- “Weathering” is a health phenomenon that refers to the process of being worn down by repeated exposure to stressors.
- Black Americans persistently fall victim the most to the effects of weathering.
- The term was coined by Arline Geronimus after she noticed that pregnant Black teenagers were suffering from chronic health conditions at larger numbers than pregnant white teenagers.
After applying to nearly 500 jobs without any success, Lauren Harper, a 32-year-old program administrator, felt defeated. She had a graduate degree from an ivy league university and nailed third-round interviews with different companies, but struggled to land an offer. “I was trying not to become cynical about potentially implicit bias taking place,” she said, noting that job hunting was one of the most stressful periods of her life.
When she finally entered the workforce, she experienced another kind of stressor. “I feel like every once in a while I wind up getting into a role and then over time having more on my plate than anybody else and it doesn’t come with more time off, or additional pay, or a reevaluation of the role,” she said, noting that she also felt the pressures of being micromanaged and constantly exposed to microaggressions. The repeated stress, Harper said, resulted in a continuously upset stomach, polyps in her colon, anxiety, general depression, and a lack of sleep. “Basically, I was weathering,” she said.
A wearing down
Weathering, as we know it, is a geological term defined as the process of wearing or being worn by long exposure to the atmosphere. More recently, it’s also been coined in the public health space as the process of wearing or being worn by repeated exposure to stressors. Anyone of a marginalized background can suffer from weathering, but according to research, Black Americans persistently fall victim the most.
“What drives weathering is this chronic activation of stress hormones. So the more things that stress a person out in a race conscious society, the more likely they are to weather or weather more severely,” said Arline Geronimus, a professor at the University of Michigan School of Public Health and Institute for Social Research and author of the upcoming book “Weathering: The Extraordinary Stress of Ordinary Life in an Unjust Society.”
Geronimus first became interested in the topic in the late 1970s, during her time in graduate school while working at a pregnancy clinic for teenagers. She noticed that Black teenagers were suffering from chronic health conditions at larger numbers than white teenagers of the same age. Her research led her to weathering, the term which she coined herself.
Weathering is not exclusive to the Black or Latinx community, Geronimus said. White people weather, too, when they’re subjected to oppressed circumstances. “It’s not a genetic difference. It’s just when the human biological canvas is subjected to oppression and hardship and leads to this physiological stress arousal in your body that, over time, if it’s chronic, will wear down all your body systems and therefore make you very susceptible, whether it’s to infection or early onset of chronic disease or obesity, or autoimmune diseases,” she said. “These are the things that oppressed Americans die from at younger ages or become disabled from at young ages, or at least become chronically ill from at young ages.”
The impact on Black women
Black women, specifically, bear the brunt. “We know that Black women are paid less than their white counterparts, are expected to work longer hours with fewer pay raises, and are the most likely to be in unemployment lines when those rates increase. So these types of discriminatory practices shape the types of visceral effects that happen to Black women’s bodies,” said Jenn M. Jackson, an assistant professor at Syracuse University in the Department of Political Science.
“Weathering shows up in myriad ways, for Black women in particular. For instance, if they’re pregnant, it affects their fetuses, and their infants. It can cause things like higher infant mortality rates, lower infant birth rates, and just overall impacts to women in child bearing ages,” said Jackson.
To critics who will argue the long term health of someone relies on their personal responsibility, such as eating well and exercising daily, Geronimus argues that weathering does not follow the same rules.
“People can’t escape being weathered to some extent, just because they get a good education or live in a so-called healthy neighborhood. You can’t buy yourself out of weathering if you’re still being subjected to these traumas and this constant need to be vigilant, and manage your social identity, and deal with the frustrations and pain, and anger, and just exhaustion of the constant reminder that you’re not valued,” she said.
Featured image: (Peter Griffith via Getty Images)