My Evolving Feelings Towards Self-care

Like many (most?) girls, I grew up with a constant barrage of media messages telling me that I wasn’t good enough.  Critical pictures of celebrities with cellulite reminded me that I wasn’t skinny enough.  Cosmetics commercials reminded me that my skin wasn’t soft or smooth enough.  Seventeen magazine reminded me that I wasn’t sexy enough.  I still remember the shame and embarrassment I felt when I learned what a blackhead was, and I wondered aloud to my best friend in 8th grade whether I had any blackheads. She said, “Oh, you do – lots of them.  I’ve been wanting to pop them for ages but I didn’t want to make you feel bad.”  I got the message loud and clear that I wasn’t trying hard enough, not primping and preening enough, not caring about clothes enough.

On the other hand, I grew up with some really terrific church leaders telling me that I was innately good enough – that I was a daughter of God, somebody chosen to be born specifically in this time to do great things.  I was constantly complimented for being smart, being funny, and being kind.  I could tell that they really cared for me, and that they cared for the inside me, with little regard for the outside me.  I clung to the scripture mastery found in 1 Samuel 16:7 – “for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart.”

That said, I knew that if I was going to do anything or achieve anything in this life (particularly the Nobel Peace Prize I had my heart set on from the age of 13), I would probably need the acceptance (or at least not the outright revulsion) of my peers, so I needed to make sure my pores were small and tight, my hair was fashionable, and my clothing size stayed small.  Despite having little inclination towards things like fashion or style, I tried my best to keep up with my friends so that I would be accepted.  I bought the face wash (but never felt any better about my skin), I wore makeup (but never felt like I knew what I was doing), and I tried not to eat more than two slices of pizza (even though I really wanted to).  The constant-yet-subconscious feedback I got was that I still wasn’t doing enough, but if I really cared enough about myself, I would do more, because “you’re worth it!” All I need was just a few more face creams, hair dyes, expensive shoes, and hair removal kits.

At some point in my twenties, I had a radical realization that my efforts towards feeling “worth it” were actually making me feel worthless – I was simply devoting tons of money, energy, and time to an industry that made money by telling women that they needed to be better, with the implicit suggestion that they weren’t good enough to begin with.  I stopped highlighting my hair. I finally bought shoes because I liked them and they were actually comfortable, rather than being the latest style.  I decided to only wear makeup when I felt like it.  And I started to recoil at the beauty messages that surrounded me – every time I saw an ad for face wash or makeup, let alone plastic surgery, I would be hit with this visceral anger towards a society that kept telling women that they weren’t good enough as is.

Lately, though, I’ve been struck by how beat-down I feel.  I have four small kids who take up so much of my time and energy, and I find myself having to really claw and fight to get any time to myself that doesn’t involve them.  Add in my 4 year-old Primary class, a church that I love but seems insistent on worshiping The Family™, freezing cold temperatures, a broader existential crisis about what I want to be/do when I grow up, family members with serious health concerns, and you might see why I have felt emotionally, physically, and spiritually drained.  When I was hashing this out with an empathetic friend, she mentioned that she had recently read an article on Korean beauty skin care regiments as a feminist act of self-care, and encouraged me to look into it.

I am almost embarrassed to admit how much my mind was blown by the whole idea.  Self-care could be a feminist act?!  I thought this kind of thing was simply a tool of the patriarchy, telling us we were only valuable if we were pretty/skinny/radiant enough.  But the more I look into it, the more I’m convinced that self-care as an act of self-love, rather than an act of self-loathing, is absolutely a feminist act.

selfcare

Audre Lorde famously said that “caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation and that is an act of political warfare.”  I love this idea – to claim that we are worthy of time, money, and the sacrifice of others feels so revolutionary to me. I’ve always had trouble reconciling the conflicting messages I received as I grew up with in the church: one, that I was a daughter of God and of divine worth, and two, that I was supposed to take a back seat and live my life as an auxiliary to other people.  I was taught, both openly and subliminally, that should be okay to put my needs second, and that my family, my church, and serving others should always come before me (this Mormon Message video comes to mind).  But when it comes down to it, I definitely think that our doctrine of divine worth lines up more with Christ’s teachings than the teaching of self-abnegation, so why haven’t I prioritized that in my day-to-day life?  Why don’t we revere self-care as a way to celebrate the fact that we are divine beings who are worthy of having time, money, and energy devoted to us?

And if self-care is that critical for me, how much more important could self-care be for those who are less privileged than I?  Shouldn’t we be more vocal in advocating for self-care for those who are regularly beaten down, who fight perpetual oppression, and who endure countless micro- and macro-aggressions against them?  How much of my distaste towards self-care has been due to my privilege in knowing that there are those in my family and community who can care for me if I can’t (or don’t)?  In her piece on The Feminist Wire from 2012, Shanesha Brooks-Tatum argues that self-care is especially important for black women, stating:

It’s subversive to take care of ourselves because for centuries black women worldwide have been taking care of others, from the children of slave masters to those of business executives, and often serving today as primary caregivers for the elderly as home health workers and nursing home employees. Black women’s self-care is also subversive because to take care of ourselves means that we disrupt societal and political paradigms that say that Black women are disposable, unvalued. Indeed, people and things that aren’t cared for are considered expendable. So when we don’t take care of ourselves, we are affirming the social order that says black women are disposable.

But when we support our sisters and admonish that they too take care of themselves, we engage in radical feminist praxis. Yes, working out regularly is revolutionary. Eating healthfully and doing what feeds the spirit are nothing short of outright rebellion. When sisters unite in self-care, regularly indulging in what they love such as dancing, painting, laughing – soul and sanity food – we’re engaged in a soulful insurrection that disrupts the very forces that seek to sacrifice our beings. And, quite matter-of-factly, if we don’t take care of ourselves, who will?

I’m really starting to rethink my regimen of self-care, and how we value self-care for women in our society.  How much of my actions have been rooted in self-denial instead of self-sacrifice?  How much of my self-sacrifice has actually made things more sacred, and how much has just been putting my needs at the bottom of the list?  Can devoting time to self-care be a radical, feminist act, particularly in a culture where I’m constantly told to put the needs of others first?  How can we encourage women to care for themselves, not because their value only lies in their appearance, but because their very divine nature requires it?

Liz

Liz is a reader, writer, wife, mother, gardener, social worker, story collector, cookie-maker, and hug-giver.

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20 Responses

  1. spunky says:

    This is powerful, Liz, and just what I needed. Thank you.

  2. Kathy says:

    Thank you. I needed to read this today.

  3. christiankimball says:

    “How can we encourage?” — This post is a great start.
    Language makes a difference:
    Style, be better, highlight, appearance, embarrassed –> wrong (hurtful, damaging) direction.
    Healthy, whole, integrated, resilient, proud –> right (helpful, nurturing) direction.

  4. Allisan says:

    I was just musing about this yesterday! I grew up feeling scrutinized for my appearance – squeeze those zits, trim those bangs, use some concealer, go put on a longer skirt, I can see your bra strap/panty line/leg hair, etc etc. But when I would spend time on myself, like painting my nails or brushing my hair or trying to put together an outfit that met every criterion from the church’s mile-long list AND the fashion magazines … the message was very different: “Stop being so vain.” So I grew up knowing that my body mattered to everyone around me, but it wasn’t allowed to matter to ME. I wasn’t worth it. So I LOVE the idea that self-care can be an act of defiance rather than vanity. Thank you for this!

  5. EFH says:

    Powerful questions. I really enjoyed reading this. Will be thinking of this for the rest of my life.

  6. EmilyCC says:

    I hate that that Mormon Message makes me cry every time I watch it because it makes me feel a little better in the moment (God does understand how hard I try), but I feel worse for a few days later (Emily, don’t avoid her call…what if she has cancer and is dying and just needs you to babysit for an hour?!!!–>joking/not joking here). Self-care is so important.

    And, I loved the Korean skin care article!

  7. Amy says:

    I love this perspective Liz! Thank you.

  8. Ziff says:

    Great post, Liz. It totally makes sense that self-care is a different thing when you’re doing it for yourself and not to adhere to a societal standard. Even if some of the things you might do might overlap.

  9. Heather says:

    This is wonderful. You are always so insightful and this is spot on. I am trying really hard to take better care of myself and it does at times feel radical. Plus, family TM? you are hysterical. And I happen to know you have lovely pores.

  10. MDearest says:

    This touched a nerve. Thank you for writing it. The link from Brooks-Tatum has so much more applicable wisdom about self care than I ever received from three decades of RS curriculum, which was much more monolithic in teaching us to sacrifice in serving our families and wards (mingled with scripture,) and not a peep about the need for them to learn to serve us in return. The occasional hat-tip to “caring for” or otherwise doing something for ourselves mostly consisted of beauty/makeover fluff, or cooking/craft-distraction classes. Nothing about personal or career development, and nothing about self-preservation or balance with the relentless call to make sacrifices to care for others. That’s what you get when you have men presiding over the course of instruction. It’s not hard to see that it’s much more geared toward what the men need from the women instead of what the women know they need and are realistically capable of giving.

    I suspect the independent Relief Society leaders from the past would not be so unwise.

  11. Jenny says:

    You described my experience growing up perfectly…except my friends mocked my hairy legs that I hadn’t learned to shave. You are absolutely right about self care. I’m completely relearning how to live my life without myself on the bottom of the list all the time. I love your thoughts on helping and encouraging other women, especially those with a greater need for self care than my own. Great thoughts.

  12. Heather says:

    Great post! And I have to say I HATE and LOATHE that Mormon Message video!!!!!!! Order a pizza for that family and go see your sister!!!! Or just say no!!!

  13. Rachel says:

    I love everything about this post. I read another friend’s writing, not quite about self care, but how she was feeling a little bit invisible (and a lot tired) from being the one who always did things like refill the toilet paper, and other things that needed done, that her family members just didn’t think about. I am feeling tired, too, and beginning to recognize that I am in the best position to meet my own needs, so I need to try to meet them, rather than depending on others who may or may not be able to help.

    • Rachel says:

      (I also really, really believe in the airplane analogy, of the importance of putting our mask on first, before we help others. If we aren’t helped, or taken care of, we can’t actually be helpful, or care for anyone else.)

  14. Jen says:

    Yes. Yes. Yes. I have started a project honoring caregivers, and I realized quickly that self care is an important thing to ask them about. It is vital for all women to recognize their worth for themselves. I go back and forth with myself about makeup. I am angry at the inherent unfairness that women are expected to do more, but at the same time, I want to do more. I just like the way I feel and look with make up better than if I don’t take time for me. It is the same way that I like my house better not only when it is clean, but when its appearance expresses my personality and that of its other residents.

  15. Coriander says:

    This is a significant turning point – and a very hard transformation to make for some people. I first came to this kind of realization about 15 years ago and am still struggling to live accordingly. And I’m not even a woman, to have grown up bathed in the constant messages of self-sacrifice.

  16. Kim says:

    I guess I realized at a young age that taking care of yourself is important. It makes *you* a better person for your children, husband, friends, etc. There’s no need to put yourself at the bottom of the list. Keep yourself up there for you. When you are your best everything around you is better!

  1. March 3, 2016

    […] of Our Mother God. In this frame, and because of recent emphasis in Exponent posts about self care (here and here and even here),  I am simply including quotes about Heavenly Mother, and ask, “what […]

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