Does being a ‘superwoman’ protect African American women’s health?

Berkeley — The stereotype of the “strong black woman” is more than simply a cultural trope: Numerous black ladies in America report sensation pressured to imitate superwomen, predicting themselves as strong, self-sacrificing, and without feeling to deal with the tension of race- and gender-based discrimination in their lives.

“[Women] spoke about every day going out of their homes and placing on their ‘armor’ in anticipation of experiencing racial discrimination,” stated Amani M. Allen, associate teacher of neighborhood health sciences and public health at the University of California, Berkeley, explaining focus groups she led with African American ladies in the San Francisco Bay Location.

“What they were really describing was this idea of being strong black women and feeling the need to prepare for the racial discrimination they expect on a daily basis; and that preparation and anticipation adds to their overall stress burden,” Allen stated.

Allen is lead author of a brand-new research study that checks out whether various elements of being a strong black lady, which scientists often describe as “superwoman schema,” eventually protect ladies from the unfavorable health effects of racial discrimination — or develop additional damage.

The brand-new research study exposed that, in the face of high levels of racial discrimination, some elements of the superwoman personality, consisting of feeling a responsibility to provide a picture of strength and to reduce one’s feelings, appeared to be protective of health, lessening the unfavorable health results of persistent racial discrimination.

However others elements of the personality, such as having an extreme drive to be successful and feeling a responsibility to assist others, appeared to be destructive to health, additional intensifying the negative health results of the persistent tension related to racial discrimination.

“African American women describe racial discrimination as a persistent and significant stressor, and we know from prior research that stress impacts health,” Allen stated. “What we need to figure out is how to mitigate those risks. For those aspects of superwoman schema that worsen the negative health effects associated with racial discrimination, how do we lessen those risks? And for those factors that are more protective, how do we leverage them to inform interventions designed to promote health and well-being for African American women?”

“The superwoman schema also reflects gendered racial socialization that African American women receive early in life and throughout their life course,” stated Yijie Wang, assistant teacher in the Department of Person Advancement and Household Research Studies at Michigan State University and co-author of the paper. “By identifying the protective versus risky dimensions, we also hope to figure out the type of messages that should be conveyed to African American women and girls.”

The strong black superwoman

Allen and her partners performed their research study as part of the African American Women’s Heart and Health Research Study, a cross-sectional research study that Allen introduced in 2012 to analyze the links in between social and ecological stress factors and health amongst 208 self-identified African American ladies residing in the San Francisco Bay Location.

Previous arise from the research study had actually exposed a direct link in between racial discrimination and persistent illness danger, contributing to the growing body of literature that reveals that the experience of racial discrimination alone can be destructive to one’s health.

Allen states her interest in superwoman schema was motivated by focus groups she carried out with African American ladies, in which they exposed that they frequently acted the part of the strong black lady as a method to deal with the relentless tension of racial discrimination in their lives.

“I remember them talking about being strong black women and describing it both as a kind of armor, but also potentially as a liability,” Allen stated. “For example, what does it mean to continue to have an intense motivation to succeed, while you’re also experiencing barriers to achieving that success? So, I wanted to know, is being a strong black woman helpful, or harmful, for health?”

To develop the research study, she coordinated with scientists throughout the nation who were likewise thinking about this phenomenon, consisting of Cheryl L. Woods-Giscombe, a teacher at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s School of Nursing. She had actually established a structure called the “superwoman schema” to explain the various measurements of the strong black lady personality.

The superwoman schema consists of 5 components: feeling a responsibility to provide a picture of strength, feeling a responsibility to reduce feelings, resistance to being susceptible, a drive to be successful in spite of minimal resources and feeling a responsibility to assist others.

In the research study, individuals were asked to rank their experience of racial discrimination in various contexts, consisting of finding real estate, discovering work, at work, at school, getting credit for a bank loan or home mortgage and in health care settings. They likewise ranked to what level they related to various elements of the superwoman schema.

Each individual likewise got a physical examination, with scientists taping their height, weight, high blood pressure, blood sugar level and steps of swelling and other health indications. These health indications were integrated into a step of ‘allostatic load’ that showed the level of persistent tension in the body. Greater levels of allostatic load are related to higher danger for persistent health problems like heart disease and diabetes, and even for death.

The scientists then examined the information for links in between racial discrimination, the various elements of superwoman schema and allostatic load.

Some unexpected relationships emerged, Allen stated. For instance, the research study discovered that ladies who reported reducing feelings had lower levels of allostatic load, or less tension, in their bodies. This opposes mental research studies, which frequently reveal that reducing feelings, instead of honestly revealing them, can increase tension and be destructive to health.

Allen states, “Although contradictory to studies showing that emotion suppression is bad for health, this finding makes sense, in light of research showing that the most common emotional reaction to discrimination is anger, and anger is bad for health.”

The research study findings contribute to a growing body of research study showing how the tension related to racial discrimination ends up being biologically ingrained, Allen stated.

“The problem is not that women need to learn to cope better with racial discrimination,” Allen stated. “The problem is racial discrimination itself and the need for interventions intended to address racial discrimination as experienced in the workplace, by police and in society at large.”


Co-authors of the paper consist of David H. Chae of Auburn University; Melisa M. Rate and Leticia Marquez-Magana of UC San Francisco; Wizdom Powell of UConn Health; Teneka C. Horse of the University of North Carolina, Greensboro; Angela Rose Black of the University of Wisconsin-Madison; Firdaus S. Dhabhar of the University of Maine and Cheryl L. Woods-Giscombe of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

This work was supported by the UC Berkeley Hellman Fund, UC Berkeley Population Center, UC Berkeley Research Study Bridging Grant, UC Berkeley Speculative Social Science Lab, Robert Wood Johnson Structure Health and Society Scholars Program (UCB website), UC Center for New Racial Research Studies, UC Berkeley Institute for the Research Study of Societal Issues, National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities (NIMHD) grant P60MD006902, National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) grant UL1GM118985, National Institute on Substance Abuse (NIDA) grant K01DA032611, National Institute on Aging (NIA) grant K01AG041787, National Institute on Nursing Research study grant T32 NR007091, Drug Abuse and Mental Health Providers Administration Minority Fellowship Program at the American Nurses Association, Robert Wood Johnson Structure Nurse Professors Scholars Program and Josiah Macy Jr. Structure Professors Scholars Program.

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