What Self-Care Means to Me: I Can Do Bad All by Myself, but No Good Can Come From it

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by Kendra Ross

“In a culture of domination, we are taught to devalue care.” – bell hooks

Last fall, I had the amazing opportunity to participate in an intimate event called a “sister circle”. It was hosted by faculty and staff of The New School, and presented in conjunction with a weeklong residency at the university featuring esteemed feminist scholar/cultural critic, bell hooks. The informal gathering consisted of a dozen or so women of color who were invited to join dr. hooks in a discussion about their lives and work, current events, and whatever else came up in conversation.  It was truly a life changing experience for me to commune with a room full of women (none of whom I knew personally) in a safe space where we were able to expose our vulnerabilities and share our stories.

By the time I attended this event, I had already known that I wanted to write a piece on self-care. Therefore, when dr. hooks ended our roundtable by asking the question, “what do you do for self-care?” I knew there was a greater purpose in my writing this piece. As soon as the question was posed, I became overwhelmed with a sense of duty to this topic. As I waited for my turn to respond to the question, it occurred to me that I had a very normative, middle class conception of self-care.  It was also very event-driven and therefore consisted of “doing things” within a given time period like taking a hot bubble bath, scheduling a spa day, or taking off to an exotic beach resort.  The image of the classic commercials where a woman pleads for Calgon soap to take her away often came to mind. I rarely, if ever, considered how limited and bourgeois my ideas were; even when they were often out of my own reach and not consistent with how I actually lived my life.

Once the floor was mine and it was time to address dr. hook’s question, I offered a respectable answer. I told the group that reading for pleasure was my favorite form of self-care and preservation. Still, as my turn passed and I really began to take in all that I was experiencing at this gathering, I came to a new and profound understanding that has since transformed my relationship to the concept of self-care. This change has not so much impacted the way I seek it out in my everyday life. Rather, it disrupts the way I articulate my conception of self-care to myself and to others. My participation in the sister circle illuminated this way of being that I had already been living out, but did not yet have the language to interrogate in a meaningful way. As I left the gathering, I began to pose a question to myself, which was simply, “what does self-care look like for me?”

As an intersectional feminist and progressive Christian, self-care for me is rooted in a community approach to care.  This means that self-care in my view is not just a space for a self-indulgent kind of exceptionalism, which says, “I work hard everyday and deserve this level of care, in kind.” Rather, it is a community-centered approach, which suggests that care is a basic human right necessary for people and groups of people to flourish.

The privilege necessary to experience regular massages, weekly mani/pedi-s, hours of solitude for reading and self-reflection and the like can only offer fleeting effects on my well-being. They are merely a means of escape.  Once the “event” is over, if I go back to a community of broken, hopeless people (myself included), my life or how I see it does not really change. A consideration of my entire social and physical environment is crucial to securing a more lasting impact on my quality of life. This requires an understanding that I am but a part of a larger whole. Thus, I can never really be made whole in complete isolation.

As a black woman, I might enter into the social world with a set of unique obstacles and challenges. These setbacks have more often than not forced me and other black women to consider other folks before tending to our own needs. Still, my social position as a highly educated, middle income, cisgender woman may offer me a kind of privilege that makes self-care a more tangible concept for me than others. There are many women who are not afforded the opportunity to sit around pondering the possibilities of their lives and the world.  They simply get on with it. This became apparent to me in the sister circle where I witnessed a variety of responses and levels of emotional release coming from the group. It spoke to how rarely many of us are given the space to share our stories among women who not only “get it”, but wrestle with or have overcome many of the same challenges and experiences.

In the face of our heteronormative, white supremacist, patriarchal society and the institutions situated therein, who gets to care for the self is largely determined by where they sit on the continuum of acceptability by the mainstream society.  How can one illicit care when their body is deemed illegible and unworthy of recognition by the larger society? It is for this reason that I conceive of self-care as not only a necessity for my own well-being, but an opportunity to help make space – as dr. hooks did in the way she framed our sister circle- for the recognition and care of other people in my community. By community, I do not just mean my neighborhood but my family, friends, and groups with which I identify and around whom I organize my identity. This is not where my conception of community and care ends, but it is a productive point of departure for me and folks with whom I identify and form alliances.

For me, this idea of my wellness being tied to the existence and care of others is not constraining, but rather liberating as it reminds me of my life’s purpose. Thus, in caring for myself and remaining conscientious about my relationship to others, I can carry-out the work of justice that I believe I was meant to do. This work now includes shifting the perception of care as a privilege for a deserving few to a universal value and sustainable reality for all.

As bell hooks suggested in our conversation that day, “the work of community starts where I am,” but I would add to that, “and the work of care cannot end with me.”

Kendra Ross is a service-oriented singer/songwriter, independent scholar, and music business professional. She is scheduled to release her sophomore album in Summer 2014. For more information, visit kendraross.com & follow her on twitter @lolaschild.

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