Apparently Black women aren’t the only people having a difficult time living up to images and expectations. Check out this story from the San Francisco Sentinel and London Observer on the disconnect between the public perception of gay men and the high rates of suicide and depression in the gay community.
Wish that I could cry
Fall upon my knees
Find a way to lie
About a home I’ll never seeIt may sound absurd, but don’t be naive
Even heroes have the right to bleed
I may be disturbed, but won’t you concede
Even heroes have the right to dream
And it’s not easy to be me– Five for Fighting – “Superman”
All of us know women who seem to possess limitless energy. I used to work with a woman who is a single mom, holds down a demanding day-job, a side consultant gig, and a real estate hustle, a very active social life, and has a body so hard you could bounce a bank off it. She was my boss. I worked with another woman who has no kids but she wakes up at 3:30AM, exercises before arriving at work by 7AM, works non-stop until about 8PM and does it again the next day. She was also my boss. Then there was by Granny, who picked cotton and washed clothes for white women, bore 13 children, raised 9, and put a few of them through college as the wife of a sharecropper. They all certainly sound impressive, and equally so when you know them personally. But not everyone can operate from can’t see in the morning until can’t see at night. Not everyone can burn the candle at both ends. And it’s not low self-esteem and lack of motivation that makes me say that I’m one of those women. It’s a reality for me that running myself into the ground will do nothing but run me straight to the psych ward. And since I’ve been there twice, it’s pretty much a non-issue for me to believe that there are no limits to what I can do. But I also learned about limitations very early in life, from the only woman in the world that I really think was Wonder Woman. My mom.
My mother was not a Superwoman either. Don’t get me wrong, the woman was AMAZING. I’ve written about her in other blog posts, and just this week I cried myself to sleep for missing her so much. But as much as I might even idealize her in death, I know for sure that she could never have held down the kind of over-worked and under-paid existence that Americans seem to think is a badge of honor. When my Mom was a young woman, maybe in her 20s, she had a bowel obstruction, some surgery, some time in the hospital, and a recovery. After that, maybe in her 30s, she had bad kidneys. Imagine multiple operations, tubes in her side, morphine hallucinations. Very Julia Roberts in Steel Magnolias, but without the endearing southern accent and rich attorney husband. Mommy almost didn’t live through her kidney troubles, and the two of us barely survived childbirth. Combine Mom’s early hospitalizations with the heart attack she had when I was 12, and you should understand that my Mom was often sick when I was growing up. She may have wanted to be a stewardess, but for a while she couldn’t hold a job, and I don’t think she was ever really sure that she could work full-time because of physical frailty. Some people’s bodies just aren’t built for the long haul, and Mommy knew that. She would give her sisters her last dime, or the clothes off her back, or the last money in her checking account and her sisters never knew what she sacrificed. But I lived with her every day and knew when she had to lay down, or stay in bed all day, or have someone else pick me up from school because she was ill. Strong of will, but weak of body, Mommy knew her limitations.
What if someone told my mother that she was a bad mom because she couldn’t work? Or made her feel guilty for getting sick in the middle of a family vacation? What if the popular vernacular taught my mom that no matter how much pain she was in, she should always take care of me and never ask for assistance, even from her husband? Or if that husband, my Dad, told her in so many words that she was “less than” because she couldn’t physically have more kids or, at times, couldn’t take care of the one she did have? You’re probably thinking, “but she was sick, she was in a hospital, having surgery, whatever…who wouldn’t understand that?”
Imagine, though, the my mom’s scar tissue wasn’t just blocking her intestines (the wound that eventually caused her death), but it was blocking something intangible in her mind. What if, instead of the external markers of intensive care, her life had been bolstered by the internal supports of antidepressants and other psychotropic drugs. Would her sickness have been less justified? Would her absence in my life any less tolerated? In a word, yes.
I wish I had the deep pits in my side that my mother had after kidney surgery, something to show people when I reveal to them that there are certain things that I can’t do. I can’t work 12 hour days any more because my brain doesn’t really focus for that long. Yes, I’ve managed to get a few big degrees with this lack of focus. And after 2 months at a new job, I’ve completely astounded my coworkers with the sharpness of my insights and thorough understanding of our industry. But if I combine my daily grind with some after-hours hustle, or extend it into a 14-hour day and make me believe that I’m useless if I’m not working myself to the bone, I will once again be in somebody’s mental ward, hyperventilating, talking about “just make it stop”. Remember for a moment that I used to work for two women who worked harder and longer (if not smarter) than me, had less sleep and more obligations than me, and thought their lives were status quo. So when I was stressed out (and depressed) enough to have a mini-breakdown and panic attack in the office, they thought I couldn’t do my job because I wasn’t strong enough. True story. The fact is that I’m plenty strong, I just can’t handle the kind of 24-hour stress and insurmountable visible obstacles required of the modern-day Superwoman. My side hustle isn’t another job, it’s the job of keeping myself calm enough not to trigger an anxiety attack, or of making sure I always have enough meds, or the right meds, or the best set of circumstances to keep me sane and productive. And I’m just not in the business of living up to some standard of professional or personal productivity just so someone out there will look at me and say, “that sister’s really holding it DOWN.”
I’d much rather know in my heart that I’m doing the best I can and surround myself with people who understand that I don’t need to take on another struggle, thank you very much, because I’ve already got one. The women who follow @PepsiWeInspire might not be enthused with my difficulties, or with my pointing out that the “working like a slave” standard Black women have for ourselves is passe at best, damaging at worst. Still, I’m going to stick with the idea that we should all be our best – whatever best looks like – and stop comparing ourselves and each other to the hardest possible life, just so we can feel like we did something.
I would, however, like to wear a red cape and maybe get Wonder Woman’s lasso of truth. Superheroes do have fly gear.
Yesterday, I wrote a blog post about news coverage of Fantasia Barrino’s overdose not because I like to gossip, but because the mainstream media puts out a lot of crap about people without dealing with the substantive issues related to a celebrity event. Stories about Lindsey Lohan focus on her hair extension what she’s wearing when she gets out of prison, rather than the help she (and perhaps other young people) need to get sober, get healthy and stay out of trouble.
To be clear, my take on Fantasia’s story was about 1) how the media has focused on the alleged affair, not the fact that she took a bunch of pills and hid in the closet; 2) how the societal myth of Black Superwoman possibly contributed to Fantasia’s need to take care of her family before herself and, thus, drove her to the overdose; 3) how famous people in desperate situations do not represent a time for ridicule, but a time for public discourse on emotional health. For a while, I was feeling pretty good about what I wrote, not because it was my best writing, but because the piece resonated with my followers. I thought, maybe I can succeed with my goals for this blog, with bringing mental health into the forefront of pop culture, with getting people go consider their own mental health, and with generating much-needed conversation in the Black community about mental illness and how we hide it behind the same old bullshit instead of tackling it head on.
My optimism was short-lived.
I criticized Fantasia’s people, and @BlackMediaSCOOP, for trying to “spin” the situation into rainbows, lollipops and record sales instead of admitting that the woman has a problem. Here’s what I got back from the Twitter:
“It’s not even a PR nightmare. If anything it will probably help boost her album sales.”
“…I don’t think she has a mental illness I think she’s a coward.. She’s scared of that money she owe thewife [sic]“
OH MY….oh, Hell. I can barely muster the proper amount of outrage that people just don’t really get it, or would rather just be haters. Especially after @PepsiWeInspire posted my blog on their Facebook page and I got an eyeful of reminder about why I do this blog thing in the first place, and an eyeful of wonder about what it will take for us to stop living in the weeds of gossip and look at larger issues:
“Uh, pepsi…this isn’t inspiring at all. ”
“EVERYBODY ATTACKING HER THEY NEED TO GET AT THE MAN HE WAS MARRIED SLEEPING WITH HER TOO SHE IS A SINGLE WOMAN FOR REAL”
“When fantasia found out he was married she should have backed up off him.both fantasia and this guy r low.then men have this attitude wondering why women don’t trust them fantasia story is why.”
“i’m done with her already, don’t come to tampa with that cause you gonna have some problems sister, we don’t play that.”
My people, my people…
Don’t misunderstand: what I wrote yesterday did get some people thinking and commenting, aand I’m still proud of myself for eliciting that kind of feedback. But I’m still kinda mad that the day I get over 800 hits to my blog, and a bunch of Facebook likes, most of it perpetuates the myth that Black folks are like crabs in a barrel, and we tear each other down instead of helpling build each other up. Yep, the commentary I mention above was from my people. Yep, comments excerpted above are exact quotes, and represent the majority of what I see in the world, on the internet, and in popular culture with respect to mental health. Yep, I’m annoyed that @BlackMediaSCOOP has over 19,000 followers for just putting out “news” (not shaping opinion), while I choose not to talk about #hoshit and I’ve got less than 1,000.
Still, every time I read a news story about a celebrity that I think is hurting, that I think needs some therapy, and that I think we could learn from, I’m gonna write a post about it. Not for the RTs and the blog hits, but because I feel like someone needs to be responsibile for putting useful information into the atmosphere. Every time an manager or PR company misses the chance to tell the truth and say, “hey, my client is human, my client is hurting, my client is getting treatment for emotional issues and is not ashamed to admit it”, I’ll point it out instead. Chances are, someone in the viewing audience is looking for an excuse to get emotional help without being judged, or blamed or put down. So I’m going to keep writing for her.
And for myself.
Fantasia Barrino is the latest casualty in the myth of the Black Superwoman.
The news on the wire today is that Fantasia, on the heels of public innuendo about an affair with a married man, attempted suicide. According to Huffington Post, the American Idol winner took too many aspirin and sleep aids, and is resting comfortably at a North Carolina hospital. The HuffPo article cites Fantasia’s manager, who confirms that “injuries” sustained from the combination of pills is “not life threatening”, and that “Fantasia sends her praise to God and her eternal gratitude to her fans, friends, and family.”
I’ m glad she’s resting comfortably, but when are we gonna get to the real?
First of all, I don’t think I’m alone with I posit that Fantasia’s overdose was a cry for help that went much deeper than her alleged distress over some cheating scandal. As my Twitter friend @BasseyWorldLive astutely pointed out, your average well-adjusted person doesn’t take a bunch of sleeping pills behind some man; emotionally healthy people can roll with the punches and handle setbacks without resorting to desperate measures. Only desperate, sick people in need of help get found in a closet with a belly full of Bayer and Ambien. If you don’t believe me, think about the last time you swallowed a bottle of pills…for most of you, the last time would be “never”. For the rest of you, the last time was a period of extreme sadness and hopelessness. That’s how we can tell that Fantasia didn’t just have a big headache and a few sleepless nights: she was trying to harm herself.
On the Twitterverse today, people made fun of Fantasia’s man problems and pointed out her money-spending brother, the fact that she’s financially responsible for a bunch of family members. You already know where that “everyone on the payroll” thing got MC Hammer. But more important than losing your money is losing your sanity, and any woman who has the weight of children, momma, daddy, brother, cousin with hands in your pocketbook is generally a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. All jokes aside, pressure and stress are a part of everyday life for all women, but Black women often bear the brunt of sucking it up and holding it down no matter what. Damn, Alicia Keys even wrote a song about it:
“Even when I’m a mess, I still put on a vest with an S on my chest, oh yes! I’m a Superwoman.”
Yes, the superwoman meme is old and tired, and is true for mothers moreso than other women, but I’m not talking about all women today: I’m talking about Black women and our inability to ask for help. The success of Alicia’s song, the way we sing it so passionately speaks to our belief that the sistas can always make a miracle, no matter what, without any help from anyone. Oh, and we do it without complaining. How many other songs written or performed by Black women draw upon the same themes of tirelessness and selflessness as though both are ideal states? I’m all for female empowerment, but everyone needs help with something at some point in life. And not just help from Jesus, because he can’t baby sit when you have to take an extra shift to pay the rent. And not just practical help, Black women need emotional help. Not just the kind that comes from singing catchy pop tunes, but the kind that helps us figure out why we need to be everything to everyone and nothing to ourselves.
As a Black woman who has been in therapy for over 10 years, I see the benefit of some time on the couch for everyone. Yet in our community, we’re more likely to seek religious counseling than emotional counseling. When I’m not sure I believe in God, its time to talk to a minister; when I’m not sure I believe in myself or my will to live, I’m heading for the headshrinker. Someone I know pretended to go to work for years though she had no job, caused the financial decline of her husband,then tried to hurt herself physically. After refusing to sign the 5150 (72-hour psych hold for people who are deemed a danger to themselves), her husband brought her to church counseling. I’m a Christian, and I love Jesus, but even he knows that my friend needed to confront some deep emotional truths. Like, what made her lie to her husband and children for years? Why did she need to keep the facade of working everyday even after she lost her job? Just why did she lose her job? And what the Hell did she do with the family’s money? Some of her secrecy was for deeply personal reasons, I’m sure, and I’d guess that some of it was purely delusional. But I’ll bet that a lot of what she hid for years was because she was ashamed and afraid: ashamed of needing some help, of having made mistakes, of not being able to live up to an arbitrary image of who she was supposed to be. And only in the Black community do we look at a situation like that and run right to the church, where they tell us to pray and have faith. Then when we’re prayerful and faithful and we still don’t feel any better, we’re now spiritual failures. How has that helped anyone?
Somewhere, somebody is writing a magazine article about the failures of Black womanhood and why “our” stars get into trouble. To that, let me say that Lindsey Lohan is in a heap of trouble, but at least she’ll probably get some psych treatment with her hard-core alcohol rehab, so she’s better off than Fantasia who’s manager is still spinning a suicide attempt into a praise dance and some album publicity. Instead of using Barrino’s behavior as a teachable moment for what happens when life overwhelms you and you need help, we’ll criminalize her behavior instead of looking at what caused it. We’ll make comments about her having sleeping pills. We’ll speculate on her alleged affair and whether the lawsuit against her his founded. And we’ll look at her baby daddy drama and pass judgment on the kind of person she is. But we won’t wonder what underlying issue makes a woman chase after married men, or analyze the impact of fame and success on family relations. We’ve done it before: another Twitter friend – @DrRenee – wrote something about how Maia Campbell and Lauryn Hill got painted with the “crazy Black woman” brush, dissed for exhibiting symptoms of serious mental illness, and summarily dismissed. No wonder Black folks living with mental illness can’t “come out” – our community does such a bad job at admitting and addressing emotional shortcomings if we’re not gossiping or making fun of them. And if a talent like Lauryn, or a beauty like Maia don’t get accepted or understood, what chance does a “regular” Black girl like me stand? If the rich and famous get put on blast, I’m not about to discuss my illness openly for fear that I’m discounted as crazy and put out to pasture. So I leave the office to call my shrink. I blog under a pseudonym to protect my medical history from potential employers and paramours. I live for years with lies and subterfuge and, even after I’ve committed myself to an institution, I still don’t talk about what happened there because my family kind of pretends it never happened.
Yep, I’m a Superwoman…yes I am.
Imagine a beautiful, voluptuous woman going to meet a lunch date wearing nothing but sexy red lingerie under her trenchcoat. If you’re the woman, you feel empowered, strong and just a little naughty. If you’re the guy she’s going to meet, you’re probably going to thank some deity when she walks in the door and drops her jacket. Apparently, this scenario is just too much for Kathie Lee Gifford to bear.
Last week, plus-sized clothing manufacturer Lane Bryant launched a TV ad for it’s Cacique lingerie brand. I’ve been known to shop at Lane Bryant, though I’m not quite plus enough to fit into most of their clothes. However, they do make jewelry that doesn’t disappear against my size 16 frame, and I like the fact that the clothes are made for young, professional women and not your great aunt. My biggest complaint with clothes over size 12 is that manufacturers assume that I need elasticized waists, shapeless jackets, and tons of room for back fat just because I’m bigger than average. Just make the size 16 and 18 in the exact same clothing and the exact same proportions as a size 10 and I’ll be straight. But I digress… Lane Bryant makes strapless dresses and fly-away baby dolls and tank tops and shorts, because every woman deserves to feel cute and comfortable and appealing no matter her size. I like them for that. And for this ad, that highlights the company’s focus on making women “of size” feel sexy.
Apparently, Lane Bryant wanted the commercial to air during “American Idol” and “Dancing with the Stars,” but both Fox and ABC relegated the ad to the after-9PM time slot for being too “racy”. If that’s true, whatevs. There is nothing in that Cacique ad that you can’t see on “Gossip Girl”. Except, of course, for real body parts and women who eat. Which brings me to Kathy Lee Gifford, who spoke out against the TV spot saying something to the tune of (and I paraphrase): the woman in the ad is going for a sexy lunch and I don’t want my daughter being exposed to that kind of thing. *face palms* Again, I bring up the Gossip Girl example in which alleged high school students are sexing each other – and drinking illegally, I might add – all over the Upper East Side. I believe that show airs during the 8 o’clock hour as well. Where’s the outrage there, Kathie Lee? I guess Kathie Lee is cooler with seeing young girls making foolish sexual choices on TV when they’re under 18 than she is with a woman deciding to turn her lunch date into a quickie.
And that’s what I think the real problem is. Full-figured women are sexy. Not all of them, but definitely Ashley Graham, the woman who stars in the Cacique ad. She’s incredibly aspirational for plus sized women, and appealing to men: beautiful face, shiny hair, full breasts, smooth skin…and that’s the problem. Ashley Graham‘s appearance in the TV ad is unapologetic about her size (which is probably 10 or 12), her sex appeal, and the empowering stance she’ll take when she meets her man for lunch sans cullottes. Ashley’s body parts are certainly bigger than those of the average Victoria’s Secret model, but the real difference is the tone in which her sexuality is delivered. A straightforward female voice narrates the Lane Bryant commercial, reminding us that we’re pretty, we’re sexy, we’re not wearing our mother’s lingerie. And because we feel beautiful on the outside as well as on the inside, we can take charge of our bodies and meet our guy for a “hot lunch” because we’re of legal age and we can make our own choices. Victoria’s Secret commercials are cloaked in, well, secrecy: they have the look of a Peeping Tom, spying on women in their skivvies so that he can see what Victoria really wears under her clothes. Vicky’s Secret models look as though they’re preening for the men who’ll be looking at them instead of deciding to wear those miracle undies for their own empowerment. And the voiceover artist lends an air of faux British classiness to the commercials, just so we won’t think that the women actually enjoy being filmed in their underpants. Heaven forbid!
Another problem with seeing plus sized women in lingerie? Big boobs! You know how immature men are, they see a breast and they lose their ever-loving minds. Remember Janet Jackson and Nipplegate? It was the titty heard ’round the world, and we didn’t really get that much of it. Fast forward to real, live D-cups spilling over a lacy bra for a full 30 seconds and stupid dudes will lose their shit! After all, they won’t be able to concentrate for the thought of heaving bosoms, causing the collapse of the financial industry and. . . Right, ta-tas didn’t cause the downfall of Goldman Sachs, but tell us big-boned gals that we can love our breasts and our curves and dress them up in pretty colors and you’ll never be able to tell us anything. Not only will men everywhere be mesmerized, but we will refuse to shrink quietly behind some skinny bitch we think is prettier than us. We’ll speak up in high school, or in the board room, or in the bedroom. We’ll get rid of the men who don’t treat us good because we’ll realize that our size has nothing to do with our self-esteem. Next thing you know, comedians will stop making jokes about Oprah’s weight and she’ll REALLY be the most powerful woman in the world.
How THAT’S what I call a full-figured fantasy!