On Friday, June 7th, Taraji P Henson, actor and mental health advocate, testified in front of Congress to address mental health and the rising suicide rates of adolescents in the African-American community.
Henson spoke on behalf of her Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation, whose mission is to "eradicate the stigma around mental health issues in the African-American community."
Henson confidently leveraged her celebrity platform in front of the Congressional Black Caucus Emergency Taskforce on Black Youth Suicide and Mental Health, stating, "I am using my celebrity and my voice to put a face to this."
During the emotional testimony, Henson disclosed her own struggles with depression and anxiety with the hope that through publicly talking about mental illness as a black woman, she will aid in changing the stigma of mental health in African-American communities.
"In the African-American community, we don't deal with mental health issues," said Henson during her testimony. "We don't even talk about it."
According to a study published by the NCBI in 2014 entitled African American Men and Women's Attitude Toward Mental Illness, Perceptions of Stigma, and Preferred Coping Behaviors, the 272 African-American participants were "not very open to acknowledging psychological problems, are very concerned about stigma associated with mental illness, and are somewhat open to seeking mental health services, but they prefer religious coping."
Henson pleaded for more mental health counselors and mental health education in response to the rising suicide rates. Data suggests that from 2007 to 2015, the U.S. ED estimate visits for suicide attempts/suicidal thoughts in children five to eighteen years old has doubled to 1.12 million per year.
In her testimony, Henson also pushes for more African-American mental health professional as just under 2% of the members of the American Psychological Association identify as African-American. The lack of African-American psychological professionals leads African-American patients to question whether their therapists are culturally competent in areas required to treat specific problems such as the effects of race-based trauma. Henson says in her testimony, that "when it was time to look for someone who I felt I could trust and my son could trust, it felt like looking for a unicorn."
Henson argues that mental illness and mental health should be implemented into school curriculums as education, similar to the implementation of physical education or sex education. Henson believes that "the more we talk about it, the more people will feel they can talk about it."
The testimony concluded with Henson expressing the importance of coming together to create positive change in the form of resources, education, and awareness. "We need each other. This is me reaching across the table, trying to lend a helping hand in the best way I can. We have to save our children."
After her testimony, Henson took to Instagram to share a synopsis of her experience in front of Congress. Her post, which has received over 640,000 likes to date, has over 12,000 comments of appreciation, words of encouragement, and people sharing their personal stories. Henson has even taken time to respond to those who have commented on her post to share their own experiences with losing loved ones to suicide or dealing with mental illness.
By coming forward as a voice for this issue, Henson has created a space for people to use their own voices to tell their stories.
We have seen it before, celebrities using their platforms and influence to bring awareness to issues that are near and dear to their hearts: Angelina Jolie and breast cancer, Miley Cyrus and youth homelessness, Blake Lively and child pornography, and now Taraji P Henson and mental illness.
Thankfully, every time a celebrity comes forward to step outside of their "lane" and use their star-power and reach as fuel for a movement, it works. Hopefully, Taraji P Henson's testimony will do the same, and, if the reaction to her Instagram post is any indication, then we are headed in the right direction.
Women have come a long way in redefining beauty to be more inclusive of different body types, skin colors and hair styles, but society's beauty standards still remain as high as we have always known them to be. In the workplace, professionalism is directly linked to the appearance of both men and women, but for women, the expectations and requirements needed to fit the part are far stricter. Unlike men, there exists a direct correlation between beauty and respect that women are forced to acknowledge, and in turn comply with, in order to succeed.
Before stepping foot into the workforce, women who choose to opt out of conventional beauty and grooming regiments are immediately at a disadvantage. A recent Forbes article analyzing the attractiveness bias at work cited a comprehensive academic review for its study on the benefits attractive adults receive in the labor market. A summary of the review stated, "'Physically attractive individuals are more likely to be interviewed for jobs and hired, they are more likely to advance rapidly in their careers through frequent promotions, and they earn higher wages than unattractive individuals.'" With attractiveness and success so tightly woven together, women often find themselves adhering to beauty standards they don't agree with in order to secure their careers.
Complying with modern beauty standards may be what gets your foot in the door in the corporate world, but once you're in, you are expected to maintain your appearance or risk being perceived as unprofessional. While it may not seem like a big deal, this double standard has become a hurdle for businesswomen who are forced to fit this mold in order to earn respect that men receive regardless of their grooming habits. Liz Elting, Founder and CEO of the Elizabeth Elting Foundation, is all too familiar with conforming to the beauty culture in order to command respect, and has fought throughout the course of her entrepreneurial journey to override this gender bias.
As an internationally-recognized women's advocate, Elting has made it her mission to help women succeed on their own, but she admits that little progress can be made until women reclaim their power and change the narrative surrounding beauty and success. In 2016, sociologists Jaclyn Wong and Andrew Penner conducted a study on the positive association between physical attractiveness and income. Their results concluded that "attractive individuals earn roughly 20 percent more than people of average attractiveness," not including controlling for grooming. The data also proves that grooming accounts entirely for the attractiveness premium for women as opposed to only half for men. With empirical proof that financial success in directly linked to women's' appearance, Elting's desire to have women regain control and put an end to beauty standards in the workplace is necessary now more than ever.
Although the concepts of beauty and attractiveness are subjective, the consensus as to what is deemed beautiful, for women, is heavily dependent upon how much effort she makes towards looking her best. According to Elting, men do not need to strive to maintain their appearance in order to earn respect like women do, because while we appreciate a sharp-dressed man in an Armani suit who exudes power and influence, that same man can show up to at a casual office in a t-shirt and jeans and still be perceived in the same light, whereas women will not. "Men don't have to demonstrate that they're allowed to be in public the way women do. It's a running joke; show up to work without makeup, and everyone asks if you're sick or have insomnia," says Elting. The pressure to look our best in order to be treated better has also seeped into other areas of women's lives in which we sometimes feel pressured to make ourselves up in situations where it isn't required such as running out to the supermarket.
So, how do women begin the process of overriding this bias? Based on personal experience, Elting believes that women must step up and be forceful. With sexism so rampant in workplace, respect for women is sometimes hard to come across and even harder to earn. "I was frequently assumed to be my co-founder's secretary or assistant instead of the person who owned the other half of the company. And even in business meetings where everyone knew that, I would still be asked to be the one to take notes or get coffee," she recalls. In effort to change this dynamic, Elting was left to claim her authority through self-assertion and powering over her peers when her contributions were being ignored. What she was then faced with was the alternate stereotype of the bitchy executive. She admits that teetering between the caregiver role or the bitch boss on a power trip is frustrating and offensive that these are the two options businesswomen are left with.
Despite the challenges that come with standing your ground, women need to reclaim their power for themselves and each other. "I decided early on that I wanted to focus on being respected rather than being liked. As a boss, as a CEO, and in my personal life, I stuck my feet in the ground, said what I wanted to say, and demanded what I needed – to hell with what people think," said Elting. In order for women to opt out of ridiculous beauty standards, we have to own all the negative responses that come with it and let it make us stronger– and we don't have to do it alone. For men who support our fight, much can be achieved by pushing back and policing themselves and each other when women are being disrespected. It isn't about chivalry, but respecting women's right to advocate for ourselves and take up space.
For Elting, her hope is to see makeup and grooming standards become an optional choice each individual makes rather than a rule imposed on us as a form of control. While she states she would never tell anyone to stop wearing makeup or dressing in a way that makes them feel confident, the slumping shoulders of a woman resigned to being belittled looks far worse than going without under-eye concealer. Her advice to women is, "If you want to navigate beauty culture as an entrepreneur, the best thing you can be is strong in the face of it. It's exactly the thing they don't want you to do. That means not being afraid to be a bossy, bitchy, abrasive, difficult woman – because that's what a leader is."