When Alicia Keys released her hit single, “Superwoman,” it became an anthem of sorts to every woman who bravely takes on the balancing act that is life while holding down multiple fronts. As Keys floats over the melodic beat declaring, “even when I’m a mess/I still put on a vest with an S on my chest,” it is surely a noble sentiment for all who applaud perseverance in the face of difficulties. Yet, as inspirational as the song may be, can this mindset be be taken to the extreme? If we are out to conquer the world each day even in our moments of mental and/or physical weakness and fatigue, could we be doing ourselves a disservice?
For Black women this notion is nothing new. It’s an idea and ideal that can be summed up in three words: the "strong Black woman." Built Ford tough, this archetype has been tossed around and reverenced as the equivalent and standard of Black womanhood. Yet unlike those pesky stereotypes we often find ourselves trying to negate, our relationship to this subjective title is somewhat peculiar. Many wear the SBW title as a badge of honor; or seek to live up to it. While others denounce it as a myth, citing that it enforces an unrealistic ideal. Despite our various attitudes and opinion on what it means to be a “Strong Black Woman,” it has undoubtedly had a significant impact on us culturally.
The notion of the strong Black woman has made way for what many of us struggle with today: "Superwoman syndrome" (don’t feel bad, Alicia). Powered by the concept of the SBW, the Superwoman syndrome is the mindset that tells us that we're not grinding if we're not missing sleep and stressed out, or that our lives as women must involve an unhealthy degree self-sacrifice. The idea of the SBW and the Superwoman were explored fully by Michele Wallace's 1980 classic Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman and in 1998 by Joan Morgan's When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost.
Strength is subject to opinion. However our ability to persevere, be resourceful, and overcome great obstacles is undeniable. But these truths should not be manipulated in a way that we praise self-destructive behavior. It’s hard to believe that one adjective could ever capture any woman, nor should any woman live life trying to fit into said mold. Do we truly have to take on the world each day? Could it be that when we think we are putting on our heroic vest, we are really putting on a mask and trying to live up to a false ideal? And could the way we perceive strength actually be our kryptonite?
I have seen many women in my life literally become ill from taking on everyone’s problems; counseling family and friends, working multiple jobs, taking in children, housing relatives–essentially catering to everyone else's needs but their own. In my personal life I have struggled not to overextend myself, all while the temptation to appear unbreakable and the desire to help others pulls me towards the deep end from time-to-time. By simply learning from the struggles of those around me, it has become clear that if one is not careful, this behavior and state of mind can negatively affect our emotional and physical health.
Safiyya Shabazz, M.D. owner/Medical Director of Fountain Medical Associates, PC, says this mindset can greatly impact our health:
“At a minimum this mindset influences health behaviors that lead to lead to heart disease and other lifestyle related illnesses. Before even considering the effects of stress on the hormonal systems in the body, you can look at the obvious factors: women who are stretched to the limit, trying to do it all often neglect their own health while caring for others. We try to be good parents and wives, excel in our careers, and serve our community, all while looking like we just stepped off of the cover of [a magazine].”
Known as "the silent killer," heart disease is currently the number one cause of death for women in the U.S., with Black women being at greater risk for heart disease, stroke and other cardiovascular diseases, according to the American Heart Association.
“A common thread amongst the stressed out women I care for is that we do not prioritize our health. Everything and everyone else comes first,” says Dr. Shabazz. “Stress is not the stuff going on in your life. Those are stressors. Stress is how we react to those situations both mentally and physically. When everything else is more important than your very survival, it is time to take a step back and make some changes … adopt a new motto, ‘Self first, then others.’ Learn the value of saying ‘No’ or ‘I'm not available’. Simple things like that can help you avoid unnecessary stress and make you less likely to make unhealthy choices at the last minute.”
The key roles that women play in our family units, social circles, communities, workplaces, and society in general could never be downplayed. And our strength and resilience can not be understated. However, it can be overstated. While sisters have undoubtedly stepped up to the plate and dealt with realities others may not have been able to face, we should not become accustomed to spreading ourselves too thin. It’s not to say that we should be afraid to soar through life with a ‘can do it’ spirit, but we must strive to remember that even planes have to come down for fuel.