By Jamila Reddy | Illustration by Jenna Brager
Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare. - Audre Lorde
I am seven the first time I visit Puerto Rico. My grandma is going back to reconnect with family she hasn’t seen in years, and my sister and I are lucky to be invited to tag along. Everyone comes to welcome us at the airport — there is a body in every seat of my cousin’s seven-passenger van. Person after person files out for greetings, exchanging too-tight hugs and lipstick-stained kisses on cheeks. We are ushered into the back seat of the van and instructed not to put our hands out of the windows.
As we pull out of the airport, I tuck my seatbelt behind my back and turn my body towards the window. Like most backseat windows of minivans in the 90s, this one does not roll down. Instead, a small lever pushes the window inches away from the frame, leaving a small opening for wind to pass through. Against the instructions of an elder cousin whose name I have already forgotten, I place my right hand in the crack of the window, wiggle my fingers around to feel the air, and crane my neck to see the underside of palm trees lining the road.
I watch the city pass by; my whole body awake and braced for the newness in front of me. The air does not smell like salt like I expected, but like any city: sweat, exhaust, hot concrete. I imagine myself an island girl, fluent and sun-browned by summer’s end. Without warning, my daydream is interrupted. The window starts closing around my fingers. I try to yank my hand back but I am not quick enough. I stifle a grunt as the thick glass tightens against my hand. Too embarrassed to admit that I had failed to follow directions — too horrified that I needed to be rescued from something I had been told not to do — I stay quiet. Seconds pass before someone sees my face, or notices my hand, now throbbing thick with unmoving blood. Suddenly, the van is shouting in a combination of Spanish and English and my fingers are freed from their trap. I wipe tears away, avoid eye contact, say quietly, I’m okay, I’m okay. I sit in silence, still and ashamed, until we get home.
Twenty years later, I often find myself behaving like the little girl in the back of that van. I find myself saying nothing about my varied sufferings, no matter how big or how small. In 2016, I am a queer black woman in the United States, which is to say I am in constant conversation with myself about what it means to really be free. I am still knee-deep in the mud of answering this question, but I’m getting somewhere. I am coming to understand that to be free is to be absolutely happy — to have achieved a state of being in which your joy is impervious to that which seeks to destroy it. Knowing this, the road to my joy becomes the road to my freedom. As such, I am compelled to think deeply and critically about what it means to be joyful and to be diligent about identifying things that stand in its way.
Self-care has revealed itself as a non-negotiable — as a powerful shield against a world set up to destroy me. How could it not be an act of resistance against the social, cultural, and political systems that seek to enslave? How can I be joyful if I am not well?
Twenty years later, I able to laugh gently at the little girl in the back seat of that minivan, her fingers smashed, her mouth closed. I am able to claim that there is nothing noble about struggling when I don’t have to. I am learning that it is my responsibility to take good care of myself, to advocate for myself, and how to make valuing my life an active, consistent practice.
Here are some things I have relearned and discovered about the radical act of taking care of myself.
Self-care is a manifestation of self-love.
Loving myself means understanding the value of my own life. It means understanding that I am worthy of a beautiful human experience. There are systems of power (read: privilege) in place that are rooted in my self-loathing — in my lack of self-esteem. If I do not think I am worthy of protection, love, joy, health, and wealth, then it is easy to accept when I do not receive these things. If I understand the inherent value of my life, I have no choice but to defend myself from harm — to actively honor the conditions that allow me to function at my best. To care for myself is to provide what is necessary for my health, my welfare, and my protection. Self-care is the clearest way of affirming that my life is precious and worthy of preservation. Every gesture taken towards my wellness is an offering of gratitude for the gift of my existence.
Self-care involves asking for help.
I have spent years building a stockpile of reasons not to ask for help when I need it:
I don’t want to come across as weak, stupid, or incapable.
I don’t want to cause more work for people.
I don’t want people to think I’m needy.
I don’t want to be an inconvenience.
I let my fears take shape in these words, and used them as excuses to justify struggling alone. These fears are constantly reinforced by cultural narratives — capitalism teaches us that overworking ourselves is something to be proud of; vulnerability is branded as a sign of weakness, and weakness is used as an excuse to justify your oppression, Black people are believed to be more capable of enduring pain than others.
For years ,these cultural narratives took up so much space in my mind that I resolved to perform a version of myself that was strong, resilient, and never in need of help. Taking care of myself often means admitting I’m human, and that some of life’s burdens I can't shoulder alone. I have chosen to liberate myself from the notion that my suffering is noble. I release the delusion that I am an inconvenience — that asking for support from people around me somehow makes me difficult to love. There is nothing admirable about enduring my pain when I don’t have to, and anyone who loves or respects me would never ask me to do it on their behalf.
Self-care includes letting go of stories that do not serve you.
Eckhart Tolle explains, “The primary cause of unhappiness is never the situation, but your thoughts about it.” Thoughts like, I’m not good enough, I’ll never have the career I really want, and This relationship will never change are stories I told myself for years — fiction that, through my belief in them, I allowed to become fact. To be careful means to be intentional about avoiding damage or risk. Self-care, then, means being intentional about protecting myself from that which might cause me harm, including my own mind. It involves releasing toxic thoughts that bind me to my unhappiness, my sickness, my grief. Toni Morrison says it plainly, “If you want to fly, you got to give up the shit that weighs you down.”
Self-care won’t always feel good.
It doesn’t always look like treating myself to a fancy dessert, binge-watching Netflix, or getting a full set manicure. It can sometimes manifest as these things, but most often it is doing the uncomfortable work of communicating transparently about what I need in order to function at my best, and then doing whatever it takes to get there. It means I have to make the dentist appointments, show up for the pap smears, travel longer (and spend more money) than I’d like for fresh produce, and exercise when I’d rather sleep. It means I have to let myself grieve even though it hurts, or admit that I’m really not okay when I’d rather nobody know. Self-care may not always glamorous, comfortable, and fun, but it is always worth it.
Self-care isn’t selfish.
As someone who is often called upon to help other people — to contribute my mental, emotional, or physical labor — I have come to realize that I have to take care of the vessel through which these offerings come. I cannot fill from an empty cup, and the needs of other people cannot come before my own. Self-care is not a privilege; it’s a right. Prioritizing my own wellness does not make me selfish, and if anybody makes me feel otherwise should be kept at arm's length. There is absolutely nothing indulgent about ensuring my survival, and I should never feel like I have to apologize or feel guilty for taking care of myself. When I do, I give other queer people, other black people, and other women permission to do the same. Choosing to not endure discomfort, pain, or hardship is, in fact, a generous gift to the world. I am modeling what it looks like to love yourself in action. Caring for myself means pursuing and receiving abundance. It means claiming what is on the table in front of me instead of starving myself to convince people I don’t need to eat.
My interest in self-care developed out of an urgent need to shake off the psychological burden of being black, queer, and woman — out of a sense of constantly needing to put my own healing into motion. There are systems in place that intend to keep Black people from being properly nourished, queer people from being connected to their bodies, women from being sexually liberated … and the list goes on. There are too many invisible chains that seek to keep me bound. As such, I must navigate skillfully around all the things that are standing in the way of me and my freedom. Self-care is the vehicle; it is an ongoing ritual that we, as we maneuver through this lifetime's many traumas, cannot take for granted.
As a queer black woman, taking care of myself is a declaration of the value of my life. Thus it is my activism to take care of myself, to advocate for myself, and to surround myself with things, people, and experiences that enhance its quality. No gesture made in the name of self-care is too small — the sum of their parts is a happier, healthier and more liberated life.
Jamila Reddy is a writer and creative producer based in Los Angeles but always in pursuit of magic, wherever it may be. Born and raised in North Carolina, she is thankful for her freedom and likes to say hello to strangers. The intention of her work is to deepen a collective understanding of the complexities of the human experience. She wants to throw your next party. She wants to make you brave.