A new study finds positive and negative health effects for African American women who use a “Superwoman” persona to cope with the stress of discrimination.
The Superwoman persona refers to the idea of feeling a need to be strong, self-sacrificing, and emotionless, says Yijie Wang, assistant professor of human development and family studies at Michigan State University.
Wang and Amani Allen, associate professor of community health sciences and epidemiology at the University of California, Berkeley, conducted the study with 208 self-identified African-American women in the San Francisco Bay area.
Pros and cons of the superwoman persona
“Research has already identified discrimination as a risk factor for health outcomes,” Wang says. “We want to know whether the Superwoman mindset helps buffer the deleterious effects of discrimination on black women’s health, and if so, which ones.”
The researchers found that, when faced with high levels of racial discrimination, some aspects of the Superwoman persona—such as feeling the need to be strong and to suppress one’s emotions—seemed to protect health and reduce the negative health effects of chronic racial discrimination.
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At the same time, other facets of the persona, such as having an intense drive to succeed and feeling an obligation to help others, seem to further exacerbate the damaging health effects—such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes—of chronic stress associated with racial discrimination.
“For those aspects of the persona, or what we call ‘Superwoman schema,’ that worsen the negative health effects associated with racial discrimination, how do we lessen those risks?” Allen says. “And for those factors that are more protective, how do we leverage them to inform interventions designed to promote health and well-being for African-American women?”
In the study, researchers asked participants to rate their experience of racial discrimination in different contexts, including finding housing, finding employment, at work, at school, getting credit for a bank loan or mortgage, and in healthcare settings. They also rated to what extent they identified with different aspects of the Superwoman schema.
The participants also received a physical exam, with researchers recording their height, weight, blood pressure, blood sugar, and other health indicators.
Some surprising relationships emerged. For example, the study found that women who reported suppressing emotions had less stress in their bodies. This contradicts psychological studies, which commonly show that suppressing emotions, rather than openly expressing them, can increase stress and be detrimental to health.
“The Superwoman schema also reflects gendered racial socialization that African American women receive early in life and throughout their lives,” Wang says. “By identifying the protective vs. risky dimensions, we also hope to figure out the types of messages that should be conveyed to African American women and girls.”
Wang and her collaborators conducted the research as part of the African American Women’s Heart and Health study, a cross-sectional study that Allen launched in 2012 to examine the links between social and environmental stressors and health.