In recent years, self-care as a concept and practice has become an integral part of mainstream conversation around what it means to be healthy and live well. Countless books, articles, seminars, and workshops address the topic across the U.S. Entire industries have created complex marketing strategies that speak to self-care to sell products.
The topic of self-care is more of a given in many workplaces, schools, and other institutions, where mention of mental health was (and still is, in some cases) taboo.
It’s a great gift that balance, healthy lifestyles, and stress management are becoming common imperatives, rather than written off as selfish, unnecessary, or unproductive. But, does everyone have equal access to the tenets and practices of self-care? And, is the way we define self-care inclusive of all people-- those with diverse backgrounds, experiences, and identities? Who gets to practice self-care?
Before exploring these questions, it’s important to define what self-care means.
Melissa A. Fabello of Everyday Feminism defines self-care as “any set of practices that makes you feel nourished, whether that’s physically, emotionally, spiritually, all of the above.” With this in mind, there cannot be one blanket strategy for practicing self-care. Different people require different tactics to maintain their personal well-being. For some, self-care might mean getting out with friends to let loose and dance. For others, it might mean cuddling up alone with a chill book at home. Common activities widely-associated with self-care include yoga, meditation, exercise classes, crafting, etc.
Self-care requires a whole slew of activities and strategies that allow people to center themselves, regroup, and address a variety of stressors.
Okay, great, no problem! Sounds like something everyone can do, so what do access, definitions, and intersectionality have to do with self-care?
Now let’s define intersectionality. Intersectionality is a concept that was articulated first by Kimberle Crenshaw , and refers to how categories like race, class, gender, sexuality, and ability are interconnected and work together to affect our individual and collective experiences. The concept also explains how these categories correlate to different yet connected systems of oppression and privilege.
One main problem with self-care generally is it’s based in a racialized and (cis)gendered middle class value system that often revolves around leisure, and an assumption of privileges that most people just do not have.
It also is based in a very narrow determination of what life is like, though most people’s lives don’t fit that bill.
Self-care is putting yourself first. Self-care is not taking work home with you. Self-care is treating yourself. Self-care means putting your worries aside.
How do you put yourself first if you’re a single parent working multiple jobs? How do you not take work home with you if your work revolves around social injustice, trauma, or inequalities?
How do you treat yourself if you’re living paycheck-to-paycheck?
How do you carve out leisure time if you’re chronically ill and shuffling from doctor’s appointment to appointment? How do you put your worries aside if you suffer from PTSD?
Self-care is often about addressing individual problems, without much mention to the structural and institutional influences that prevent our wellness in the first place. As Yashna Padamsee explains, “Oppression and trauma do influence our well-being. On-going generational trauma and violence affect our communities, our bodies, our hearts, minds and spirits.”
We have to transform the way we understand self-care because it doesn’t exist in a wormhole, where the effects of oppressions and privilege have no bearing on how we are able to care for ourselves. We have to redefine self-care so that it centers nuanced experiences, and seeks to challenge the ways oppressions affect our home lives, working lives, and recreational lives. We have to acknowledge that, as Rebecca Godderis and Joanna Brant say, paraphrasing Audre Lorde,
“To preserve one’s self is an act of political warfare in a society where so many structures exist—sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, classism and so forth—that prevent all of us from being well, both physically and mentally.”
One way to do this is to ground self-care in an ethics of intersectionality. Here are some ways we can practice self-care with intersectionality in mind:
1. Understand the role oppressions play in our ability or inability to achieve wellness.
Racism, transphobia, ableism, sexism, classism, etc. maintain barriers to self-care to the extent that marginal people often feel guilty for working toward it. Challenge whatever tells you that you don’t deserve your own healing. Also think about your privileges and the ways self-care has come naturally to you.
Educate yourself and push for changes in self-care that are more inclusive and equitable.
2. Seek out community care.
Community care happens when we work toward our own self-care while also supporting the care of our peers, friends, family, and communities.
Find and develop conscious networks of people to work toward personal and collective healing. Yashna Padamsee summed it up well when she said, “It is our responsibility not as individuals, but as communities to create structures in which self-care changes to community care. In which we are cared-for and able to care for others.”
3. Practice your own brand of self-care with the strategies that make your body, heart, and spirit sing.
Your version of self-care might look really different than what others do, and that’s okay. Be honest about what your needs are and what works for you. Give yourself all you’ve got, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise!
An intersectional approach, that also integrates community care allows us to not only engage in our own self-care, but also in the care for our peers, friends, and communities.
Sign up for Shine for more self-care tips delivered straight to your phone.