new. The concept of the black superwoman concept is the result of black women’s attempts to right the ill societal perspectives and characterizations of the black woman as the “Welfare Queen,” “Jezebel,” and “Mammy” (Woods-Griscombe, 2010). Wood-Griscombe attributes past and current “racism, race-and gender-based oppression, disenfranchisement and limited resources” to the rise of the superwoman syndrome among black women.  Referring to one of my favorite writers and thinkers bell hooks, as she so eloquently puts it in her book Sisters of the Yam,

“Life threatening stress has become a normal psychological state for many black women (and black men). Much of the stress black people experience is directly related to the way in which systems of domination —racism, sexism, and capitalism, in particular—disrupt our capacities to fully exercise self-determination. It is a tragic irony that many more black people suffer undue anxiety and stress as result of racial integration.”

 -Sisters of the Yam, bell hooks, pg. 54

Thus, essentially the societal contexts in which black women live forces them to take on roles such as mother, nurturer, and breadwinner out of necessity; thus, giving rise to the black superwoman (Woods-Griscombe, 2010). According to the Wood-Griscombe’s qualitative study, black women who participated in focus group discussions characterized the superwoman role as black women who demonstrate the obligations to:

  1. manifest strength;
  2. suppress emotions;
  3. resist being vulnerable or dependent;
  4. determined to succeed despite limited resources; and
  5. help others (Woods-Griscombe, 2010)

Although the black superwoman complex has contributed to much of black women’s success within a “post-racial” America, it also contributes to health issues and disparities among black women.  A double edge sword the black superwoman syndrome comes with the stress of being everything to everyone and everybody with little time for self-care.  Quoting bell hooks again,

“…black women in particular, are so well socialized to push ourselves past healthy limits that we often do not know how to set protective boundaries that would eliminate certain forms of stress from our lives.”

-Sisters of the Yam, bell hooks, pg. 55

And so as a result, women tend to engage in stress-related behaviors such as emotional eating, smoking, and dysfunctional sleep patterns (Woods-Griscombe, 2010). Additionally, according to the American Psychological Association (APA) chronic high stress levels can lead to negative effects on the body, specifically the muscloskeletal, respiratory, nervous, cardiovascular, endocrine, and gastrointestinal systems.  Chronic stress also has negative effects on the female reproductive system and has negative effects on black babies in utero. More specifically for black women, racism-induced stress is a contributing factor to the high prevalence of preterm births and infant mortality rates among black women.

While it is a benefit to be strong and resilient in a society that still continues to base our value on the color of skin, it is also important to embrace a lifestyle that makes our individual health and well-being a priority. More specifically taking stock of our mental health is imperative to our well-being. In order for us to individually contribute toward collective building within our communities we must first recognize that we can not pour from an empty cup. We must recognize, as Audre Lorde puts it, that

“self-care is not self indulgent, [but] is self-preservation [which] is an act of political-warfare.”


1. Woods-Giscombé, C. L. (2010). Superwoman Schema: African American Women’s Views on Stress, Strength, and Health. Qualitative Health Research,20(5), 668-683. doi:10.1177/1049732310361892
2. Hooks, B. (2015). Sisters of the yam: black women and self-recovery. New York: Routledge/ Taylor & Francis Group.

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