By Deb Kozak
“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” ~ Audre Lorde
Writing in 1988, the words of writer Audre Lorde were a rally cry for liberation. Her words, then and now, invite us to consider where our power lies and how we might use it in service of our values. The idea that she – a Black, queer woman – had the right to claim space, identity and bodily autonomy in a world that was hostile to her very existence was truly revolutionary. For Lorde, self-care wasn’t a measurement of social equality; it was an insistence that she mattered and was worthy of care. Self-care, as she saw it, was an act of resistance. To care for oneself – to rest, recover, and restore – was essential to doing the hard work of social change. It disrupted capitalism, pushing back against white supremacy and other systems of oppression and forms of discrimination that work to undermine particular identities: woman-identified, Black, Indigenous, queer. This is why it’s critical that we understand what she meant when we repeat her words decades later.
Before the concept of self-care was appropriated and commercialized as “me time,” the idea that women, women-identified and gender diverse people not only could – but should – take care of their needs first was a radical idea. We are socialized to believe we exist to take care of the needs of others first; to deviate in any way is a threat to social order. For us to say to the world; “I matter, I come first, this is what I need and what I want” goes against everything we’ve been conditioned to believe. Caring for ourselves – in whatever ways we can – actively challenges the trope that we exist only to give our time and energy for caring for the community around us and the people in it.
Thankfully, there’s has been a social shift since then. We’ve come to recognize that our energy is a finite resource. It’s common for us to hear that we need to take care of ourselves, that we can’t fill anyone’s cup from an empty pitcher. But the pitcher/cup metaphor is still a relational one, based on the idea that women primarily exist in service of others. We are viewed as vessels of energy to be emptied and refilled time and time again so that others may live and thrive. This is especially true for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of colour); those living with disability; transgender, Two Spirit or non-binary people; and the elderly and the young as we have so much more in our cups – or on our plates – because of the bodies in which we move through the world.
And there’s been another, more insidious shift. Stripping away its radical political roots has commercialized self-care. It’s now marketed as a personal responsibility, underscored by concepts of productivity, self-worth, and deservingness as defined by a capitalist market. The core concept – that rest is an essential part of resisting against oppression and fighting for social change – gets lost. This neutralization of self-care as a tool of political warfare is not an accident.
When self-care is framed as little more than “me time”, collective survival becomes an individual responsibility. And that’s a problem. It makes it much harder for people who experience multiple systems of oppression to care for themselves without community support. Framing self-care as a simplistic replacement for integrated systems of social care, takes governments and organizations off the hook for a greater responsibility for the wellness and healthy functioning of communities. Shifting responsibility for well-being onto already vulnerable people is a strategy of divide and conquer. It serves to neutralize social outrage by separating and silencing critical voices.
So while we all need to rest and nourish ourselves physically, mentally and spiritually for our own healthy functioning in the world, we need to remember that Lorde’s idea of self-care is so much larger than that. For those who experience systems of oppression more acutely, survival is just not enough. Our work is to transform our world so all people might live fully, as equals.
The rising activism around the Black Lives Matter movement is a wake-up call to the world. The revolution has begun and there is much work – the deep, slow, intentional work of social justice – ahead for all of us. Let’s take good care of ourselves and each other.