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Physical and mental health impacts on Black women

Physical and mental health impacts on Black women

Medical News Today has interviewed Prof. Cheryl Giscombé, an expert on stress-related health disparities among African Americans, about a source of pressure that many African American women experience: the obligation to project an image of strength or that of fulfilling a ‘superwoman’ role.

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Many African American women find it hard to integrate self-care into their daily lives.

In 2010, Prof. Cheryl Giscombé, Ph.D., published a paper entitled Superwoman Schema: African American Women’s Views on Stress, Strength, and Health in the journal Qualitative Health Research. In it, she explained:

“Researchers have suggested that health disparities in African American women, including adverse birth outcomes, lupus, obesity, and untreated depression, can be explained by stress and coping. The Strong Black Woman/Superwoman role has been highlighted as a phenomenon influencing African American women’s experiences and reports of stress.” 

MNT reached out to Prof. Giscombé — who is the Melissa and Harry LeVine Family Professor of Quality of Life, Health Promotion and Wellness at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill — in an attempt to find out more about how this role affects Black women. 

We spoke to Prof. Giscombé — who is also a social and health psychologist and a psychiatric-mental health nurse practitioner — about her past and current research, and how she developed the superwoman schema.

We also talked about how the superwoman role affects the mental (and physical) health of African American women, whether there are any benefits to the role, and what are some interventions that could help offset its adverse effects — both on an individual and a societal level.

We have lightly edited the interview for clarity. 

MNT: Could you kindly define the notion of the superwoman schema for our readers and tell us a bit about what prompted you to research it?

Prof. Giscombé:  Yes, thank you for asking. So, the superwoman schema is a conceptual framework that I developed based on research with African-American women across various age groups and educational backgrounds to understand better how to conceptualize stress and coping in African American women. 

I have been interested in the effects of stress on health behaviors and health outcomes for a number of years, since I was an undergraduate in college, and probably before.

I was quite concerned when I saw that there seemed to be inadequate measures, inadequate ways to evaluate stress that were often void of the gender and/or race-specific nuances that may influence how African American women experience and cope with stress. 

So, I became interested in this — really, I became interested in emotional suppression first. So, if women felt like they could not express their emotions, how might that impact their health? And then I became interested in this concept of strength — if they feel obligated to present an image of strength. 

So, through qualitative research with African American women, the superwoman schema conceptual framework was developed, and we identified [its] five characteristics:

  • a perceived obligation to present an image of strength
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Medical News Today has interviewed Prof. Cheryl Giscombé, an expert on stress-related health disparities among African Americans, about a source of pressure that many African American women experience: the obligation to project an image of strength or that of...

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