African American Women and Self-Esteem: Society, Self-Consciousness and Self-Esteem

As an African American woman born and raised in Philadelphia, I have noticed some unique cultural experiences that could affect the behavior of my fellow counterpart sisters. Although I cannot speak for all African American women, some of these experiences are relatable to many women in my beloved city. These cultural overviews are intended to start a dialogue about factors behind the barriers to healthy relationships with the self and others. You may even recognize or have experienced some of the stereotypes and unconscious processes that I have experienced and even some unique ones of your own; you may even have some that are not mentioned and if so I would love to hear your story (post a comment in section below).

Society, Self-consciousness and Self-esteem: As I step back and look at how I had been influenced by our society growing up, I wondered how many other African American girls, pre-teens, and teenagers felt the same way. Not only did multiple sources of media affect the way I viewed myself but how other races responded to me affected my disposition as well. How exactly did that happen? I surmise that the many stereotypes held against African American women branded a negative stigma on our existence.

I image that stereotypes against African American women affect the way other cultures react and respond to us. I have noticed such reactions as fear, superiority, indifference, disrespect and prejudice. Why such extreme reactions? Perhaps it derived from how African American woman have been labeled: tough, rough, aggressive, disrespectful, ignorant, illiterate, ghetto, unlovable, abusive, and angry. Can you recall seeing these messages displayed on television shows, movies, ads, public places, news reports, conversations with other people, and even in academic settings? Some of these negative messages appear so prevalent that not only will other cultures respond in negative ways but also fellow African Americans.

I remember observing An African American woman walking down the street with a straight face, not appearing angry or upset. I noticed the stares she received as well as a comment from an African American men stating, “Why are you so upset? You should smile more!” and “Sista it’s not that bad.” The story I made up in my head about this interaction was that the “angry black woman” stereotype has been so imbedded in our culture that it perseverated in the minds of all who fall prey to it.

I suppose that the perception of the angry black women burdens African American women with the stigma of being unapproachable, not personable and not friendly. It appears that this stigma has repercussions for the single and business woman, as well as the social butterfly. African American woman have to work harder to appear softer in order to not fit in a negative stereotype by others. If she does not appear soft then she is considered the bitch…the villain. It is burdensome because others are not willing to change their perception and inquire about their own missed judgments rather than the African American woman having to be self-conscious in order to not offend others.

I have also observed on occasion the avoidance glance toward African American women. I have noticed that some African American men will not entertain a glance toward African American women and dismiss her all together. As I catch the subway into the city I keenly observed men ignoring the flirtatious glances and smiles of attractive African American women but entertain those of another race. There is nothing wrong with preferring a certain look; however, how much of the internal experience is the preference rather than the stereotype?

The actions and rejections that some African American women experience may lead some of them to develop a thick skin. They in turn may learn to love themselves or internalize their experience leaving way to a lowered self-esteem. Either way you may notice a wall of defense that is built to protect from rejection, abandonment, fear, and even intimacy. Sometimes you can recognize this wall through the sista who says, “I don’t need a man” or “That’s just men, I expect them to do that”. Other times it can be disguised in the need to dress to perfection whenever they leave the house, reach for attention by over exaggerating their actions, or may even take the people pleasing role to feel a sense of acceptance. I recall a woman from my neighborhood as I grew up. She would always have her nails professionally polish, hair done with every strand in place and clothes pressed so well it looked as if it was mechanically drawn on her body. She would come out to get the neighborhood circular in high hilled shoes with a twitch in her stride. It was impressive really. The story I make up about her, now looking back, is that she needed to adorn her appearance to feel self worthy and good enough. She did not have a husband and was frantically on the search….in a modest way. The attention she received appeared to give her an endorphin rush and became a natural habit to feel good. When she did not receive attention about her appearance, she appeared to seek it by what seemed to be a “fishing for a compliment” complex. I imagine that if she eventually became a pair, she would need the constant approval of her mate to make her feel worthy and accepted. Do you have any experience of this or the other types mentioned above? What is the story you make up about their wall? What is your wall? What’s your story? Comment in comment box below.

African American Women’s Image and the media

Have you noticed that in the 21st Century the standards of beauty have changed from previous centuries? Take for instance the Columbia Pictures logo (woman holding torch draped in American flag) in the 1980’s was shaped resembling a Coca Cola bottle. Currently the image is portrayed as a very thin woman not showing any curves through her draped dress. Curves seemed to have been accepted in the majority culture during the 1980’s and even before then (shown in Renaissance paintings); however, as time progressed it seemed as if the focus was on becoming thinner. In Philadelphia, there are a variety of shapes, however, one thing that I have noticed is that some people are not happy with their perfectly healthy body because of how they are influenced by the images of what is the “in” weight…skinny. As a result bulimia, anorexia, and excessive exercising supplement the desire to fit in to the mold of the classified beauty symbol. I recall speaking with a friend of mine who is a healthy and curvy woman. She attracts the likes of men from various cultures; however, she still feels less than. She said she wanted to lose weight so that she can wear a bikini or that fitted dress she saw on an advertisement. After assuring her that she is beautiful just as she was giving her evidence of the attention she receives daily, I imagine her lowered self-esteem was plagued by the lack of reinforcements of her body type in media sources that she is proxy to.

In my opinion, the media has devastating implications for the African American woman. The national standard of beauty makes the African American woman feel as if she would never match it. This is shown in commercials, television shows, music, pictures, pageants, and other sources of media. Through these images, the African American woman is lost as displayed through the language used in commercials, “To have the silky slick hair that you always wanted…”; captions on pictures claiming the subject to be sexy as a svelte non-curvy woman; the lack of African American models in print media; etc. Is it me or is the representation lacking ethnicity? As I look in magazines, print ads, and commercials I see clothes that fit fine on the model but I am at a lost for how it will look on a body with more curves, or how the color will match up against my brown sun kissed skin.

It seems simpler to join them if you can’t beat them. I wonder if this began the rise of perms, wig and weave wearing in my culture. I remember getting a perm when I was younger and as soon as it was wearing off (indicated by the curly kitchen on the back of my neck) I felt exposed and couldn’t move fast enough to secure another hair treatment to smooth out my curly tress. Teasing would occur in school for little African American girls that did not have a perm or weave. This trend not only came from African American girls toward each other but from African American boys as well to the point that they would feel embarrassed being in public with an afro or natural wearing friend. They too started to process their hair and cut it low to show their waves that were created by hair grease and a boars brush. It was not until I was older and was able to accept my whole self that I was able to wear my hair in its natural state. I then influenced my family and a couple of friends to be comfortable in their natural hair state. Now, I see more and more African American women wearing their hair natural in Philadelphia and that may just give the motivation for the future generations to learn to be comfortable sporting their unenhanced beauty even if it is not portrayed as such from some media outlets.

Another form the beauty standard that I have noticed is the change from the curvy girl to the rail thin girl as accepted beauty. This is not just a problem with African American woman as it is an issue with all women. For African American women, it becomes a problem when they are rejected acting, modeling, and any other job due to their unique curves. Black women in Hollywood have claimed that it is tough for them to get roles than their white counter-parts due to the director’s direction for the role. It is up to the director to decide if he wants an “ethnic” character or not. It is interesting that when a full-figured or curvy African American women gets a prominent role and gains attention in the media, they overtime loose tons of weight (Jennifer Hudson, Karry Washington, Jill Scott, Raven Symone, Kelly Price, Shari Shepard, just to name a few). Losing weight to become healthy is different than losing weight for acceptance. I just wonder to which motivation African American women in the media choose. What do you think? Add comments in the comment box below.

Although on the outside some African American women can seem a bit brass or confrontational, imagine the cultural struggles that they have to tend to daily in order to survive or be accepted in a society that can at times reject their natural being. Not only do African American women have to fight against social norms and stereotypes, they have to combat the lack of respect from their own men from the influences of culture, rap lyrics, video and television. In my experience, before an African American woman can be in a healthy relationship with others, she will have to tend to the negative images and barriers preventing her from loving herself completely. If you are someone you know needs help to improve themselves contact me at the Center for Growth 215.922.LOVE(5683)