How I Am Redefining Wellness as a Former "Strong Black Woman"

It can end up doing more harm than good.

woman looking in the distance



This is about one author's personal, anecdotal experience and should not substitute medical advice. If you're having health concerns of any kind, we urge you to speak to a healthcare professional.

My mother has always been independent. She was the youngest of three siblings to graduate high school and went to college to receive a Bachelor's degree. It took her some years, but she walked off the stage debt-free. Then, she spent the next decade working before settling down at 35-years-old with two twin girls. 

My mom's life story is one of courage, resilience, and tenacity, and I admired her growing up. I fanaticized this strength so much that her stress lines, matted grey hair, and regular bouts of anger were invisible to me. Her strength was aging her. Still, all I could think was that mom always figured it out.

The idea and assumption that Black women must be so strong—even to their detriment—feels like the norm. Though you may hear it called grit or strength, the official diagnosis is superwoman schema, a term coined by Amani M. Allen, associate professor of community health sciences and epidemiology at the University of California, Berkeley.

This concept explores the idea that Black women are obligated to project an image of strength, suppress their emotions, and become a pseudo superwoman, even to the detriment of their emotional or physical health. 

We see many examples of this in mainstream entertainment and television through characters like Bonnie from Vampire Diaries, Mary Jane Paul from Being Mary Jane, and Annalise Keating from How to Get Away with Murder. These are just a few examples of the strong Black women portrayal. Each of these TV characters was burdened by their co-stars' needs.

I internalized this stereotype as my mother and those before her did. Each generation of Black women in my family bore back misogynoir and racism while actively providing for their children. There was no time for rest, relaxation, or self-care. Like myself, most young Black girls are taught this message at home or beyond. We learn to bear the burdens of our family members, co-workers, friends, for if we're not considered strong, what are we? Angry? Lazy? 

This faulty ideology may contribute to the mental and physical denigration of Black women—the high rates of anxiety and depression, high blood pressure, and the increasing diagnosis of stomach cancer, according to Allen's 2019 study. It's the scary side of the superwoman schema that often floats beneath the radar.

I fondly remember my mother scraping coins together to pay for my recitals, but memories of her crying herself to bed are vague. I hardly remember my mom ever saying no. Most Black women know someone like my mother, and sometimes, they are her. Still, we don't have to be. Black women don't have to be strong, ignore their bodies' needs for rest, or feel guilty about being unproductive.

Rediscovering the meaning of wellness with this awareness isn't a walk in the park, and it doesn't always mean buying yourself a latte or attending a yoga class (though these choices can make you feel better). To me, wellness is setting boundaries with the people around you, loving yourself despite flaws, practicing small moments of gratitude, or even talking to yourself in the mirror.

You may feel guilty for practicing self-care—I know I did. Taking care of others before myself was so instinctual that I often regressed to old habits when the time came to establish boundaries. Still, I've allowed myself grace and know self-prioritization is easier said than done—especially when you have never practiced it before. However, I had to put active strategies in place by defining my emotional and physical limits, setting reminders on my phone, and practicing daily affirmations to remind myself that I deserve to rest.

Do I slip up sometimes? Yes. This wellness journey is not linear. Instead, it's a windy road of ups and downs that operates best when you're honest and gentle with yourself. I can be strong in my pursuit of wellness, gentleness, and love because we deserve space to feel good, even if it's inconvenient to others.

Black woman, you can be strong, but that's not all you are—you're more than your accomplishments, awards, productivity, and even your challenges. Your worth is endless and cannot be given or taken away by the unchecked boxes on a to-do list. Take it from me, a former strong Black woman. 

Article Sources
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  1. Woods-Giscombé CL. Superwoman schema: african american women’s views on stress, strength, and healthQual Health Res. 2010;20(5):668-683.

  2. Allen AM, Wang Y, Chae DH, et al. Racial discrimination, the superwoman schema, and allostatic load: exploring an integrative stress‐coping model among African American women. Ann NY Acad Sci. 2019;1457(1):104-127.

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