“What do you do for self-care?”
This is one of the most commonly asked questions posed to me when I give talks. Time and time again people ask me about my self-care practices. Do I go to the spa? Do I meditate? Do I do yoga? Do I take solo trips?
In my answer I usually outline the things that most people know I do. I put on makeup just about every day. Sometimes I walk, sometimes I read. But I usually add that I’m not very “good” at self-care.
I used to admit this with a little guilt. I was “failing” at being an inspirational model of “healthy” activism. But now I answer with no guilt at all, because I realized that I don’t really believe in self-care all that much.
I am an introvert. So many of the little rituals I have each day - like my makeup or skincare routine - do help soothe and/or rejuvenate me. For me, any type of solo practiced routine is good. But I’ve learned that self-care does not, and cannot, sustain me. And I believe that this may be the case for many of you.
Self-care has become a thing. It has become a giant, capitalist thing. Feeling stressed? Why don’t you get this spa membership, or even better, why don’t you get this special heated spa blanket for your home? Oh you can’t possibly relax without these new plush pajamas. You are neglecting your skin if you don’t have this $200 face cream. Is it even self-care if it doesn’t happen on a secluded island resort that you spent two month’s salary on? Do you know what self-care actually is if you aren’t following these self-care gurus on Instagram? You should buy their merch!
Much of this self-care industry is marketed towards women, selling the fantasy of comfort, safety and rest bought by financial security. All of these things require money - not just because corporations want to sell you products, but because we all do really long for the security in this capitalist world that we are told only money can buy. If we have enough money for a $90 scented candle, then chances are we have enough money to stock our fridge with all of the healthy produce our family needs. If we have enough money for that $200 face cream, then surely we have enough of a financial safety net to fix our car the next time it breaks down. Or maybe we don’t. Maybe this candle will manifest it for us. Maybe, while it burns, we can pretend.
I am not against nice things. I have so so so many candles. The perfumes in my collection bring me real joy. My makeup collection is ridiculous. I have bought the face cream. It is nice to smell something lovely and remember a time where you felt at peace and safe. But these things don’t actually make me safe and don’t help me heal. That is not the messaging we are given though. Self-care is not only action to aspire to, it’s a financial status to aspire to. It is one more goal to reach, or fail to reach. It is something you can be better at than other people. It is one more reminder that safety and care is only for the wealthy. It is also a reminder that safety and care are things we must be able to provide for ourselves alone.
This is simply an extension of the capitalist idea that we rise or fall on our own. That we are alone in the world, always in competition with others, and singularly responsible for our success and failure. It is another tie to bind us to our jobs, to hustle culture, to all the exploitative trappings of capitalism.
During this pandemic, we have seen what happens when we believe that we rise or fall on our own. We have seen people prioritize a theoretical, remote, future, individual risk of vaccines against the very real, documented, right now deadly community repercussions of this virus. We have seen individual businesses prioritize their sales over the health and safety of their employees and their customers. We have seen individuals prioritize their ability to avoid the slight inconvenience of masks over the ability for disabled, chronically ill, and immune-compromised people to be able to safely participate in public life. We have seen politicians complain about taxes and lower profits while families are being evicted from their homes due to the lack of an adequate social safety net.
In the beginning of this pandemic, it felt like all we really had was self-care. We couldn’t leave our home. We were told to bake our bread and read those books we had been putting off. And some of that did happen. But when yeast was nowhere to be found it was the fact that a friend delivered some to my door that meant more than the bread itself.
March of 2020, I started the Seattle Artist Relief Fund with my partner, Ebony Arunga, and Tim Lennon and his LANGSTON crew. I remember Tim telling me how much it meant to him to be able to do something for community at a time when we all felt so helpless and disconnected. I would regularly receive letters from artists all over the Seattle area, telling me that, yes, the money was very helpful, but it was knowing that they hadn’t been forgotten that meant the world to them.
When Breonna Taylor and George Floyd were murdered I, and so many other Black people who write about racism in America were inundated with requests for comment while we were trying to process our own trauma over the horrific violence committed once again against our community. But it was other Black people who would text me to ask if I’d remembered to eat; who would send me recommendations for movies that might make me laugh in such hard times.
When we lost our home to a devastating fire a few months later, we were surrounded in community love and support. Family provided us with a safe place to stay - and offers came in from all around. People sang us songs, made us blankets, cooked meals.
When friends were struggling during the pandemic it gave me so much comfort to be able to cook meals for them or go grocery shopping for them. When we lost loved ones, it was vital to be able to gather outside and share stories of those we lost.
During this last year and a half or so, I have leaned more heavily into community care than I ever have before in my life. I have found more safety and comfort in it than I ever have in self-care.
Community care values all people in the community and values all resources. Yes, the money I can and do give to friends, family, and community members to help make ends meet is valued. But equally valued is the phone calls I’m able to have with aspiring writers, the meal trains I’m able to join while community members heal from illness or injury. Community care is reciprocal and differs from the “service” often expected from women - especially women of color - in community. This is not an expectation of selflessness, but an understanding that community has value, that everyone is a vital part of community, and that the individual health and collective health of the community is equally important. Mutual aid is a vital form of community care, but so is texting your friend to ask if she’s remembered to eat today.
Community care strives to create environments in which we all can thrive. Community care values all resources, and therefore provides a lasting safety and comfort that isn’t dependent on economic success. Community care has reminded me time and time again that I’m never alone, and always have reason for hope.
Community care is why I’m here. It is why I am alive. As a Black woman. As a Nigerian-American, community care is my legacy. It is how generations before me have survived a world that has devalued them as individuals. Community care is how so many people of color have been able to affirm their individual and collective value. Community care is how we have been able to create spaces for growth and healing in a world that tries to crush us. Community care will seek to make the self-care that you also need possible regardless of your economic status. When I participate in community care, I honor my heritage and my true self.
Community care also has the somewhat paradoxical effect of helping our communities stay more self-reliant. When we can meet our needs within community, we have to compromise less with harmful systems. Community care helps insulate us from white supremacist capitalism that wants to tear us apart.
I have never missed people more than I have these last few years. But part of that is because I feel the connection more than ever, and I understand the value of community more than ever. Right now, we can be learning new ways to be and stay connected. We can be learning new ways to care for each other. We can get through this together, and in doing so, make sure that we are fully ready to flourish when times are easier. We need to be able to reach out without shame or fear, and know that when we do it is an act of love for ourselves and each other. I love my community, I need my community, and no matter what the Instagram gurus may tell you - you need community too.
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One thing I didn't put in here, but I think is really worth mentioning: is the environmental cost of capitalist definitions of self care. What are these products and services we're told we need costing the planet?
I was working as a social worker for a Seattle homeless/mental health nonprofit when “self care” came into vogue. We had to sit through a two hour mandatory all-staff meeting admonishing us to do a better job of self care. On our own time. On our own dime. The majority of people working there were making $11-12/hour doing physically and emotionally demanding work while putting themselves in actual physical danger. I was being paid more, but with a crushing load of paperwork requirements. Just one more thing to shove onto our already loaded plates. In capitalism, even the “not for profits” are fully corporatized.