What Does ‘Self Care’ Even Mean?

6 Jun

A few months ago, AG’s own Dena posted her tips for radical self care and linked to some more fantastic tips by young feminist leader Erin Matson. Nicole Clark, another young leader in the reproductive justice movement, maintains a space on her blog specifically about self-care and its’ importance for women of color activists.

I’m on board with every single tip these fabulous women have laid out, and probably many of the other tips in the many other blog posts on the same topic. I’m a huge advocate of self care for my friends, colleagues, and the young activists I work with. I always faithfully tweet and email and Facebook these tip posts because I want the activists in my life to have the tools to be happy, healthy, and doing social justice work for decades to come.

And yet, I have to admit that I’ve often thought of self care as something other people need and deserve but not something that applies to me. I don’t need another post that teaches me what self care looks like or why it’s important for the sustainability for the movement. Instead, I’ve been looking for tips to teach me how to internalize that I, individually, deserve to embrace and practice self care.

Of course, I have theories as to why I can’t seem to understand this seemingly simple concept. I find myself rationalizing that my heavy privilege set — white, cisgender, American, able-bodied woman with a financially sustainable job that provides good health benefits — should reasonably exclude me from “indulging” in self-care. So many of the folks I work alongside struggle with far more oppression on a lifelong and daily basis than I ever have or ever will. How dare I  take an hour off to meditate or do yoga rather than diving in right away to help fight oppression? This isn’t rational — and, even worse, it’s a textbook example of privilege guilt — but I’ve said it to myself more times than I’d care to admit.

It doesn’t help either that I didn’t grow up with good role models for practicing self care. My mother, a wonderful woman who made me who I am today, was the first in my family to give up going to the doctor if money was tight or skip something she really wanted to do with friends if my brother or I wanted her time. I watched and learned, and I’m sure many other young women did the same with their female relatives — we live in a society that celebrates self-sacrifice in women, even to the point of killing them or making them seriously ill.

The feminist movement, my chosen field and chosen family, replicates this with our own toxic — and yes, patriarchal — version of the martyr complex. We talk a good game around self care while exploiting the unpaid or low paid labor of young people, telling them this work is “dues” that will pay off later in their careers. When eager activists burn out or simply can’t afford to stay, I’ve seen fellow feminists passive aggressively suggest that they just weren’t willing to give it all — or “lean in,” some might say — to the fight for gender justice. These judgments pass without any or much analysis of the systemic oppressions we’ve replicated and reinforced in the movement that are the true reasons behind these departures. And, if you do have the resources and support systems to stick around, you learn quickly that the one with the busiest schedule and the darkest circles under her eyes gets the most praise, if not a reasonable salary, benefits, or a title bump.

I started writing this post because I know that when one woman has an issue, like an inability to see how the need for self-care applies to her, then another likely feels something similar. And that means it’s not an individual failure but a systemic problem, and that there are people with whom you can get pissed off and fight back. That’s power. That’s sisterhood. That’s the definition of feminism.

 In that spirit, I’m not ending this post with tips. I don’t have the answers for me, or for anyone else. I’m an organizer and I deal better with consciousness-raising and problematizing nebulous concepts, like “self-care,” so that we can define them individually and collectively in a way that embodies diverse and intersectional lived experiences.

I would love for this post to start that deeper conversation. Do you ever feel like “self-care” doesn’t apply to you? Did you feel that way at some point and have now changed your thinking? Have thoughts on how we use the term “self-care” in the feminist and reproductive justice movements? Please share them in the comments!

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2 Responses to “What Does ‘Self Care’ Even Mean?”

  1. MsNovember June 6, 2013 at 12:14 pm #

    yesyesyes! The other thing I often find myself doing is saying “Self-care!” anytime i feel like I have to rationalize or defend the fact that I need an evening in every once in awhile that’s not spent at a community meeting, or a family outing, or a work related event. And that doesn’t really feel right, either. As a teacher in my day job and an abortion fund volunteer and board member, every night I either feel guilty that I’m not grading/planning/calling people/fundraising/attending meetings, etc, or I feel somewhat resentful of the fact that all the work I do doesn’t ever seem to add up to enough to pay the bills and not stress. But at the same time, it’d be hard for me to go to work in something that I don’t feel as passionate about. But I do worry there’s an inevitable burnout. Still somehow can’t ever get comfortable with taking it easy and not feeling guilty in the back of my mind.

  2. NewsCat_in_DC June 6, 2013 at 12:25 pm #

    I agree the thought that “self-care doesn’t apply to me” is one I often think. When others around you are also working themselves to exhaustion (ahem) it’s hard to think you have it harder. Look at me: I have weekends! So if people you know are working weekends, and you aren’t, then how can you complain? (Or if you actually do leave by 6 pm or whatever the measures feel like someone has it worse than you.) I don’t ironically or self-reflecively use the term “self-care” but I do say to coworkers even, “I feel *guilty* for taking a day off.” (or a vacation, or whatever.)

    But role models are important. I’m not sure I’ve ever met anyone who works in activism who doesn’t seem stressed out and over-worked.

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