A Women’s Center blog post by staff member Daniel Willey
Note: I hope what I’ve learned can be applicable to other people, but I know my experience isn’t universal. I use a lot of action verbs in my post, but I don’t intend to make assumptions about what a body can do. I encourage readers to challenge their ideas of how one might “feel” and “wiggle” and “tend” and “look” and “know” in different ways, and how you as an individual do these things in a way that is unique to you and your body.
This is a twelve-step program designed to teach you how to be tender to yourself.
1. Have a Major Body Event.
Have surgery. Be or become disabled. Learn to use new assistive technology. Get fitted for a prosthetic. Gain weight. Lose weight. Start a health challenge. Buy new clothes. Get new hair. Have a child. Age.
2. Lose your body.
What is your body? What does your body mean now? What did it mean before? Is it different? How is it different? Why? Is this still you? Where are you?
3. Recognize your new body.
This is your body. Look at it. What do you see? Locate yourself. Are you in your thighs? Are you in your shoulders? Where are you? You are here.
4. Know that this will be hard.
How does your body challenge you? What about your body makes it hard to be tender? Hold these things in your hands and know this will be hard. Take a deep breath.
5. Begin to unlearn.
“To be alive in this world at all: indeed to be queer, a person of color, a person with a disability, trans, a woman or poor, is to have self-hatred non-consensually woven into your education in personhood before you’re even aware the air you are breathing.” –Lila (for Autostraddle)
“Your education in personhood” is fraught. What has the world taught you about your body? Why? Where did you learn these things?
6. Begin your affirmations.
“All bodies are good bodies.” What can your body do? What can your body not do? What does your body do differently? Your body is a good body. Revel in this.
7. Allow yourself to be angry (upset, frustrated, sad).
Let the heat fill you up from your toes and let it tingle on your skin. Draw out all the ill feelings and let them swim in your anger (sadness, frustration). Know these feelings. Take a deep breath and push them out of your lungs and your eyes and your nose and your fingers and your knees and the top of your head. Acknowledge them as they leave.
8. Fill the empty spaces.
Where did your ill feelings live? What do their empty homes look like? Tuck forgiveness in your belly. Fill your back with strength. Dab pride behind your ears.
9. Know that this will be hard.
“Your education in personhood” is woven into your roots and your ill feelings have grown roots too. It will take time to make them leave. Some never will.
10. Tend ill feeling weeds.
Get to know your weeds. If you can’t make them leave, learn where their roots go. What do the weeds look like? How do they smell? Are you irritated by thorns or stray root hairs? Soothe with aloe. Remind your weeds: “You are a visitor here. I own my body.” Accept your weeds. Know they are with you but they are not you. Accept your weeds. Be tender where they grow.
11. Touch your body.
Feel how soft your earlobes are. Delight in the bumps and the lumps and the humps. Wiggle your toes if you can. Stretch and feel your body expand. Take up space! Oh it feels good to be a body! Drink cool water on a hot day. Take a hot shower on a cold morning. Revel in sensation.
Your body will change over and over again. Excite in this. Know it will be hard every time. Know it can get easier. Take someone with you next time. Be a good body with another good body. Find joy in exuding love outward and pouring love inward. Know love does not mean always loving, always delighting. Know love means patience. Love is sometimes found a little deeper than you would like. Your body is a good body. Revel in this.
13. Know that everything in your life will work against you on this journey.
These twelve steps take a lot of energy. As students, workers, homemakers, parents living in a world that praises us for pushing ourselves to the limit, setting aside time and energy to care for ourselves can be a radical act. We talk about self-care and self-love all the time in the Women’s Center and as feminists because prioritizing oneself requires so much unlearning.
Mothers are expected to be Super Mom — PTA, soccer, bake sale, appointments, dinner, laundry, carpool, work, school — and be totally selfless about it. Women who set aside time to take care of themselves are “high maintenance.” Companies like Dove use self-love and body positivity to market their products while profiting from self-hate by selling skin-whitening products. Even much of the body positivity movement expects you to love yourself all the time as if you haven’t been born into a society that feeds off your insecurity.
As a student at UMBC, I am having to make the difficult decision between keeping a pretty big scholarship and maintaining my mental and physical health. It’s taken me a year to get to this point, but I’m finally choosing myself. So many people have suggested I “just try harder” and “quit everything but school,” but very few have acknowledged the strength it takes to say “I matter. My health and wellbeing are my priority.”
Though UMBC resources like the Counseling Center, UMBC NAMI, UHS, and Retriever Wellness take steps to help students manage stress and mental health, there’s still much to be done. Academic rigor and attitudes about academic success can create a toxic climate for students and often our resources are funneled into praising students who do well rather than helping and uplifting students who need help.
Even as feminists who firmly believe in treating ourselves, it can be so hard to say “no” when it feels like you’re the only one who will say “yes.” Burnout is a big issue in social justice work not only because it is so emotionally taxing, but also because we who do the work feel like we need to be doing all the work all the time. This comic does a great job of talking about how we as activists can better manage our projects and priorities.
It’s also important to remember that self-care can be a privilege. Single mothers, Black folks, people on welfare or food stamps, and many others are expected to not engage in self-care or self-love as if doing so is a sign of incompetence or laziness. It is becoming increasingly more clear the traumatic effect racism has on people of color in the U.S. and it’s statistically proven that people in poverty experience consistently higher levels of stress. As Audre Lorde said, “caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” As a queer Black woman and a mother, caring for herself was a radical act of resistance.