Gender Norms’ Impact on Health and Wellness for Young Black Girls

Thursday, November 14, 2013 - 4:50 pm
Riki Wilchins

Black adolescent girls and young women face special barriers related to both race and gender, which have immense effects on their health, achievement, and life outcomes. This is especially the case for low-income black girls, who have added challenges associated with poverty.

The effects of race and class are well-explored, but what about gender? Not the biological fact of being male or female or specific traits associated with one sex or the other, but the beliefs and expectations we all carry about what it means to be a woman or man, and the inequities that come with them?

How should philanthropic institutions focused on women and girls of color think about the effects of gender norms?

Today there is a small but growing body of empirical research devoted to black girls and gender norms, along with a wealth of racially diverse, multi-ethnic samples that include black girls in significant numbers.

A new report—created by a team of five leading researchers, led by Dr. Scyatta Wallace, and supported by the Heinz Endowments—focuses on three problem areas where that research base is both broad and well-accepted.

You can read the full report here, and scan the online research clearinghouse summarizing the key studies here.

While the report necessarily focuses on problems with health and wellness, it’s important to note that young black women and girls often display exemplary resilience, strength, and intelligence in dealing with the combined challenges posed by race, class and gender.

Basic Health and Wellness

Black girls have unique race and gendered experiences of discrimination, which results in multiple stresses that begin in childhood and continue through adulthood. In addition to navigating social hostilities based on race, they must deal with pressures to conform to both traditional feminine ideals in the larger culture, and those specific to black communities where females may be expected to sacrifice themselves and put children and family first.

Together, such stresses can cause a “weathering effect” or “Sojourner Syndrome,” in which black girls’ bodies become increasingly vulnerable and eventually develop disproportionately high rates of disease and chronic disorders.

Repeated exposure to trauma also influences how much black girls internalize cultural expectations of being emotionally tough (“strong black woman”). This in turn increases binge eating to help regulate negative emotions and suppress pain, both of which are tied to higher rates of obesity and type II diabetes.

Reproductive and Sexual Health

Studies show that young women who internalize feminine ideals of dependence, passivity, and vulnerability are less likely to acquire sexual knowledge, carry condoms, or negotiate their use.

In addition, the lack of available young men in many black communities are linked to higher rates of sexual risk taking, HIV infection, and partner abuse. In some studies, about one in three black girls reported being sexually victimized, and about 50 percent of boys reported having “run trains” on girls.

Black girls are often perceived as hypersexual and promiscuous, a view exacerbated by popular media portrayals that present them as devoid of personality or agency. Studies link internalizing such images to depression, low self-esteem, and decreased sexual self-efficacy among young women generally, and to early and risky sexual behavior and unplanned pregnancy among black girls specifically.

Intimate Relationships and Partner Violence

Males who internalize rigid masculine norms are more likely to believe that violence is acceptable, that coercion is part of male privilege when an intimate partner is sexually unreceptive, and that physical dominance of a disobedient female is central to manhood.

In addition to the general pressure for young women to be passive, dependent, and nurturing, black girls are also expected to be deferential to male partners so they don’t add to their emasculation by the dominant white culture.

Black girls are also prone to believe that men mistreat women, that anger and rage are natural facets of masculinity, and that physical abuse is a way men express love—all beliefs linked to higher rates of partner victimization and to racial stereotypes of black men as naturally aggressive and physical.

Even black girls who have survived victimization and want to complain of mistreatment may hesitate to do so, because of communal beliefs that women must show solidarity with black men.

Riki Wilchins is executive director of TrueChild.

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