As women, we are often pushed to be the best version of ourselves 100% of the time. While it is good to strive to be the best version of yourself, operating as your best self all day everyday is not possible. Everyone has bad moments, makes questionable decisions, and has those days where everything feels like too much, and that’s just life. We all need to have moments where we’re vulnerable to grow and heal from past trauma. When we don’t allow ourselves these moments, emotions build up in an unhealthy way. For black women, the pressure to be strong is even more intense. There is an image of the ‘perfect black woman’ in the media: a woman who has overcome a difficult past, racial discrimination, and many other struggles to be wildly successful. Black women are expected to be superwomen, carrying the burdens of both sexism and racism, all with a smile.

As a black woman, the pressure to be perfect is intense. First, there is the pressure put on all women by the patriarchal society we live in, the pressure to overcome sexism. Sexism permeates almost every aspect of our culture, and is constantly looming over our heads. For black women, there is another burden looming overhead: racism. Like sexism, it’s woven into our culture, and something that there is no escaping. Even within the comforts of your own home, racism seeps in. Reading a classic book? A reminder that (not so) long ago, racism was perfectly acceptable. Scrolling through the internet? A reminder that there are still people who view you as less than, simply because of the colour of your skin. This all increases the pressure black women feel to be successful. To prove everyone that you are in fact not less than. That you are capable. That you are smart. The list of things you feel the need to prove goes on and on, because it feels as though the more perfect you are, the less discrimination you will have to face. This is unfortunately not true, and coming to terms with it is mentally draining. However, in attempting to live up to being a strong black woman, it feels as though you are not allowed to be openly upset about anything. You must keep it inside, and continue striving for perfection.

All this pressure to be perfect manifests as negative health consequences for black women. Canada does not collect race based health data, so the following statistics are from the United States. Black women have a higher mortality rate from almost all health conditions than white women. There are many factors that contribute to this, such as racial bias in health care settings. Another contributor is trying to live up to the idea of being a strong black woman. The main connection between a strong black woman and mortality is stress. In particular, the stress and negative emotions associated with dealing with racism and discrimination, sometimes on a daily basis. In some cases, trying to be strong on the face of racism can help lessen the burden. Playing the part of the strong black woman can decrease the amount of anger felt when facing discrimination, which decreases the negative physiological conditions associated with anger. However, this can also negatively impact mental health. Feeling the intense need to succeed in order to prove yourself is incredibly stressful. It leads to neglecting your physical and mental wellbeing. In trying to be superwomen, black women take care of everyone but themselves. As Marita Golden writes in her book “The Strong Black Woman: How a Myth Endangers the Physical and Mental Health of Black Women”, the myth is “built on a foundation of tears we don’t shed, pain we deny”. In trying to take care of everyone else, we neglect our own wellbeing, and put off actions that contribute to a healthy lifestyle. Scheduling doctors appointments, getting regular exercise, and taking care of our mental health are all things we neglect doing, and this leads to negative health outcomes.

To overcome the negative affects of the strong black woman myth, there are many ideas that you must unlearn. For me, the hardest thing to unlearn is that strength means never showing emotions or being vulnerable. This year, it is my goal to find strength in moments of vulnerability and to use my emotions, both positive and negative, as stepping stones to bring me forward, rather than avoiding them. In addition to redefining what strength means, I hope to learn to strive for happiness, not perfection.

About the Author

Hi! My name is Tiana, and I'm a third year Immunology and Infection major. This is my first year working with WEW, and I'm super excited to be working with such an amazing group to spread awareness about important issues. When I'm not studying or writing I enjoy baking, reading, and doing sudoku puzzles.