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The Pressure to be Strong is Dehumanising

THE PRESSURE TO BE STRONG IS DEHUMANISING

The ‘Strong Black Woman’ stereotype is the deeply rooted belief that Black women are naturally strong, resilient, independent, and self-sacrificing. The keyword being ‘naturally’. 

A woman’s existence shouldn’t be boxed into how much she can endure. It shouldn’t be boxed into the alleged notion that strength is this vast and innate thing that makes her deserving of hardship — deserving of hardship because she is strong enough to bear it.

The stereotype is wrong and dehumanising. 

It’s neither a slogan to take pride in nor an affirmation to be taken as a compliment. It grants permission to the notion that Black women are accustomed and expected to be (seen) in positions of struggle, toil and pain — as was seen in the 19th century when James Marion Sims conducted experiments on Black women without anaesthesia under the racist theory that Black people did not feel pain.

In her article for The Guardian titled “The ‘Strong Black Woman’ Stereotype is Harming our Mental Health”, Marverine Cole narrates how the ‘Strong Black Woman’ stereotype is the persevering image of Black women in the media. She explains that this image is so profoundly ingrained, that society at large dismisses any other narrative about us. The article further highlights how Black women have also come to believe the stereotype and remain under the pressure to live up to it. 

It’s therefore evident that there is both a societal and internal pressure to fit into the stereotype. Amani M. Allen, associate professor of community health sciences and epidemiology at the University of California, developed a framework called the ‘superwoman schema’. The framework describes the different ways Black women internalise the ‘Strong Black Woman’ stereotype. These include feeling an obligation to present an image of strength, and feeling an obligation to suppress emotions.

A few weeks ago, I suffered deeply (emotionally) due to a personal loss. Personal losses trigger great pain within us all. However, when I reached out for help, what I noticed was quite striking. 

A few people who know me personally and some others who know me only professionally, including Black women, assured me that I was strong and would get past it in time. This was a time when I should be allowed to be vulnerable and be listened to. It was neither a time to be strong nor coerced into a stereotype. 

An example like this is not race based. Nevertheless, the impact of the ‘Strong Black Woman’ stereotype is so subtle that it’s an automatic consolation phrase from both the outside world and our subconscious — without knowing why or why not.

Irrespective of the state of one’s mental health, a stressor is a stressor. As a Black woman, I’m still learning how to rise above the stereotype by establishing for myself the space and time to be emotional and sensitive in the face of stressors. 

Black women don’t have to be strong. Black women don’t have to be independent. Black women can need someone to lean on. A Black woman’s emotional response to any stressor is not an exaggeration. All of this should be taken seriously. 

According to a 2017 University of Florida Levin College of Law study, Black girls are perceived as needing ‘less protection and nurturing’ than girls of other races of the same age. One could argue that being exposed to such levels of independence as children is where the strength it takes to be a ‘Strong Black Woman’ sprouts from. But a child is a child. Every child needs care, sympathy, compassion, understanding, comfort and protection. 

Unfortunately, the ‘Strong Black Woman’ stereotype is preconditioned by the adultification that Black women are pressured into adhering to from a young age. I asked a few Black women and teenagers to share their lived experiences with me via social media for the purpose of defining the adultification of Black girls for this article. 

Their responses led to the conclusion that the adultification of Black girls by parents, teachers, law enforcement officials and, adults in society at large is too broad a phenomenon to be given one definition. It’s a deplorable act that is deeply embedded into society, including into the self-perception of the children that should be protected from such exposure (and their caregivers alike). 

It’s adults viewing Black girls as too mature for age-appropriate behaviours like wearing summer clothes because they are too revealing. It’s hypersexualizing female Black children. It’s Black tweens relating to TikToks and memes about needing to wear baggy clothes to avoid advances by men. It’s Black mothers not defending their daughters when harassed about looking mature for their age.

It’s Black girls being perceived, spoken to and treated as being older than they are. It’s Black girls not feeling safe at home because of the lack of parental supervision around strangers like mailmen, gardeners and distant male relatives. It’s Toyin SalauCynthoia Brown and Dajerria Becton

It’s Black girls exposed to adult responsibilities at a young age. It’s Black girls taking on caregiving roles and assuming heavy domestic duties with the excuse that it prepares them for marriage. It’s Black girls giving their parents emotional support instead of vice versa.  

Not all Black women and girls face these conditions. However, the ‘Strong Black Woman’ stereotype and the adultification of Black girls is a persisting problem that requires more conversation in order to educate, inform and heal from. 

Jacquelyn Ogorchukwu Iyamah, author of poetry book ‘The Geometry of Being Black’, operates an Instagram accountdedicated to redesigning wellness and tending to racial trauma. She explains in this practical guide that reparenting one’s younger self, the act of giving oneself things not received as a child, is an important step to healing.

Her guide can be used as a start to both revolting against the ‘Strong Black Woman’ stereotype and healing from the traumatic repercussions of adultification faced as a child. Accordingly, it is important for Black women (and girls) to tell ourselves, show ourselves and be reminded that:  

  • Our experiences are valid
  • We are tender
  • We deserve protection
  • We can express our hurt

Another body of work that can be used on the path to revolting and healing is the quote in Alice Walker’s 1983 anthology ‘In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose’. Here we are reminded to “please remember, especially in these times of group-think and the right-on chorus, that no person is your friend (or kin) who demands your silence, or denies your right to grow and be perceived as fully blossomed as you were intended”. 

My ongoing attempt to re-humanise myself has been hard and lonely. It’s a hard thing to favour what the majority considers absurd — which is choosing to live in terms of a different narrative. It often feels like a lonely road because even Black women condone both the ‘Strong Black Woman’ stereotype and the adultification of Black girls. The relics left are so subtle that getting gaslit and thus, second guessing yourself comes with the territory. 

Imagine having to explain that you are entitled to get hurt, to feel pained by things and to complain about them. Imagine having to explain your humanity. That’s what it means to push against the ‘Strong Black Woman’ stereotype. It’s a hard and lonely thing to do.

On the other hand, it brings me great joy to see viral social media threads by young Black women showing resistance and acknowledging their own fragility. Seeing others free themselves actually helps me free myself in spaces that my tolerance previously suffocated me in.  

Personally, I’ve found that turning to mindfulness practices helps me be more aware and intune with my everyday experiences in a non-judgemental way. I use the Deep Meditate app, the “I am Here Now” mindfulness journal and I run my own mindfulness blog. These tools have enabled me to reaffirm that I’m not strong. I have moments where I feel like I’m capable and moments where it feels like the whole world is caving in. And that’s okay. 


mutuayo “emi” ideozu is the curator of mindfulness blog “Frying Plantain” and currently resides in Istanbul. You can connect with her on Instagram.

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