What does it mean to be feminine? What does it mean to be black and feminine? Femininity is essentially understood as reflecting the qualities of womanhood and/or the female sex. How women express femininity is affected by many factors such as their beliefs about gender roles, and gender identity. Representations of black women across media are too often framed in harsh and masculine terms. Further, depictions of the “strong black woman” (SBW) on the face of it seems at odds with “traditional” notions of femininity. In this post, we review studies about the impact of adopting and practicing “strong black womanhood” (also SBW). We examine the extent to which SBW helps or hurts black women’s femininity as it pertains to their having peace of mind, ease, and less stress, among other feminine characteristics.
In a 2019 study, Jasmine Graham and colleagues, described the SBW persona as being self-reliant, masking or not showing one’s feelings, and involving extensive caregiving (giving more than one receives). Graham and colleagues found that among their sample of black women, SBW attitudes and practices were associated with a statistically significant though moderate amount of self reported stress. Similar findings were obtained by Dhakirah Hamin in 2008, but in this case, information about the impact of various aspects of SBW on stress was available. Caretaking (e.g., taking on too many responsibilities, trying to meet others’ expectations, and taking on others’ problems) was the strongest predictor of self reported stress among black women. Self-reliance (e.g., being strong and independent) on the other hand was associated with less stress. Black women reporting higher self-reliance reported less stress. Caretaking was inversely related to reciprocity of social support. That is, the more caretaking black women provided, the less it was reciprocated.
Amani Allen and colleagues (2019) examined the impact of adopting a “super woman schema” among black women. This involved five components: (i) presenting a strong image, (ii) suppressing one’s emotions, (iii) not being vulnerable (e.g., asking for help), (iv) a strong desire to achieve, and (v) feeling obligated to help others. As such we also refer to this as SBW. This study focused on the relationship between SBW, and biomarkers of stress (i.e., allostatic load) when experiencing varying levels of racial discrimination.
To what extent is SBW helpful or harmful when dealing with racial discrimination? Four of the five elements of SBW told a story.
- Among black women scoring high on strength, allostatic load was similar across varying levels of experiences with racial discrimination. That is, whether racial discrimination was perceived as low, medium, or high, stress markers remained moderate. Among women reporting low strength, moderate levels of racial discrimination were associated with increased allostatic load.
- High emotional suppression was especially beneficial under increasing levels of racial discrimination. Suppressing emotions in other words, was associated with a decreased allostatic load as racial discrimination increased. Among women with low suppression of emotion, allostatic load increased as experiences with racial discrimination increased.
- Having a strong desire to achieve, was associated with increased stress (higher allostatic load) with higher levels of racial discrimination. With low ambition on the other hand, allostatic load was less affected with increasing levels of racial discrimination.
- Among women reporting a high obligation to help others, allostatic load was highest at moderate and high levels of racial discrimination.
Amani Allen and colleagues suggested that presenting strength, irrespective of how they feel in the face of racial discrimination may be a source of pride for African American women. It reminds one of the adage “never let them see you sweat” where appearing “unbothered” may foster a sense of resiliency and control. Though suppressing emotion may seem at odds with adaptive coping, the researchers explained that with racial discrimination, this may be preferable to ongoing anger among other debilitating emotions for a circumstance that is beyond one’s control. Further, attempting to minimize others’ racism as a strategy would seem to have unstable outcomes, and be experienced as unrewarding. Finally, any stress associated with heightened caretaking, may be compounded in the face of increasing racial discrimination.
When Elizabeth Cole and Alyssa Zucker in a 2007 study examined black and white women’s beliefs about their femininity, they found similarities as it pertained to sensitivity to others and gentleness, with both groups rating themselves rather high (5.50+ on a scale of 1 to 7). Black women rated themselves especially high (compared to white women) on the following aspects of “feminine appearance” (i.e., wearing feminine clothing and having an attractive home). Both groups showed low to moderate endorsement of “traditional gender role ideology” (e.g., men were more qualified, a woman’s place was in the home) though black women scored comparatively higher on several items, most notably on “women were happiest in the home.” Finally, how beliefs about femininity related to feminism were different for the two groups. For black women, higher perceptions of having a feminine appearance were associated with identifying as a feminist. For white women, the more they adopted a traditional gender role ideology, the less likely they identified as feminist.
Ashlee Davis (2017) identified a set of culturally relevant ideals corresponding to black women’s femininity that included high self reliance, a strong and positive racial identity, moderate levels of modesty and a desire to be thin, along with moderately high levels of domesticity (keeping house), caring for children, and spirituality. Further, these patterns were fairly consistent across a younger to middle age sample of black women, though younger women rated themselves higher in self reliance. Older women had higher scores in spirituality and in caring for children. Overall, Davis argued that black women’s femininity should be understood and appreciated within a cultural framework.
In a 2013 report entitled “Gender Norms: A Key to Improving the Health and Wellness among Black Women and Girls,” authors Scyatta Wallace and Riki Wilchins discussed challenges involved in being black and female. These included challenges within and outside of the black community such as a) being expected to sacrifice on behalf of others, especially as it relates to caretaking, b) having to restrict one’s emotional expressions especially as it relates to feeling sad among other negative emotions, c) dealing with racism, and d) pressure to adopt feminine standards of the the mainstream culture. Wallace and Wilchins add that as ideas about gender roles form early, black girls’ beliefs about autonomy, self-efficacy, objectification, controlling one’s body and so forth under the guise of “femininity” can have a profound impact on their outcomes, for better and worse.
Holistically then, aspects of SBW such as self-reliance are advantageous and seem to complement rather than compete with traditional elements. This and other aspects of black women’s femininity (e.g., Davis, 2017) to the degree they are protective and beneficial, should be celebrated and supported.
We present some resources that may be of use in helping black women, renew, revisit, and celebrate their feminine journey. That is, express and practice femininity in ways that are beneficial for them.
Our ideas about this include the following.
- Activities and people that affirm the essence of black women and girls, including their natural features and beauty
- Safe and nurturing spaces that help black women and girls cultivate the skills and mindsets to have sufficient amounts of peace, ease, joy, and rest
- Opportunities that aid black women and girls in having peace, ease, joy, and rest
- Dismantling patterns of disrespect such as putting or keeping distance between oneself and those with disparaging attitudes and behaviors (e.g., misogynoir)
- Self affirmation and care as well as engaging in communities of mutual support
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Rachel Johnson a Licensed Master of Social Work offers a workbook for nurturing self compassion and authenticity.
Dr. Mercedes Okosi is a licensed New York psychologist, and offers a mental health journal to help black women prioritize themselves and nurture their well being.
Dr. Sarah L. Webb is an international colorism expert, and featured in Do Something.Org’s Confront Colorism Guide. Dr. Webb is founder of Colorism Healing. On this website you will find extensive resources. These include essays from writers around the globe on healing from colorism, and affirmation activities for children.
Black Girl in Om exists to promote healing among black women. To this end they offer free meditation podcasts accessed directly from their website. The podcasts are are also available on several platforms (e.g., Spotify, Apple, Google).
Dr. Jammeka Anderson is the founder of I am not the Media, a non profit organization that aims to help teens and young adults use critical analyses and discernment when consuming media. The organization also seeks to encourage young people to embrace their individuality and uniqueness through media literacy and media creation. Resources include tips and other educational content about media literacy, and an online exhibit entitled “Teens and Social Media.” A “Keepin It Reel” virtual film camp for black girls is also available.
Glory: Magical Visions of Black Beauty by Kahran and Regis Bethencourt provide a book of photos that aim to “not just question but shatter” traditional standards of beauty.
In “My Beautiful Black Hair: 101 Natural Hair Stories from the Sisterhood,” author St. Clair Detrick-Jules provides captivating natural hair stories and photos.
Nedra Glover Tawaab is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker with a book and workbook on setting healthful boundaries and finding peace. She is also a New York Times bestselling author.
Therapy for Black Girls was started by Dr. Joy Harden Bradford, a licensed psychologist. A podcast is offered on a variety of mental health and personal development topics, and through several venues (e.g., Apple, Google, or Spotify). A directory of black women therapists is provided along with a free guide to getting started with therapy. Finally, a “Sister Circle” is available, that includes an online community of support and additional content beyond the podcasts.
Libryia Jones “the remote work queen” teaches women about working virtually. She has a large Facebook group, and hosts a “Quit Commuting” conference. The conference is virtual, and general admission is free. There are several levels of participation.
Exodus Summit is a yearly and remote conference co-founded by Stephanie Perry and Roshida Dowe. Exodus Summit provides resources and support for black women towards travel, working and living abroad, and as a digital nomad. Replays of the 2022 summit are available for purchase. The hosts also offer a variety of resources to these ends on their respective blogs and YouTube channels.
The Colored Girls Museum (TCGM) is a unique organization. Their mission is described as “a public ritual for the protection, praise & grace of the ordinary Colored Girl” and a place that “honors the stories, experiences, and history of Colored Girls.” TCGM has a variety of exhibitions with some works shared online, and an open call for exhibit entries.
In reviewing these resources, I hope you find one or more that support and enhance your feminine journey.
Happy New Year!
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- Amani M. Allen, Yijie Wang, David H. Chae, Melisa M. Price, Wizdom Powell, Teneka C. Steed, Angela Rose Black, Firdaus S. Dhabhar, Leticia Marquez-Magaña, and Cheryl L. Woods-Giscombe. “Racial discrimination, the superwoman schema, and allostatic load: exploring an integrative stress-coping model among African American women.” (2019). Ann. N.Y. Acad. Sci., 1457: 104-127. https://doi.org/10.1111/nyas.14188
- Elizabeth Cole and Alyssa Zucker. “Black and white women’s perspectives on femininity.” (2007). Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology. Vol. 13, No. 1, 1–9.
- Ashlee Davis. “African American Femininity: An Investigation of the hegemonic and unique culturally specific norms defining womanhood.” (2017). https://etd.ohiolink.edu/apexprod/rws_etd/send_file/send?accession=akron1502888968003529&disposition=inline
- Jasmine Graham, Laura E. Welfare, Norma L. Day-Vines, Michelle Ghoston. “Stress, coping, and the Strong Black Woman: An empirical analysis.” (2022). Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development, 50, 162– 170. https://doi.org/10.1002/jmcd.12235
- Dhakirah Hamin. “Strong Black Woman Cultural Construct: Revision and Validation.” (2008). https://scholarworks.gsu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1042&context=psych_diss
- Ninochka McTaggart, Vaness Cox, and Caroline Heldman. “Representation of black women in Hollywood.” (2021). https://seejane.org/wp-content/uploads/rep-of-black-women-in-hollywood-report.pdf
- Scyatta Wallace and Riki Wilchins. “Gender norms: A Key to improving health & wellness among black women & girls.” (2013). https://static1.squarespace.com/static/599e3a20be659497eb249098/t/59a49b17e45a7c218ce4f7d3/1503959870039/heinz+report.pdf