For Black Women, Self-Care Can be a Radical Act
Take these steps to ensure your emotional well-being in a world apathetic to your needs.
I shuffle into the kitchen as my mother stirs a pot bubbling with nkatenkwan—groundnut soup—my favorite.
"What do you do for self care?," I ask.
She turns around, scrunches her face at my question.
"Self care?," she repeats.
I realize this term may be unfamiliar to her—"self care" and "treat yoself" are such millennial ideologies.
My mother is a working class woman from Ghana: she finds certain American luxuries frivolous. Meanwhile, I find any excuse to buy a bubble tea, savor the pride I feel after an intense yoga session or feel little guilt if I have to spend a day doing nothing. Our generational and cultural differences floated in the air.
I adjust my question.
"What do you do to make yourself feel special? To take care of yourself?"
Her cheekbones rise, eyes flutter in recognition. She giggles. "Well...I like to, you know, try on clothes and jewelry in my closet. Check myself out," she smiles.
I imagine my plump, pretty mother spinning around in her pastel pink walk-in closet, gazing at her butt and hips in her full length mirror. I wasn't expecting her answer, but the image made me adore her even more.
I thought she'd talk about the small indulgences I've seen her take: enjoying a cup of tea with a cookie from a nice bakery or a piece of chocolate; cuddling around an African movie on YouTube; treating herself to a salmon meal from her favorite spot in Herald Square. Instead, her methods of self care involved privacy, adorning herself and…
"I like to reminisce on old friends I miss," she continues. "I send a silent prayer out, wishing them well."
It amazed, but didn't surprise me, that one of her self care methods included selflessness. As black women, we often think of everyone but ourselves, and black mothers and caregivers are especially known to put the needs of their families over themselves. That is why self care is so important to me: it's a chance for me to prioritize myself and give into my wants and needs, without feeling guilty about taking time away from friends, resting in bed and organizing my life.
"I imagine my plump, pretty mother spinning around in her pastel pink walk-in closet, gazing at her butt and hips in her full length mirror. I wasn't expecting her answer, but the image made me adore her even more."
My mom directs the question back at me. I realize that self care doesn't have one face—it can be applied to several areas of our lives and it comes in many forms. At one point, self care meant watching Cardi B videos before bed. After the election, it meant staying off social media and wrapping myself under covers. All the time, it means pushing the anxious, doubtful thoughts out of my mind and believing I can do anything.
Reading a stimulating book, sitting in nature with a friend or alone and cooking myself a healthy meal were among the basic answers I give my mom. I think of listing masturbation, but that is too candid for my Ghanaian mom. I told her I meditate, but even that is something I could do more often; the idea of meditation inspires me, but lately I've found it is such a build up to reach that state. Self care isn't always easy.
The last answer I give, however, is one I hesitate on. "Travel," I mumble.
I still feel ashamed about my wanderlust, about this urge I have to leave, to retrieve the pieces of myself that are scattered around the earth. My mother doesn't understand why travel is so important to me, and many other young people. It goes back to her being a working woman and an immigrant: why spend money on leaving when she's spent her whole adult life trying to build a home here?
For black women, practicing self care is an act of resistance and preservation—an idea articulated perfectly by Audre Lorde.
"Self care resists the idea that we should put our families, partner and others first, and it preserves our well being in a nation where we are taught to dislike ourselves. It is an act of survival."
Afterwards, as I sat down to write, I thought of the constructive ways I've been practicing self care to elevate emotionally and sustain richer relationships. Self care is such a vast arena: our bodies are filled with several systems that require our attention in order to function—but for right now, I want to focus on the specific ways I cater to my emotional well being.
I stopped shaming myself for being emotional.
From a very young age, I recognized that I am quite the sensitive person.
I feel emotions intensely, empathize with others and analyze friends' dialogues and gestures in my head like a never ending movie. Being so in tune with my emotions can be exhausting but also hella lonely: I often wonder if I am sensing emotions that others don't want to acknowledge, if I read into things to deeply, or if there's something wrong with me.
I've learned that the best way to control my emotions is to recognize that they exist, track how they change before, during and after my period, but most importantly: not apologize for them. For too long, expressing emotions has been seen as a weakness or a sign of irrationality, when actually it can be one of our most powerful tools.
Lately, when I experience something that impacts me emotionally, I embrace and honor it, rather than pick it apart or try to rush through the sensation. And if or when I do let go of it, I don't look back.
I choose which arguments deserve my energy
I'm an intersectional feminist, which means I can get into arguments all day everyday—and usually out of defense, not as a voluntary attack. The reason: not only do some people not share my views (which is perfectly fine), but sometimes people can be disrespectful and belittling to me because of my ideologies.
As a black woman, I'm already more susceptible to disrespect, and the added layer of being a feminist heightens the social blows I may face. Energies are an important part of my emotional health—sustaining positive vibes as well as curating it—so I am weary of who I engage with socially and when I have the capacity to do so. Thus, I'm slowly learning to pick and choose my battles, especially in mixed groups where everyone's views vary.
Not all arguments are worth it, especially if they're redundant or lead to hard dead ends—and I've realized the best time to lend my energy to a dispute is if it is potentially educational, or something great is at stake. By no means is this a simple practice, but once I started implementing it, I realized I can sleep better at night.
I'm honest about what I need in friendships and adjust my expectations.
I've endured my fair share of toxic friendships. After letting go of problematic friends that I thought would be long term companions, I started to identify the patterns in our behaviors and my overcapacity to forgive. It can take ages to realize you're being taken advantage of or abused. Black women are encouraged- taught, even- to bend over backwards for people who give us less than we deserve, make consistent mistakes, or are downright problematic. We make excuses for them and overcompensate for their shortcomings, because we are regarded as invincible healers with secondhand needs.
One aspect of cultivating healthier friendships involves being honest about my needs and expectations in friendships, but also accepting the natural phases that friendships go through, and the different roles people in my life serve. I've found that the former practice has led to deeper conversations and better problem solving when I have issues with a friend. It brings us closer, or at least helps us understand each other better. The latter has been rather healing, and helps me accept people for who they are and what they are capable of giving. It also causes me to be honest about what I want and can give in different friendships.
"Self care is more than my method of sustaining myself: it's an effort to put an end to historical and familial patterns that plague my lineage."
I think of my mother, and her mother, and her mother, and wonder how much generational pain, hidden secrets and unchartered emotions could have been appeased if we practiced different ways of expressing our emotions, concerns and traumas. But still, it is difficult, difficult work, and there are so many self care methods I do that I haven't mentioned or realized. Some of that work involves my mother. I think of our conversation, and realize I must be more tender with her, always. As the first black woman I know, I must take care of her, and in doing so, I will take care of me.