With a certain smugness, I dutifully placed a fuzzy pic of myself at a 2009 cocktail party next to a similarly styled shot of me taken last August and posted the collage last weekend on Facebook as part of the still-trending “How hard did aging hit you?” challenge.
My post got more than 100 likes, and the comments were a flattering compilation of, “Are you ageless, or what?,” “You MUST be a vampire,” and, “Timeless beauty.”
To be fair, my other 40-plus African American girlfriends looked pretty much the same as they did roughly 10 years ago, too. No wrinkles. No visible lines. No crow’s-feet. No age spots. Shoot, we looked good.
Friends of other races were also complimentary about how well put-together the sister-girls were looking. One post from a white man, Tom Muller of West Lake Village, Calif., began making Facebook rounds on Saturday. He wrote in good fun. “OK black friends, no more ‘How hard did age hit you' challenges' ― we get it."
The old adage must be true. Black don’t crack.
At least on the outside.
I get it. It’s a total ego boost that melanin — the natural pigment that is responsible for dark skin that relegated black people to chains, the back of the bus, and the ridiculous idea that black women could not be natural beauties to the Eurocentric masses — is the same element of our being that protects us from the sun. And that natural sunscreen, according to dermatologist Susan Taylor, slows down the aging process in black women by 10 years.
Further proof to many that #blackgirlmagic is real.
But just because black don’t crack ― a saying our mothers and grandmothers conspiratorially whispered to one another on stoops, in church pews, and in beauty parlors about girlfriends they all knew were pushing 50 but who didn’t look a day over 35 ― has become a mainstream meme. It’s easy to get lost in the stereotype, especially during awards season, when such a good-looking crop of 40-plus black actresses as Regina King, Taraji P. Henson, Viola Davis, and Angela Basset are dominating the red carpet in fabulous metallic gowns.
” READ MORE: Golden Globes red carpet: The best and worst fashion
Yet now is not the time to get it twisted: Just because we are flawless on the outside doesn’t mean we should stop paying attention to our overall health. In fact, it’s now more important than ever. Because it’s no secret that black women are plagued with higher blood pressure, higher cholesterol, and a greater chance of getting diabetes than our white counterparts. And this, said Ken Thorpe, a professor of health policy at Emory University, is because black women have higher rates of obesity. According to Thorpe, 55 percent of black women in the United States are obese, compared to 38 percent of their white counterparts.
It’s not just the chronic diseases that plague us. According to data from the Susan G. Komen Foundation, black women die from breast cancer at a rate 40 percent higher than white women. And black mothers and babies are dying at disproportionate rates during childbirth.
“Inside we are suffering, but outside we are smiling,” said Shelley Leaphart-Williams, founder and executive director of Lifesavers U, a nonprofit focused on mental health and suicide prevention in minority communities. “In other words, we are dying internally because our internal age is so much older than our physical age.”
The reasons are many, Leaphart-Williams said. There are economic factors involved, like the fact that many of us live in food deserts. Genes play a serious role — it’s why I’m paying particular attention to my blood pressure and I’m — gasp — embarking on a #DryJanuary (pray for me). Health insurance is challenging. And even if we have good health insurance, getting back and forth to a good doctor for all of the follow-up appointments is often impossible, especially if it involves taking off work, which can be tough because so many black women are heads of their households.
And then there is the extra added emotional toll life takes on black women.
“We are suffering silently and enduring physical abuse, sexual abuse, and there is the everyday racism,” Leaphart-Williams said. “As African American women, we have been hiding behind this veil of strength. We are waiting for a blessing and not asking for help. But we are only hurting ourselves.”
The answer, said LaVerne Adams, a life-transformation coach and owner of Total Life Consultancy in Philadelphia, is to let go of the superwoman syndrome and invest in self-care.
“Stop the neglect,” Adams said. “All of those women, Angela Bassett and Halle Berry, they are working their butts off. They have trainers. They have diets. They are treating their gift like it is precious … It’s important that we take the time, while ‘black don’t crack’ is in the public eye, to introduce a dual message of self-care and raise awareness. We have a gift and we need to support this gift so it works for us.”
Supporting this gift is about going to the doctor and seeing a therapist when needed, Adams stressed.
Because our gift is powerful. Black women have largely redefined what it looks like to age. “If you look at the image of what a 50-year-old looks like, it’s not based on a black woman," said Lisa Walke, chief of the division of geriatric medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. “We should take this opportunity to take a broader view of what age looks like and include more people.”
And now 50-year-old women are comfortable strutting their stuff in yoga pants. I like to give credit to Bassett because, I don’t know about you, but she’s been showing up on the red carpet year after year looking exactly like she did when she played Tina Turner 1993′s What’s Love Got to Do With It? when she was just 34.
There is good news, Walke said. If black women can get through the stress of midlife and early retirement and live to about 80, they are likely to outlive both black men and their white counterparts by a little more than half a year.
“This is a good opportunity to think about what’s going on inside as we praise ourselves on the outside," Walke said. “The two must match … It’s a reminder that people are looking good because they are taking care of themselves. We need to take the time to celebrate and acknowledge that. And we don’t have to be a celebrity to do it.”