Reclaiming Our Self-Care As a Feminist Act

Image of plants in the background with the title of the blog post, "Reclaiming our self-care as a feminist act"

With the murder of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Ahmaud Arbery, the time has never seemed so urgent to re-claim self-care as a feminist act. Being socially and politically aware and active in the midst of racial trauma is more essential than ever as is ensuring our emotional health. In addition, for many, the lockdowns and curfews associated with the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in a strain of another kind: toxic productivity. This time is laying bare the widespread acceptability of neo-liberal ideas around work and productivity, as well as the toxicity of this type of investment.  

Within the narrow idea that “the only value we have is that of the labour we are able to produce,” self-care is often framed as a means to a ‘productive’ end.  For example, two popular memes during COVID-19 remind us that Shakespeare wrote ‘King Lear’ during the Black Plague and Newton discovered gravity during the Bubonic plague.  The message is clear: we are to take advantage of the social isolation of the epidemic to do more, and better. And yet, from a feminist perspective we understand that the right of women to take, embrace and indulge in pleasure, to be human and have others recognize our humanity is actually a very radical act. Self-care should be a priority and not an afterthought. Reclaiming self-care is rooted in autonomy and choice, as well as a mindful effort to understand the important balance, even if sometimes muddled, of community and family care, activism and self-love. Reclaiming self-care is a feminist act.

Another issue that the memes on Shakespeare and Newton didn’t mention is that neither men had household and/or childcare responsibilities.  The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are numerous and heavily gendered in nature: during  lockdown, the amount of care work in many families has increased, with the burden of care  largely falling on women and girls.  Women—including those with jobs—do more housework and have more family and child care responsibilities than men. Additionally, women  tend to shoulder more emotional work in relationships, families, friendships, workplaces and community spaces. 

There are several examples of increased attention to self-care during COVID-19, however we still find this troubling emphasis on productivity. In the vast number of online appeals to look out for the ‘silver lining’ and to ‘turn-inward’ during movement restrictions related to the pandemic, there is no shortage of bloggers reminding us to leverage our ‘extra time’ to bring forth our most creative, innovative, passionate and spiritually advanced selves. These messages are typically reinforced by images of beautiful women who appear to be doing precisely that, in perfectly framed and styled poses. While (perhaps) well-intended, this pressure to ‘use our extra time productively’ creates another layer of  unrealistic expectations around how women should be navigating this unprecedented period.

In a crowded social media space, self-care is also often imbued with aspects of performance and frequently backed by corporate sponsors (as others have argued).  For example, thousands of instagram posts with the hashtags #selfLove or #selfCare promote different beauty products, spa treatments, yoga weekends and the like. While  these luxury investments can often boost wellbeing for those for whom such privileges are within reach—generally cisgender, white, middle class—it is essential not to lose sight of the feminist position that exalts self-care as a radical act. This perspective asserts that women—and especially those who have been oppressed and marginalized for generations —are valuable and worthy of love and care. During COVID-19, feminist self-care must embrace us all—rather  than further privileging  those with greatest financial means and access.

Yet another departure from a feminist understanding of self-care is the popular (and somewhat narcissistic) idea that we ‘can’t give from an empty cup.’ This notion that women are not capable of being there for others until we have fully attended to our own needs is not born out in fact, as many of us can attest to simultaneously caring for our sisters, families, and communities at the same time that we strive to take care of ourselves. Dismissing or devaluing self-care as #PuttingMeFirst overlooks a critical issue—that our self-care practices are not separate from our activism. Instead, they are essential for sustaining our energy, wellbeing and solidarity as we commit our full selves to the work of dismantling oppressive systems and bringing forth communities rooted in dignity and justice. This feminist understanding of collective action as an integral aspect of self-care seems especially salient in light of this global pandemic that is magnifying social and racial inequalities, with tragic consequences.

It is time that women’s incredible productivity is acknowledged and valued. The toxic productivity narrative not only drives internalized pressure that we, as women, are ‘not doing enough,’ but it also robs us of our right to be sad, grieve, or express anger, because this type of emotional processing isn’t seen as a valid form of ‘productivity.’ We are left with very little room to focus on self-care, or to feel okay about taking a step back to breathe. We owe it to ourselves to critically assess the various versions of self-care that are emerging, and to take actions to reclaim self-care as a feminist act. Here are a few basics to get us started:

  1. Be Kind to Yourself: It is never too late to remember that we are doing a great favor to ourselves and to others by just breathing and taking it one day at a time. This means that we are being productive in the maintenance and healing of ourselves. Nothing more and nothing less. It’s easy to fall into the pitfall of productivity; it’s a daily struggle known to many. Afrofeminist Nigerian journalist, Spectra Speaks, calls for a self-care revolution in the name of self-preservation and to deconstruct self and cultural expectations.
  2. Conscious Community Care: Finding and developing a network of conscious people who take and make space for our nourishment is particularly important as we navigate our role in social justice and working and surviving in a remote way of life. Care can take the form of providing child care support for a family member, collecting and allocating resources, or dropping off food for an elderly neighbor. In the words of Yashna Padamsee, “It is our responsibility not as individuals, but as communities to create structures in which self-care changes to community care– in which we are cared for and able to care for others.”
  3. Give Yourself Permission: Whether it means you need to turn off the tv, shut off social media, cry, sleep, eat, be angry, rest, or cope – permit yourself to call timeout. Allow yourself to cry in the shower, to yell in an empty room, to eat an entire cake, or to simply say I can’t do this today. Deeplina Banerjee says it is critical to “remind yourself that all the emotions that you are navigating are valid and the outflow is normal. It could help you identify the red flags early on and adequately address what your body is asking for.”
  4. Create your Brand of Care: Be honest about what your needs are and what works for you. Do what works for your mind, body and soul. If after working all day a Zoom call with friends is too much – skip it. Create your ‘me time’ in a way that makes you happy, not guilty. Your version of self-care might look drastically different than what others do, and that’s okay. Taking care of yourself is essential and it is worth your time and space.  

Also, please remember that self-care is not a substitute for professional mental health services or addressing the deeper structural realities and injustices that contribute to much generational trauma and emotional distress.  

Written by Priya Dhanani, Sophie Namy, and Sharanya Sekaram 

Priya is based in Washington, DC working on ending violence against women and girls with The Asia Foundation. She supports causes on women’s rights and social justice, and  serves on the board for the Asian Pacific Islander Domestic Violence Resource Project

Sophie is based in Asturias, Spain and has been working to prevent violence against women for more than a decade. She supports activist organizations and leads programming at Healing and Resilience after Trauma. You can find her on Twitter @dignityUnites. 

Sharanya is based in Colombo, Sri Lanka, working as an independent consultant in the space of women’s rights. You can find her on Twitter @sharasekaram and on her blog “Writing from That Sekaram Girl”

Priya, Sophie and Sharanya are feminist activists, who are passionate about reclaiming self-care in their lives, communities and work.