Putting the Cape Down: How the Superwoman Complex Can Be Detrimental
By Najya A. Williams
Growing up, I always thought Black women were magical. Resilient. Powerful. In my family, my grandmother and mother were the glue that held all of us together. My grandmother would feed you if you were hungry, clothe you if you needed it, offer you a shoulder if you needed someone to cry on, and anything else you may have needed at the time. She raised five children alone, worked in the service industry for most of her life, and worked to hold the family together at any cost. When she passed away, my mother effortlessly stepped up as the matriarch. Between grieving the loss of her mother, being the rock for our family, raising me as a single mother, and climbing the ladder of the corporate workforce, I often wondered how she was still able to smile at the end of the day.
As I mature into a woman, I can identify many of the traits my mother and grandmother possess within myself. I’m a person who is all about giving everything to my family, friends, and community. I’ve been drafting business plans since middle school. I have worked my behind off to be the superwoman I admired so much as a little girl, and I’ve always been proud to do so because it was what I regarded as the normal progression into womanhood. Beyond the women in my life, I watched the women of my community hold their families down alone and without complaint. I watched as they sacrificed portions of themselves and their passions for the sake of others. However, it wasn’t until recently that I began to question this image of Black female heroism that millions of young Black children, including myself, are exposed to and often attempt to emulate as adults.
Simply stated, the “superwoman” complex is the belief that you have to be everything to everyone, particularly without regard for your own interests and self-care. Some may suggest that there’s nothing wrong with striving to be a superwoman, but I beg to differ. Many Black women hold onto the superwoman complex because they have watched their matriarchs silently take on the role in their families as they are required to be everything in order to survive. This complex may be even more prevalent in single parent households, as there isn’t another person to step up to the plate. In the past year, I learned the damage that the superwoman complex imparts not only on Black women, but also on the Black family unit as a whole.
My mother is my best friend, so when the superwoman complex began to shift the energy in our home, I felt every bit of it. It opened my eyes to the fact that as exhausted and worn out as she was, I was just as tired and anxious because I had to witness the superwoman complex take its toll on the woman I care so deeply about. Grinding toward my goals and watching my mom do the same thing made me wonder how often we stopped to practice self-care, and in turn, self-preservation. How many times did the women in my family say no? Actively acknowledge their pains and disappointments? O rely on someone else to help them in their work of helping others? When I couldn’t even provide an answer for myself, I knew that something needed to change.
As I paid closer attention, I began to notice the chronic fatigue, ailments, lack of mental wellness, and pure exhaustion that plague Black women across all age spectrums. Unfortunately, the impact of Black female degradation spans far beyond her mental, social, and physical health. As she is often the pillar of her family, her children, spouse, friends, and extended family can all feel the effects of this burden on a daily basis. There could be noticeable changes in her mood, eating habits, sleeping patterns, and the activities she finds pleasure in because she no longer has the energy to push herself forward. For my mom, chronic fatigue and exhaustion seemed to follow her throughout the week and even spill over into the weekend. As for myself, anxiety coiled around me and made hyperaware of not only my daily to-do list, but also tasks to be completed months later. It felt like a never-ending fight to catch up and make personal growth and development, all for her fatigue and my anxiety to keep us locked in the same space.
From my experience, Black women find themselves in a constant state of burnout, and it’s time for us to pay closer attention. One of the most important spaces Black women occupy is the front line of many of the social justice movements that exist. Black women show up and show out for the wellbeing of their community in a manner that is almost unparalleled by any other group, yet their ability to do this work effectively is contingent upon leading healthy lives. A wise person once said that you cannot pour from an empty cup, and the current condition of Black women is a testament to its validity. As our country makes political shifts that could change the Black community for decades to come, it is important that self-preservation for Black women be regarded as a means to collective preservation of the entire Black community.
The most important solution lies in steps we can take from here. I can sincerely say that it is a journey Black women must embark on for themselves. My mother is becoming more intentional about quiet time and preserving her space as sacred. I practice self care by writing poetry, reciting daily affirmations, and spending time in prayer. I have found there are so many other ways to pull back from the superwoman complex. Some may include:
Black women will always be magical, but at the end of the day, they are not immortal. Changing my behaviors and pushing against the superwoman complex have been some of the most challenging actions that my mother and I have done, but it has truly made us better. Progression is never easy, but nothing worthwhile ever is. Whenever I am discouraged by the process, I remember that I am becoming the emotionally sound and self-aware woman that I would want my future daughter to aspire to become. I hope that you acknowledge the presence and impact of the superwoman complex in yourselves or the superwoman in your life, and work diligently to be the change and incite the activism that is so desperately needed in and around the Black community.
Najya Williams is a current freshman at Harvard University. She plans to pursue a concentration in Sociology as a pre-medical student, and aspires to become a pioneer in the medical field and beyond as a pediatrician and writer.