Why self care can change the world
Bethan Bottomley reflects on the differences between 'self care' and 'personal care' and how the challenges she faced in lockdown provided the chance for her own self care to develop into meaningful actions.
Reflecting on the year so far, the term ‘biblical’ doesn’t feel at all melodramatic. Just about every test on our resilience as a species has been thrust on stage and, throwing into sharp focus the harsh realities of our crumbling society. The government guidance towards self care in lockdown was reflective of the negligence that the mental health sector has faced since its existence, and a feeling of hopelessness was a comparable pandemic in itself. The introspective nature of being locked inside was challenging even for the most resilient of us; the relentless cycle of updates and news forced us face to face with the systemic problems that are holding us back. We were forced to challenge the failings of the current societal formula and the truth that if meaningful and sustainable changes are not made now, we limit any hopes we may have for the future.
When reflecting on the guidance given for self care over the last few months, the governments all too familiar bandage approach lacked a consideration for the long term. Yes, taking regular walks and checking in with friends gives my brain the space to breathe, but it does not quiet the anxiety for the future that can only come from transparency and radical action. This strange and incomparable time saw my mental health be both better and worse than ever before and the juxtaposition caused me to consider the difference between, what we call ‘self care’, and personal care. When we take care of ourselves personally we are tending to our personal needs, and by all means sometimes that's obtaining the material things that help us to relax. However, when we talk about self care, we have to make room to consider all the things that attribute to the ‘self’. This includes all of the components that contribute to who we are - our jobs, our family, our culture and essentially all of the things that nourish our development as human beings. The things we enjoy are no less important because of this, and making time for yourself is no less of a priority, but it’s time to reframe the idea of self care not just as a new house plant or a face mask (both kinds!), but instead as acts to meaningfully improve our quality of life.
Even as I am writing this, a beautiful black athlete is on the news talking about how she uses skin lightening creams and serums in order to ‘improve’ her body image. She is saying she does this not just for her own self esteem, but also to earn the respect from sponsors and coaches that she should be receiving as a result of her performance alone. This is where we see capitalism rearing its ugly head,forming this bandage approach to self care. By marketing serums and spa treatments as a quick fix to the problem, we fail to expose and treat the rotting infrastructure underneath. This athlete is told that her skin is the problem. It’s not, racism is, and no amount of cream is going to fix it.
This modern, materialistic approach fits in with how we currently view the narrative of self care; the idea isn’t completely on a tangent - anything that helps to improve your mental and physical wellbeing will aid in taking care of the self. So self care in this sense is a flexible term, but even so, when we are practicing this notion of self care, what (and who) are we practicing this for? In her essay ‘A Burst of Light’ Audre Lorde reflects on self care as “an act of political warfare” in a revolutionary approach to exploring her identity as a black, lesbian woman. She discusses in this essay that practicing self care rituals ensures resilience to the homophobia and racism that she faces every day around every corner. In this sense, Lorde looks after herself in order to maintain the strength to keep writing and empowering other women facing systemic oppression, which in turn makes the very act of her writing the most powerful self care. Lorde spent most of her adult life writing about white supremacy and feminism. Without her writings, and the collective effort of activists taking up space and projecting their voices, movements like Pride and Black Lives Matter wouldn’t be making the waves in society and culture that they are today. Societal progression is the result of self care; it is the result of people demanding better.
This is when we see that the impact of self care in tackling the roots of an issue that affects your life and your ambitions, as opposed to bandaging the short term effects, is the best and most effective way that we can care for ourselves; not just by influencing our own situations but by also impacting on the lives of the people that matter to us. This could include our family members that come from the same socio-economic backgrounds as us, our friends whose gender or the way that they choose to worship is not respected or our planet whose resources for surviving are being looted. It could be anything that transcends ourselves beyond our personal needs and helps to improve our quality of life.
I have been very fortunate over the last half a year and although coronavirus has directly impacted me in many ways, it also gave me the time to truly focus on my mental wellbeing. I began therapy at the beginning of lockdown and am thankful for the time this afforded me to focus on it without distraction. It also gave me the time to educate myself and to allow myself to be impassioned by causes that are close to me. It began by learning to make my own beeswax wraps and it developed into being active in tackling the structures of racism in my place of work. Self care in this way feels good, it feels nourishing and has meaning. We must start removing ourselves from the idea that activism is in any way self righteous. Self care is not indulgent, it is the only way that we can change the world.
It may have taken a physical illness to expose the rife anxiety and need for radical self care across the world; but for whatever issue, new or old, that the effects of Covid-19 has helped to unearth, our activism towards them has to reflect the same patience and attention that we put into our personal care. Because candles and face masks (again, both kinds!) are nice, but dismantling systems of oppression is the most healing thing we can do for ourselves and the people we care for. Finally, for those of you reading now that are struggling with anxiety, know that for whatever uncertainties the future holds, the actions you take today control your history and you can put yourself on the right side of it.