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.
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?