In the last few years at least, there has been some pushback against the prevailing notion of the “strong black woman” as a good thing, as black women themselves have recognized that vulnerability and yes, selfishness, is an important part of a healthy mental make up. Like so many things that have gotten us through or served us in the past, we’re starting to recognize that this type of identification may be doing more harm than good.
And new research indicates the belief that black women are naturally strong is, in fact, connected to higher levels of depressive symptoms.
A recently released study, published in Sex Roles, suggests that self-silencing or self-sacrifice, long associated with being a strong black woman (ie., holding the weight of the world for everyone else) is detrimental to the mental and ofttimes physical health of those who take on this identity and role.
“When we were conducting focus group discussions, many women mentioned being Strong Black Women or looking up to Strong Black Women (in the form of mothers, grandmothers, aunts, friends, celebrities, etc.),” said study author Jasmine Abrams, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and affiliate professor at the Yale University School of Public Health, as reported by PsyPost. “What struck me about the discussions was how women discussed embodying this role—it was simultaneously discussed as aspirational and overwhelming.”
“Women spoke about how being strong helped their ancestors survive enslavement and Jim Crow and how it helps them navigate present day oppression and personal challenges,” Abrams continued. “In the same breath, they mentioned that the expectation of strength meant self-reliance, independence, and being overworked in service of others.”
Abrams said that after hearing a continuous stream of such statements, she wanted to design a study to “determine if women’s identification with being Strong Black women was related to depression symptoms and if so why.”
The result is “Underneath the Mask of the Strong Black Woman Schema: Disentangling Influences of Strength and Self-Silencing on Depressive Symptoms among U.S. Black Women,” co-authored with Ashley Hill and Morgan Maxwell, which consisted of 194 participants, all of whom identified as “Strong Black Women.”
Unsurprisingly, this type of identity can be a double-edged sword.
“Specifically, the ‘self-silencing’ aspect (e.g., holding in negative emotions, pretending to be happy or okay when you are really not) is a pathway from strength to depression,” says Abrams.
Abrams also notes that there needs to be more research on the myriad identities and intersections of black women and mental health, even within the context of her own study.
“Although many Black women (about 80 percent in my study), identify as ‘Strong Black Women,’ not all Black women identify in this way,” explains Abrams. “[W]e collected data from mostly heterosexual women living in the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States. That said, black women from other geographic regions or of other sexual orientations may have different experiences that were not captured in our data.”
Like any good piece of research, there are new questions that have arisen. The good news is that there are dedicated researchers who want to know more about the mind-body connection of black women.
“What other negative health behaviors or outcomes are related to identifying with being a Strong Black Woman?,” Abrams asks. “Equally important, what positive health behaviors or outcomes are related to identifying with being a Strong Black Woman? How this can we use this information to promote more positive mental and physical health outcomes among Black women? What strengths of the Strong Black Woman identity exist and how can we leverage them to improve health?”