Self-Care as a Political and Spiritual Act

I had a birthday not so very many days ago. Mr. Mezzo had rather the thoughtful and aspirational gift for me: a bathtub tray. You know, one of those things that allows you to have a glass of beverage (wine, water, pick your poison) and a book propped up while soaking in the tub?

My unfolding internal study of this object and its meaningfulness to me is, if nothing else, a nice capsule example of the ways I am — for better or for worse — so often deep in the study of my life, even down to its tiniest details.

bubble_bathThe first wave of reaction was pure enthusiasm. (I’m verbing everything in the next description in present tense because that enthusiasm has not ever abated. More layers have emerged and interwoven, but these initial enthusiasms remain true.) I love the idea of myself using this item. I love Mr.’s creativity in thinking of this idea without any sort of obnoxious hint-making from me, and the care he took in finding one that has arms that extend wide enough for this thing to fit on top of our ginourmous bathtub. (Seriously. You could almost go scuba-diving in this thing.)

But a day or two later, as I was driving to work, a small sense of absurdity also hit me around the tray. ‘Cos it has been a long damn time since I actually took a bath. I recall once, back in the HCG journey, when there was a weekend where I wrote here on JALC about the ongoing juggling act of my life and how one Sunday (I think?) I’d actually made the decision to make a soak in the tub a higher priority than all the everything else on my to-do list. (Back in April? I think so, but I’m too lazy to go crawling through the archive to figure it out right now.) It’s a lovely gift, I thought, but am I ever really going to use it? That’s just not my life!

And then, two things on Thursday helped give me a perspective shift. First was a phone conversation with a dear friend, in which she shared her sense that the only self-caring thing she’d managed to do for herself in the past few days was take a bath. Second was finding this article posted Wednesday on Feminisiting. In it, author Chloe Angyal talks about the psychological toll that can be created by seeing the effects of the kyriarchy, either through dramatic events (such as the recent publicity around Janay and Ray Rice) or the everyday Palmolive-level awfulness to be seen and witnessed day-in, day-out:

It has been, to put it lightly, a rough news week. It has been, to put it beyond lightly, a rough news summer. As we roll into fall, the load doesn’t seem likely to lighten. . . . James Baldwin famously wrote that to be Black in America “and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.” The same is true of being a feminist. Rage, frustration, heartbreak, despair, disgust, more rage, more heartbreak. It comes with the territory (I’m really selling this whole feminism thing, aren’t I?). Gloria Steinem put it a little more glibly when she said, “The truth will set you free. But first, it will piss you off.” It will piss you off, and it will, in weeks like this, leave you feeling heavy with pain and, if you’re anything like me, a deep and frightening doubt that things will ever get better.

But Angyal is not laying this out simply for the purpose of voicing/venting her despair. Instead, she is articulating these psychological costs as prelude to an impassioned reminder about the necessity of self-care — something, Angyal says, she’d never consciously thought about or understood the need for until she became a feminist blogger.

Many of the guides around feminist self-care that Angyal cites in her article — as well as the ones I fond independently with the aid of Professor Google — point to this quote by Audre Lorde as a key nexus of inspiration:

Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare. (Cited here as being from the essay collection A Burst of Light.)

Various glosses on Lorde’s words make its implications even more apparent. Here’s Zerlina Maxwell in RH Reality Check:

By prioritizing mind, body, and spirit, each individual piece of the larger movement is stronger. And because many come into their activism as a result of trauma or myriad challenging life experiences, self-care allows them to heal. As fully healed individuals, they are better able to tackle the complex and difficult work.

And Brenna McCaffery in Feminspire:

Lorde’s reference to “political warfare” is a nod to the idea that rejecting self-care in the name of money, progress, success, or getting ahead is not a problem that only plagues individuals. This problem is encouraged by society—by where we place our values, how we talk about success, and how we shame those who don’t measure up. Stress is experienced by individuals, but the pressure to feel stress—just to prove that you are working “hard enough”—comes from a collective worldview that often rejects self-care and calls it selfishness. The individual is no longer important, because she is just a cog spinning in an ever-larger machine. (both emphases added)

I see a lot to learn from and value in these statements. There are lots of cultural forces that work against the idea of self-care — especially for women, whose programming is particularly charged around serving as the helpmeet for (in sequence) our fathers, husbands and children. And so there is thread of feminist politics in the willingness to prioritize self-care. Healing our wounds and letting our energies replenish so that we can meet our work in a place of centeredness rather than form depletion.

However, there’s a certain utilitarianism to these affirmations of self-care that I want to respond to, springboard off of. It’s almost like, when you boil it all down, there’s a way these explanations towards self-care can just get folded up and co-opted into the notion of being servant to the feminist revolution. (Or whatever your cause of choice, since I also found meditations on the concept of self-care through environmental justice and trauma recovery lenses.) Like self-care is only useful because it makes you more useful to your activism, allows you to fight another day (and another and another…)

I honestly think this is more an aspect of emphasis than of core belief. So, thinking of this next piece as an addition to the justifications for self-care I’ve already linked rather than an opposition to them, here’s another (spiritual?) thread I’d like to emphasize.

Self-care for women and feminists is vital because it is an expression of the radical notion that women’s bodies and lives are of inherent value, and they are thus deserving of care and nurturance. How many times do we get messages to the contrary? That our bodies, our lives are less worthy and should be given over in service of the patriarchy. Carrying our father’s or our husband’s last names as a sign of legal ownership. The denial of autonomy and the cultural insistence that female bodies be endlessly available as objects for voyeuristic or sexual gratification.

Self-care is a politically and spiritually radical act because it serves as the embodied expression of one simple truth: my life and being as woman are of value. No other reason or justification is required. Not because it’ll make you a better wife, a better mother, or even a better feminist warrior. Self-care is important simply because it is an expression of self-love — and mature self-love is something of which every human is worthy.

So yes, it may be true that the way I’ve been managing my schedule in recent months hasn’t accommodated much (okay: any) bath time. But, rather than getting all up in my superior/judgmental pattern about whether or not Mr. Mezzo’s gift “matches my current life,” I’m taking it instead as a valuable contribution to the life I want to keep visioning and creating for myself. One that makes space for mature self-care via epsom baths and footbaths (as opposed to, for example, the more immature self-soothing of Cool Ranch Doritos and bad TV).


Image credit: “Bubble Bath” by Cyron. Unaltered. Used under a Creative Commons license. (Retrieved from: )

3 thoughts on “Self-Care as a Political and Spiritual Act

  1. Pingback: Rules of Engagement | Self-Love: It's Just Another Lifestyle Change

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