Home Social Construct Death to “The Strong Black Woman”

Death to “The Strong Black Woman”

by Erika Nicole Kendall

That’s right. I said it.

Death to her. We can host her funeral right here. I’ll chip in for some orchids.

Don’t get me wrong, either. This isn’t some attempt to demean The Black Woman and make Her appear weak, useless, whatever, however people want to describe this. If anything, this is an attempt to enrich The Black Woman (or any individual who feels forced to be eternally strong to the point where they’re literally blocked from self-development) with the most important tool required in the fight against emotional eating and the path toward better understanding self-care… or one’s ability to care for self.

See… I look at it a lot like this.

I think back to when I used to emotionally eat. It was the only way I had that would allow me to feel some relief – some semblance of peace – from everything around me that wouldn’t allow me to acknowledge or tend to my feelings. I didn’t really have any mechanisms to help me cope with anything… no remedies to help me calm down, nothing to give me the opportunity to help me re-focus my thoughts, no opportunity to just… sit. To just.. be. (And as I write that, I’m almost certain that there’s a woman somewhere who thinks that’s the strangest idea, ever. “Just sit and be? Girl what?” Yes, girl. Just sit and… be.)

I didn’t understand it then, but I understand it now.

Y’know how there’s a line from a book that reads something along the lines of the Black woman being the mule of the world? I don’t find that to be too far from the truth. Mules don’t think. Mules don’t feel. And if they do, who gives a damn? We don’t understand them, anyway. They’re mules. They’re merely there to carry out my will. I have a task. I need it done. I make the mule handle what they can, and then maybe I’ll handle what’s left.

Maybe. That is… if I can’t squeeze that last little bit of time out of my favorite little mule and have her do it.

Okay, but little mule, let me ask you: if you’re carrying out the will of everyone else – afraid to assert yourself and demand that someone else finally accommodate you in the same way they expect you to accommodate them – when, on Earth, do you have time for you? If all you do, all day, is care for everyone else – being everyone else’s mule, everyone else’s work horse – what the hell do you do for yourself? And think about that, as you remember that this is the very reason why you skipped the gym or opted to get the fast food and eat on the way to another errand for someone else instead of setting some things aside to care for, cook for and nurture yourself.

I feel like a lot of us have allowed our lives to become structured in a fashion that removes time for self from our lives. You’re a strong Black woman, right? You can handle everything that comes to you, right? What do you need time for yourself, for?

It’s bull.

If you want to believe there’s some semblance of strength to be obtained through shouldering everyone else’s burdens, fine. If you want to allow yourself to be duped into thinking there’s power in doing everyone else’s work, fine. If you are so arrogant as to think the world couldn’t continue to function if you delegated some of your responsibility to someone else, fine. Paint that picture however you choose…

…but one thing will eternally remain. The lack of care that we give to ourselves. Sacrificing not only our time but our bodies – our physical and mental health – for others is a kind of martyrdom that I do not wish on any woman.

You might think that denying a Black woman her “strong”ness (because it certainly isn’t strength) is attacking The Black Woman, but I disagree. If anything, I’m attempting to re-humanize the idea of the Black woman. This mentality that assumes we’re just these wondrous automatons… these robots that can make anything and everything happen… we do everything but care for ourselves. And somewhere along the line, we’ve created a culture that says outright that even the slightest implication that a Black woman needs to take time out to care for herself mentally – thereby delegating a responsibility to someone else (be it a significant other, family member or otherwise) – or physically is selfish and wrong.

…and then we question why women are sneaking and coping with stress by eating their emotions. We question why so many women cling so closely to their “hair appointments.” Trust me, that’s not all about the hair. It’s about the fact that it’s the only socially acceptable opportunity for a Black woman to give her kids to “someone else” and let someone else pamper her. It’s the fact that she can sit in that chair and think about nothing but herself – how good she’s gonna look, how good she’s gonna feel, how happy she is to “get taken care of,” for once. The hair is almost always secondary to that.

Turning us into robots not only denies us our right to have feelings, but it denies us the opportunity to acknowledge our own feelings. Take anxiety as a prime example:

Fear and anxiety are part of life. You may feel anxious before you take a test or walk down a dark street. This kind of anxiety is useful – it can make you more alert or careful. It usually ends soon after you are out of the situation that caused it. But for millions of people in the United States, the anxiety does not go away, and gets worse over time. [source]

If I don’t get the opportunity to acknowledge when a situation is giving me anxiety – because the assumption is that I shouldn’t be developing anxiety in the first place – then I never get to talk myself down off the ledge. I never get the opportunity to “come down.” If I never learn how to cope with my anxiety, then I never learn how to care for this issue that is causing me to stress out. If I never learn how to deal with the stress, my body translates that into… well… this pretty much explains it:

Once upon a time, in a land not very far from your home… lived mankind. No fast cars, no shiny structures, no skyscrapers, nothing. Just man.. rock… and animals.

See, this worked for man because his only task was to hunt wildlife, and gather his kill for his family. That was his responsibility. His purpose was to bring the salt and fat from the animal to the family. Not work, not bills… just hunt. Because life was much simpler then, this was man’s sole source of stress.

One day, man could not hunt. Every time he threw his spear, he’d miss his prey. He just couldn’t catch SQUAT! His family was to go hungry and he just… he couldn’t take it. The stress started to build up inside of him.

Because stress about the inability to eat is the only source of stress for man, his body became used to the eventual chain of events. His body knows: Lots of stress = lack of food coming in. How did his body react? His body decided to hold on to what it had – by way of diminishing the amount of energy his body could exert all at one time, by way of making sure his body took a very long time to lose weight, by way of making sure it held onto every pound and fat cell it could. This bodily reaction would only further compel man to step up his hunting skills… why? Because he didn’t want to feel that way! He didn’t want his family to feel that way! He had to get his caveman hustle on! When man was finally able to tackle that antelope or whatever-what-have-you, the fats and salts in the meat were sooooo satisfying that they would cure man of the bodily reaction to stress.

Compare this to emotional eating. The body’s reaction doesn’t change no matter what variables you swap out. Regardless if the stress comes from traffic, bad work day, or family problems… the body’s reaction to stress has not evolved as fast as society has. Now, we can get food within ten minutes if we drive or own a microwave. So presuming our body believes that stress is caused by a “famine on the way,” then it’s going to trigger feelings to make you go hunt! Our bodies just don’t know how easy it is to get food just yet. It hasn’t caught up.

No matter what the source of the stress may be… our bodies perceive it all to be the same thing: a reason to hold onto weight. And if the weight gain that takes place also causes us anxiety? It becomes a cycle that is secondary to the original problem, which is not being allowed the time and space to care for ourselves.

Let’s not even get on the fact that failure to acknowledge an emotional shortcoming does not erase that shortcoming… it’s still there. Still affecting you. Still causing you to eat emotionally. Failure to address it as a means of maintaining your “strength” only results in it weakening you in the end..leaving you far less “strong.” Funny how that works.

Now, I could talk a lot about how our culture doesn’t allow Black women the space and places to be emotionally vulnerable – how many times do you hear “Therapy is for white people?” – and I could talk about how Black women are always on guard and fearing being taken advantage of – who needs to look after and protect a mule? they’re mules, for crying out loud – but I wont.

I take it back.

We allow ourselves to be ruled by an outdated ideology that says “you shouldn’t be using therapy,” but the reality is… if you never learned how to cope (or you are suffering the effects of depression brought on by an influx of sugar in the brain) and you were never taught how to cope (or you never learned how to deal with… well, you get the picture) with stress, what do you do? You lash out, you overstress, you sneak to the junk food, you get your fix… and you go on about your day. We shun the thought of therapy. We turn our noses up at it and call it “white girl sh-t,” as if to imply that therapy is for “those weak white b-tches.”

I hope you realize how ludicrous that sounds.

The reality is that all people – men, women, Black, white and otherwise – suffer from sacrificing themselves for any and everyone else. We all know that we need to do better in caring for ourselves. We all fall short on the concept of self-care. Learning how to curb emotional eating is something that is not reserved for Black women…

…but when we embrace a catch phrase that makes the entire thing acceptable? When we co-sign this ideology that turns us into mules, not human beings with feelings that must be addressed – even if it’s just to tell ourselves that we’re being silly? When we raise our daughters to embrace a catch phrase that not only denies them the ability to ever learn how to deal with their emotions but denies them the opportunity to ever learn about their emotions at all? When we misunderstand the concept of strength and proclaim ourselves as strong even though failing to address our weakness only leaves us weaker in the end? That’s a special kind of problem that we must fix.

It takes a strong woman to face her weaknesses head on with a desire to change them. Why? Because she has to face it without feeling like it makes her less of a woman. She has to acknowledge that patching the hole in the roof makes the house more reliable and sturdy – she can’t ignore the hole and act like she doesn’t feel its presence when it rains. She has to exhale, take time to recharge and pass on that understanding to her daughters.

…and maybe, juuust maybe, we’ll be able to get beyond this silly “Strong Black Woman” meme.

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Pretty Keish January 31, 2011 - 2:16 PM

May she rest in PEACE, literally.

LaCrecia January 31, 2011 - 2:27 PM

Playing the violin while people come to witness the lifeless shell that no longer exists………

Tiana January 31, 2011 - 3:28 PM

*throwing flowers on the grave*

Jeannine January 31, 2011 - 3:17 PM

That was simpy beautiful!

T.R. January 31, 2011 - 3:55 PM

I killed mine years ago. I believe in therapy and anything else that allows you to explore your emotions and deal with the pain in your life. I like the reference to our need to get out hair did and how there is a much much deeper meaning behind that. And you just hit the tip of the iceberg. Well said Erica, well said indeed.

Courtney January 31, 2011 - 4:07 PM


I never realized how hard it was to do that until I took a stand and started to take better care of myself.

It seemed as if opposition came from everywhere. I was if others said “How dare you start to actually LIVE your life? You’re supposed to be here to bail ME out and make me feel better about my sorry life.”

It was then that I realized that some people in our lives like to have you in a certain postion so that they can remain comfortable in their position. The minute that you “get out of position” by changing your life, they immediately get uncomfortable. The saying “misery loves company” couldn’t be more true.

I agree with you. I say throw the deuces to ole girl. I know how stressful it is to be that woman.

The real “strong black woman” realizes that she is not perfect, continually works to improve herself and accepts that she is incapable of really helping anyone else until she has first helped herself.

Jackie November 5, 2012 - 7:36 PM

All of this! ^^

Toya January 31, 2011 - 4:33 PM

*sends to every black woman I know*

Roz January 31, 2011 - 7:47 PM

Thank you, Erika. I feel…so relieved.

IshopMonet January 31, 2011 - 9:44 PM

Awesome article! I can relate I used to be an emotional eater.

yesplease February 1, 2011 - 12:00 AM

oh wow. This is so amazing. It sort of demeans those of us who have HAD to be the mule to help our families survive, but the overall point is well-taken. Most of us aint on some color purple sh*t, we are here. The bit about our historical relationship to food is FASCINATING. THank you.

Erika February 1, 2011 - 12:14 AM

I hate that an element of my post comes across as demeaning – I acknowledge that a lot of us HAD to “be the mule,” but the question is “Why?” Are there no friends, no families, no significant others to help? Are they all busy suffering that same syndrome we all struggle through?

I have girlfriends who do “switch-offs.” One day a week, one of them will scoop up the kids and take them to a playground or park, and the next day another girlfriend will do the same. The kids grow up together with a group of friends they’ll have forever, the girlfriends get to have time with hubby/boo thang/self, and peace can be had.

All I want from this post is for us to question this very real phrase that interferes with our ability to administer appropriate self-care to ourselves. I’d never want to demean a woman, although I do acknowledge that a bit of shame comes into play when we see something for the first time in a different light.

Debbi Estelle February 1, 2011 - 9:39 AM

…but one thing will eternally remain. The lack of care that we give to ourselves. Sacrificing not only our time but our bodies – our physical and mental health – for others is a kind of martyrdom that I do not wish on any woman.

I certainly HOPE (sincerely) that enough of us ‘get it’ that this doesn’t eternally remain. 🙁 This mentality is killing us softly but NOT slowly!

I am with you on this one!!! I pray we find the internal strength (not the facade of it), courage, confidence, peace and support to understand that life will go on if we are not the arm, leg, brainchild and gofer of EVERY project!!!

I say “Damnit, I am nobody’s gofer or mule!” LOL! 🙂

Eva February 1, 2011 - 4:35 PM

This is WONDERFUL. This is one of the largest reasons it’s so hard for Black women to get and stay sober. Because you can’t get and stay sober if you’re worrying about everybody but yourself.

And a life not examined just isn’t worth it. So yes I believe in therapy. Next time someone says, “but that’s a white thing.” Ask them this, “are vacations, new cars and HD TV’s ‘white things?’

Tanya D February 1, 2011 - 10:03 PM

Thank you so much for this article. I’m reposting, tweeting, etc. Now to go off and just be for a while.

You’ve given me some brain food as usual.

reina February 2, 2011 - 11:05 PM

i needed to read this.

when i come to your site i think of that marianne williamson quote, “And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

thanks for letting your light shine.

Shae February 3, 2011 - 11:30 AM

I am so glad you wrote this… this is what I have been dealing with. Learning to delegate and not feel bad about doing so… Thanks for this!

Laz February 3, 2011 - 11:38 AM

Bravo!!!!!! (as i stand and applaud). You took the words right out of my mouth and my life. I realized in 2009 the detriment that this statement had on me. You spelled it out much better than I ever could and I will be reposting this. RIP…Strong Black Woman for I much rather be a Black Woman with Strength….but also with weaknesses. You truly can’t have one without the other. SBW denys us our ability to be vunerable. So we naturally turn to our vices…sex, drugs, alcohol, etc… and for so many of us food.

Sam February 3, 2011 - 12:30 PM

I just wanted to say that the book is Their Eyes Were Watching God. If you hadnt read it, it is a good book

Lee April 26, 2011 - 2:24 PM

Finally, FINALLY, started making room in my life for me, and I’m a better friend/sister/daughter/wife/mom/woman for it. I call it “putting on my gas mask,” as in when you’re on a plane and the flight attendant tells you that in the event of an emergency, you should put your own mask on first BEFORE you tend to your kids so you won’t pass out!

Thanks for continuing to post about the things we don’t discuss enough.

Bannef May 14, 2011 - 7:11 PM

So I thought I just found you recently (you might have even noticed, what with you having to approve a bunch of my comments on ancient discussions… Sorry!) but really this is the first article I ever read of yours, and I found it linked months ago. My point is: It’s awesome, you’re awesome, and I wish I’d explored the site when I first found this, because it could have really helped my journey over the last few months.

Dr. Gina June 7, 2011 - 4:47 PM

Asante sana Erika for that timely article. I think you presented history that many young women may have not heard and/or missed. I liked how you tied it back into “Emotional Eating”. The mental health issues our community suffers for the enslavement of women of African descent and the domestic violence perpetuated against them is part of the sociopathology instigated on the “mule” concept. The out fall is the “Emotional Eating” because at the worst time in United States history, food and blinded zealous cult like worship was all we were allowed to have that gave us comfort. That practice somehow has not died out. Remnants still remain. But the food has gotten more processed and sugary causing the majority of the population to become obese. This is not an excuse for not caring for oneself, just an observation. We still need to get to the gym or “out there” and have physical activity for at least 4 hours per week, and eat healthy fresh green veggies more in our consumption than not. I think you have a GREAT grasp of that in all your articles.

Daphne June 21, 2011 - 8:44 PM

I just came across this post today. Thank you for always being honest regardless of whether or not your readers agree with what you have to say. Ironically prior to finding this post, I found myself, just this morning, in therapy because emotional eating and self-sabotage are my M.O.! I have lost 60 plus pounds in the last year and find myself slowly slipping back into my old ways without any clear explanation of why I’m letting it happen. This really hit home for me and means a lot. Therapy is where I intend to find the help to finally discover myself, be the best me, EVER and get on with living a healthy and more positive life!

Joy June 28, 2011 - 10:06 PM

Great post! Sometimes we feel as if we can do it all, hold it all in, and soothe ourselves with that bag of Doritos…and it’s just not realistic or healthy. I actually decided to speak with a counselor following a panic attack about 2 years ago. I didn’t tell my family or friends because I didn’t want to appear “weak”, but let me tell you, that was the best thing that I could have done at the time. It felt good to speak with a professional that was helping me to develop the tools to deal with my issues in a healthy manner.

Nikita July 25, 2011 - 10:49 AM

May she finally get the peace that she believed doing all the sacrificing and giving would earn her.

sydney July 28, 2011 - 6:52 PM

Ah, so it’s time to stop surviving and start thriving. Got it.

Tachae November 17, 2011 - 11:22 PM

I may be late as all get out, but:

I’m glad to be reading this at ninteen, and actuallu learning that it’s okay to admit you’re vulnerable.

Tonya October 8, 2012 - 5:14 PM

“…any individual who feels forced to be eternally strong to the point where they’re literally blocked from self-development…”

Wow, I’m blown away by THAT, that line saying SO much by itself, I can’t imagine what else you’re going to say! LOL

Oh yeah RIP SBW

Dizdayn October 8, 2012 - 5:43 PM

I’ve been reading your blog for a long time. Some things I’ve taken, some I’ve left. But this just… applies. It is something I’ve been saying for a long time to a lot of people. I’ve been called selfish repeatedly for just what you’re suggesting here – taking time and mental space for oneself. I turn off my phone all the time when I need clarity and me time, especially during my yoga classes. The idea that I just don’t care what the crisis of the day is among my family and friends just seems to set them frothing at the mouth.

Your mule analogy I found particularly profound. I’ve dated and rejected otherwise completely reasonable and sweet individuals because of this SBW bullshit assumption. They have this idea that because they’re granting me the privilege to date them, I should be at their beck and call. That it is my driving wish to cook their meals, take care of their kids and do their laundry.

This Strong Black Woman idea is both a goad and a carrot. Fathers explain to their sons what to expect, and mothers tell their daughters by word or example that this is how to keep your family afloat. We perpetuate the stereotype amongst ourselves.

It drives me bonkers.

Thank you for writing this.


Olivia October 9, 2012 - 10:41 AM

Until a few months ago I was always a SBW-but one who had no problems telling someone “no” if they asked me to do something that would affect my happiness. Seriously-when housework got to be too much for me and my husband wasn’t helping like he should, I stopped nagging him and just paid for a housekeeper. Now due to lack of employment I have moved in with my parents and my mother has dementia, my brother is autistic, and my father is self-involved. My life has changed drastically as I find myself constantly busy taking care of my family even at the expense of my husband and baby. I thought I liked being busy but this week my parents were out of town and it was just me and my small family and I realized how HARD I have been working taking care of everyone but myself. I thought I was doing good by multi-tasking ( I even figured out how to exercise and cook them breakfast/lunch/dinner) but it is still hard on me. This post came right on time and I realized that I have GOT to find a way to take something duties off of my plate. I was proud to be a helpful daughter and thought I was being a SBW but I realize that I am losing myself so things have got to change.

Jackie November 5, 2012 - 7:38 PM

Thank you so much for this Erika! This helped me (and so many others) tremendously.

Toni January 22, 2013 - 10:45 AM

Thank you, thank you, thank you…for publishing this. We have got to take care of ourselves to develop our own strength. The myth of the ‘strong black woman’ will be the death of us. Strength is found in caring for ourselves first…the analogy of the oxygen mask is so very true!!!

Kitty August 2, 2013 - 5:35 AM

I think this is a really valid point. When I was studying African American literature/history at uni, and specifically Af-Am women’s stuff, I recall asking my professor why every story was about survival of trauma. Obviously, there are reasons for that, but I did feel like SURELY some African American women must have had positive experiences that were not to do with race or the kinds of obligations represented in that literature. Stepping away from that stereotype is a really important step forward I think, and we all have those kinds of barriers in different areas of our lives as women. There is a saying which goes something like ‘woman is a hole through which all the misery of the world must pour’, I think black women have taken the brunt of a lot of social change in the last few hundred years- expected to be simultaneously the sex symbol, the dignified witness and the ‘mammy’ all in one. None of us benefit from splitting society along racial lines. It is changing though- Look at women like Oprah and Beyonce, or Condoleeza etc, all very multidimensional people in the way they are perceived and the lives they lead.

Also, I had no idea that therapy was considered a ‘white’ thing. There are all kinds of white, just as there are all kinds of black, and I think anything that gets you through the tough times is great. I’d encourage anyone who is thinking about therapy to go for it and not be held back by some sort of prejudice over racial identity. A decent therapist or coach will change your life!

NADIA August 29, 2013 - 1:31 PM

I agree with this 1,000 percent!!!!!!! I remember telling a former friend that I was most certainly NOT a “strong black woman”. For me, that is a convenient excuse for society to IGNORE the needs and feelings of Afrivan-American women. It is also a good excuse to take advantage and disrespect us in an assortment of ways. After all, if you are “strong” I can do whatever I want and hurt you in innumerable ways. You’re strong, you can take it and it won’t affect you. However, I believe that issues with emotional eating (which I agree with Erika, is an eating disorder and an epidemic in our community). We have to stop agreeing with this when we hear it- we are strong in the ways ALL women are strong. So it is not okay to undervalue us personally, socially, and professionally as it DOES affect us and rob us emotionally.

Kami November 16, 2013 - 11:46 AM

Thank you for publishing this.

Terry Westbrook Lienert December 1, 2013 - 12:58 AM

I am currently caring for my Mom, who will be turning 90 this Tuesday 🙂 . I make doggone sure that I go to the gym 3 to 4 times a week. To paraphrase John Merrick (the fabled Elephant Man), «I am not an animal, I AM A WOMAN WITH LEGIT NEEDS»…and a very feminine one, at that. Love you, love your blog ;-).

Dee April 25, 2016 - 9:43 AM

A woman writer had a quote that said something like:you have to speak up when people are hurting you, or they will kill you and say you enjoyed it. I personally had to learn the hard way that I am not meant to bear heavy burdens through a severe health challenge. Every person /woman needs at least five minutes a day of silence and stillness. It will rejuvenate your very soul. We teach people how to treat us, so we can train others to respect our quiet time. My daughter is only five and she understands: OK, mommy is going into her bedroom for a little rest. Please don’t come into the room unless it is an emergency. People will put the very weight of the world upon your shoulders if you let them. Be like a butterfly -not a mule. No one expects a butterfly to carry heavy weights. We know they function best when they are light and free. As do we.

Erika Nicole Kendall April 25, 2016 - 9:42 PM

I think it was Zora Neale Hurston? “If you remain silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it,” right? YES. EXACTLY.

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