Self-Care for the Tolls of Exceptionalism Black Women Face

black woman looking back at the camera

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Key Takeaways

  • Cheslie Kryst, the 2019 Miss USA pageant winner, an attorney, and a television host died by suicide on January 30, 2022.
  • Kryst was navigating high-functioning depression, according to her mother.
  • "Strong Black woman" stereotypes may make it challenging to access support but that is necessary to manage the tolls of exceptionalism often placed on Black women.

Many knew Cheslie Kryst as the 2019 winner of the Miss USA pageant, an attorney, and a television host. When she died by suicide on January 30, 2022, it was a devastating loss that may have been hard to comprehend.

Since Kryst's death, her mother has shared that she was dealing with high-functioning depression. Unfortunately, when faced with "strong Black woman" stereotypes, seeking help may not feel like much of an option.

How Black Women Conceptualize Self-Care

With interviews with subject-matter experts on wellness for themselves and other Black women, these themes emerged: forces outside of self, the consequences of external forces, desired outcome, and making the change.

In this way, Black women conceptualized self-care as necessary activities to cope with structural socio-cultural factors that harm them, including the American political system, and gendered roles that reinforce self-neglect.

In addition to self-care as a way to restore balance, Black women also highlighted five key elements of making the change, which include deep work, authority, reconnection, exploration, and accountability.

Deep work often referred to a spiritual practice, while authority usually entailed boundary setting, and reconnection often reflected intuitive change. Exploration was conceptualized as the process of finding self-care that meets one's unique needs, and accountability referred to community.

Self-Care May Even Mean Resistance

As a Black woman who left her initial PhD program due to racism, Paris “AJ” Adkins-Jackson, MPH, PhD, personally understood the need for self-care, which was the focus of her doctoral dissertation at Morgan State University, a historically Black college and university (HBCU).

With this qualitative research, Adkins-Jackson says, "I wanted to go to the source. I talked to experts in wellness for Black women, who practice it, and not only do it for themselves but help other Black woman to get it."

Adkins-Jackson initially used a self-assessment scale from the field of social work, but she knew that some of the activities on it were not valid. "I had to ask about the role of the media, because all of them commented on how the media portrays self-care as leisure for white people," she says. 

For Black women, Adkins-Jackson notes that self-care can foster resilience, but it can create resistance in a select few. "Deep work involves the self-care that Black women need especially after a grand trauma," she says. For example, this may include addressing gaslighting and setting boundaries.

Adkins-Jackson highlights how her research was rejected for publication a total of 11 times, during which, community from her Black women co-authors, Portia A. Jackson Preston DrPH, MPH, and Teah Hairston, PhD, was instrumental in continuing to invest in doing this necessary work.

Paris “AJ” Adkins-Jackson, MPH, PhD

I had to ask about the role of the media, because all of them commented on how the media portrays self-care as leisure for white people.

— Paris “AJ” Adkins-Jackson, MPH, PhD

Adkins-Jackson explains, "There were so many Black women who did their dissertations on self-care but never published a single article on it. The traumas they probably have been through to graduate, they wanted nothing to do with it after. I'm putting this in the academic record for them."

In terms of a limitation, Adkins-Jackson says, "I hate that this paper was not able to encapsulate the transgender experience because that is a community I really care about, and I know they need self-care."

Adkins-Jackson notes that her understanding of self-care includes dismantling racism, because fighting the system allows her to address structural determinants that limit the outcomes of Black communities, but she also invests in self-care through activities such as dance and boxing.

Challenging to Cultivate True Balance

Clinical psychologist, 2020 Health Disparities Research Institute Scholar with the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and director of medical affairs at Big HealthJuliette McClendon, PhD, says, "My first reaction to Cheslie Kryst’s tragic death is devastation."

Although she led an accomplished life, and had a long-standing commitment to social justice, among other notable achievements, McClendon note that she may have been suffering horribly, and in silence.

Unfortunately, Kryst may be just one of many, as McClendon explains, "Stereotypes like the “strong Black woman” puts Black women in a position to take care of their families and communities -- even at the cost of their own health. They may do it with a smile, even when they’re exhausted."

These expectations of Black women can often lead many to become overburdened, stressed, and burned out, according to McClendon. "Both their physical and mental health can suffer," she says.

McClendon explains, "This study opens up the conversation around how Black women cope and take care of themselves—crucially—from their perspectives. We are given a look at what Black women consider self-care, which can help inform those of us who help and love Black women."

This research also demonstrates how intensely Black women are expected to put on a mask and hide their feelings, according to McClendon. "For many Black women, rest is a luxury that feels unattainable," she says.

McClendon highlights, "Black women have fewer resources to take care of themselves—they are more likely to be the heads of households, uninsured or underinsured, and paid lower incomes."

Juliette McClendon, PhD

We are given a look at what Black women consider self-care, which can help inform those of us who help and love Black women.

— Juliette McClendon, PhD

For cultural, practical, and economic reasons, McClendon notes that true “balance” as the women in the study called it, is challenging to cultivate. "The expectation that Black women deserve rest needs to become the norm, and I hope to see these conversations become more mainstream," she says.

One thing McClendon wishes the public knew is that Black women are under a lot of stress, which is affecting their mental health in serious ways, which too often can have irreversible consequences. "And it can even be the most accomplished Black women that are suffering the most," she says.

McClendon notes that those Black women who seem to have it all together may be hiding their sadness. "How we discuss self-care has been very myopic, and I hope that in public discourse we can start to understand the unique pressures Black women are under and how deeply this stress affects their health, no matter what their resume looks like," she says.

While self-care may be practiced differently for Black women, compared to white women, McClendon highlights the need for more intentional conversations about this in the public discourse to make change.

McClendon explains, "There needs to be recognition that Black women can’t do everything, and prioritizing their mental health and well-being is just as important as making a difference in the world. In fact, we can’t maintain our forward momentum without also resting."

Black women deserve adequate rest and joy, according to McClendon. "We need to recognize that Black women do know how to take care of themselves in a variety of ways, but may need to be encouraged and empowered to do so by people who are important to them," she says.

McClendon notes, "Women who are not Black can support Black women by amplifying their voices and experiences; by doing this, you are bringing attention to the concerns of Black women without centering yourself."

What This Means For You

Black women often face unique challenges that may require different activities for self-care. If you care about Black people of marginalized genders, you can support them to take better care of themselves.

1 Source
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Adkins-Jackson P, Jackson Preston P, Hairston T. ‘The only way out’: how self-care is conceptualized by Black womenEthn Health. 2022:1-17. doi:10.1080/13557858.2022.2027878

By Krystal Jagoo
 Krystal Kavita Jagoo is a social worker, committed to anti-oppressive practice.