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Feminspire | April 24, 2014

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On The Radical Act of Self-Care

On The Radical Act of Self-Care

Whether you are a student, a parent, or in the midst of a career, you have probably felt overwhelmed, overworked, or just plain exhausted. In our fast-paced world complete with extra pressures to be physically flawless, sexy, successful, AND keep up with Twitter headlines, it might feel like you never get a real break. Do not fear! I am about to introduce you to a little concept called self-care.

Feminist writer and activist Audre Lorde famously wrote: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” We tend to view mental well-being on an individual level, believing that stress only affects us because of our individual situations and capabilities. However, when we acknowledge that these immense pressures come from outside sources and affect us collectively, the idea of self-care becomes something that we feel safe asking for.

Self-care means taking a bit of time or energy to tell yourself that what you feel is valid, that you deserve the good in your life, and that right now, you are enough. Lorde’s reference to “political warfare” is a nod to the idea that rejecting self-care in the name of money, progress, success, or getting ahead is not a problem that only plagues individuals. This problem is encouraged by society—by where we place our values, how we talk about success, and how we shame those who don’t measure up. Stress is experienced by individuals, but the pressure to feel stress—just to prove that you are working “hard enough”—comes from a collective worldview that often rejects self-care and calls it selfishness. The individual is no longer important, because she is just a cog spinning in an ever-larger machine. However, from lived experience, we know how important individuals can be. Healthy, self-actualized individuals improve the health and productivity of societies. In order to be healthy and self-actualized, we need to have time for self-care.

Lorde’s statement about self-care rings especially true for women, who are encouraged to put others before themselves throughout their lives. Young women may be stretched thin between their education, multiple jobs, friendships, family relationships, romantic relationships, and hobbies. If marriage or motherhood comes into the mix, women become even more stretched, not only in terms of managing time but managing their own mental well being. For a woman who, like Audre Lorde, is working for social change–whether through feminist activism, teaching, writing, or community organizing–the martyr complex that is so often imbedded in womanhood is magnified. Often, our causes become more important than ourselves. The trait of putting others first has been feminized, leaving many women completely burnt-out in more ways than one. While these pressures heavily contribute to poor bodily health, we often downplay the negative effects that such stresses can have on our mental health.

In this cult of female martyrdom, where caring for our own well being is always last on our to-do list, it is easy to feel selfish when we do care for ourselves. But being kind to yourself, banishing negative body-talk, taking necessary time away from work, feeding your body with food that makes it happy, taking a morning for spiritual growth, doing one activity you enjoy just because you enjoy it—these things are not selfish! For so long, women have been socialized around the idea of “guilty pleasures”. Female pleasure–whether it is related to sex, food, or even an activity–must be categorized into “good” and “bad” categories. We are taught to feel “guilty” for “indulging,” but often these indulgences are normal, healthy expressions of desire. Common guilty pleasures include: food seen as “bad,” like cake, French fries, or chocolate; reading an erotic romance novel; skipping the gym to watch Netflix in bed; taking a bubble bath to decompress rather than tackling your mountain of homework. These guilty pleasures are fairly normal activities. For women, things that we enjoy doing are labeled “indulgence,” and we chastise ourselves for being “bad” if we do them. Indulgence sounds dirty, but most of our “guilty pleasure indulgences” are simply acts self-care. Self-care is not bad. Self-care is not selfish. Our lives do not have to follow the script of obedience.

In her book, Put On Your Crown: Life-Changing Moments on the Path to Queendom, Queen Latifah gives some good advice about approaching self-care:

“You almost have to step outside yourself and look at you as if you were someone else you really care about and really want to protect. Would you let someone take advantage of that person? Would you let someone use that person you really care about? Or would you speak up for them? If it was someone else you care about, you’d say something. I know you would. Okay, now put yourself back in that body. That person is you. Stand up and tell ‘em, “Enough!”

To start on a regime of self-care, practice acknowledging when you are overwhelmed, overworked, or exhausted. Think about what you would tell a friend who was under that amount of stress. Ask yourself whether you have slept enough in the past few days. Reflect on your past few meals—did you eat enough food? Is an excess of sugar or caffeine affecting your mood? Have you taken time to simply eat—without driving, watching television, or doing work at the same time? Are you hydrated? Have you spoken to someone you love today? Have you communicated your needs to somebody, or are you bottling everything up? Considering these questions is self-care. Try practicing it on yourself or recommending it to a friend who is looking way too frazzled this week.

Written by Brenna McCaffrey