by Jennifer R. Farmer

If Black women are to persevere, we must be endlessly devoted to our personal care and nourishment. In a world that celebrates our devotion to that which is outside ourselves, we must resist messages to consistently center others and learn what it means to focus on ourselves – our whole selves. In a culture that emphasizes “fake it until you make it,” self-care could look like tending to the hidden wounds that we so desperately try to hide.

While self-care is essential for us all, I believe it is crucial for Black women who often carry so much trauma and struggle under the weight of the expectations of others. When we are not viewed as ‘Angry Black Women,’ we are over-sexualized. When we are not viewed as ‘superwomen,’ being asked to shoulder everyone’s pain but our own, and to perform as though we are robots. Sometimes we experience all of this simultaneously. In other instances, we see images of beauty promulgated in pop culture and some of those images do not reflect us.  

For Black women then, self-care is not just a nice thing to do. It is essential. It is not just a momentary indulgence meant to bring temporary relief. It is a long-term commitment to care for ourselves in every way imaginable. That includes speaking lovingly to ourselves; nourishing our minds and our bodies; getting the rest we need and deserve; and healing and clearing wounds, heartbreak and trauma.

Caring for ourselves looks like saying no to things that will compromise our well-being and peace. It could mean therapy and counseling to help us heal, process difficult situations or acquire coping skills. It could look like taking long or short walks or implementing exercise regimes that boost our countenance as well as our physical health. It could be as simple driving to our favorite coffeeshop and getting a single solitary drink or snack. Caring for ourselves could look like allowing ourselves to grieve painful experiences instead of shutting down the valves to our heart and soul. Finally, self-care could look like making time to do the things that bring us happiness and joy. Whatever brings you joy and nourishes you can be considered self-care.

For women who must contend with so much, caring for ourselves is our only respite. When we think about the litany of things we must do, caring for ourselves must be at the top of the list.

How to Make It a Reality?

There is no question that self-care is a personal responsibility. But it requires communal sacrifice as well. Often, it is not possible to reliably care for ourselves without the assistance of others.

That has come into fuller view amidst the global recession and health crisis brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. For working parents seeking to make ends meet and support their children’s educational needs, self-care is more possible when families have resources and supports. For single parents attempting to survive and thrive, self-care is easier when they have the assistance of a loving village. For persons living with a chronic illness, self-care is possible when others do their part.

Most of us cannot care for ourselves over the long haul without the assistance of others. The people suffering through a deadly winter storm without heat or electricity in Houston cannot be blamed for infrastructure failures. Well wishes be damned. The local and state governments failed, and because of their failure, children and families will suffer. It would be wrong to tell a person in this situation to practice self-care. Many were already struggling with making ends meet before the winter storm, and now they have a fresh new set of problems with which to contend.

Similarly, employers, like government entities, must do their part to ensure self-care is possible for workers. That could look like maintaining sufficient staffing levels, so work is spread out evenly among the team. It could look like creating a healthy workplace culture where having a work-life balance is not only acceptable but valued. My point is that while self-care is an often bandied about term, there is work for persons and entities with power and privilege to do to ensure it is not an empty platitude. This is bigger than individual actions.

It is easy for employers to lecture their teams about self-care, all while failing to put systems in place that make caring for oneself easier. Relatedly, telling an essential worker to practice self-care during the pandemic, without giving the person paid time off and a safe work environment, is cruel.

Even as I suggest Black women devote themselves to their care and development, I am telling people in power to do their part to make self-care possible. The ability to practice self-care can sometimes require the participation of others. The question for those in power is simple; will you sacrifice your comfort for the care of others?