Saturday, February 12, 2011

Self-Care Exchange

Self-care is a feminist ethic, largely because women tend to be socialized to care for others' needs and disregard our own. And, I know a lot of women who are so busy kicking ass and taking names that they forget to take time and pleasure for themselves.

Self-care is also an important ethic in the fat acceptance movement, largely because fat people are taught to disregard and dis-identify with our "disgusting" bodies, in addition to being taught we are already too self-indulgent. We often internalize this shaming and hatred, which, un-surprisingly, doesn't lead us to love and care for ourselves. When I talk about fat shame and it's effects with students, I ask them what it is they do when they are made to feel bad about themselves. No one shouts, "Self-care!" though we'd be in a better world if self-care was an instinctual reaction to shaming.

Despite knowing the importance of self-care, it's not easy for me to do. Sometimes I find it hard to feel deserving. Sometimes I am distracted. Sometimes I feel too tired. Sometimes I look to the wrong things for "self-care" out of habit. Sometimes I'm not quite sure how I would enact self-care. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed and it seems like just one more thing on my endless list of things I need to do/should be doing.

My loved ones are very good about encouraging my self-care, though. My partner encourages me to get the sleep I need and take care of my body. My friends encourage me to give myself breaks and room to grow. In all honesty, I am blessed to be around so many people who want me to treat myself nicely, not to mention their providing me with so much encouragement and support.

One day, my friend and I had a conversation that I will never forget because it really defines our friendship. If I remember correctly, upon giving me some advice, she said, "Oh, I don't mean to be mothering you." I said, "No, it's okay, it's good. We are each other's mothers. We are mutual mothers." And that phrase has stuck with us. Mutual mothers. We take care of each other, nurture one another, and give each other reality checks whenever necessary. The idea of mutual mothering really struck a self-care chord with me. We cared about each other, but also about each other's self-care.

Once when I was having a terrible time with my back, she gave me a massage. I've gotten used to my partner caring for me in such an intimate way--and honestly, I wouldn't feel at all uncomfortable, myself, about giving a friend a massage--but I'm pretty fucking terrible at letting people care for me. This friend of mine, another friend of mine, my partner, and others are helping me learn how to let myself be cared for. I am learning more all the time about how to trust and how to ask for help and support. I am getting better, but I am still not good at it.

Letting her care for me in such a way opened a door in my mind. Letting others care is an important part of self care, something I'm realizing more and more all the time. I started thinking about self-care a little differently. For a long time I rolled the idea of a self-care exchange in my head, but I never verbalized it. I don't know why. Perhaps it was because deep down it felt greedy or selfish to ask someone to care for me; perhaps it was because sometimes things just need to evolve naturally.

When Christmas rolled around, she asked for a list of things I wanted. On my list was a manicure, as I'd never gotten one. At first, my friend thought, we might get our nails done together. That could be fun. But my friend, someone of my own heart, had a better idea. “I love to give manicures and it would make me really happy if I could pamper you and give you a manicure myself.” She wanted to care for me! I was touched and agreed that I would like that much more.

About a month ago we finally set a date. We spent a whole day together having fun. But when it came to me, she went all out. She had taken a lot of time to think about exactly what she wanted to do and how she was going to make me feel comfortable and relaxed and loved. At the same time, the focus was still on what I wanted.

Afterward, we agreed that it was a great time and it made us both feel very good. I told her that I had thought a long time about a self-care exchange, and this certainly seemed like that was what we had done. What if we made an effort at a regular self-care exchange?

She was instantly on-board. Now, we plan to do a self-care exchange at least once a month, ideally every two weeks. There are all sorts of things we can do for each other—things we would almost never do for ourselves.

I think self-care exchange could be revolutionary. I like that I have a close friend who will help me with self-care, but at the same time I don't think self-care exchange is something just for close friends. I think if people were more open with one another, we could all help each other with self-care. I am amazed when I hear stories about people coming together to share resources, like poor women of color taking turns making meals for their families. That's fucking community—investing in each other and coming together to make life better for one another. And on a fundamental level, that's self-care en mass.

A self-care exchange is about human connection and human care. It's a mutually agreed-upon activity that is mutually beneficial. It's bonding. It's intimacy. It's love. Letting someone care for you is deeply touching, and so is caring for someone else. Let's care for each other!


  1. Ahh self-care. Something I still struggle with. Because you know, self-care equals selfish amirite? I still have this little voice in the back of my mind (usually my mother's) saying "Don't be so indulgent, you're so selfish." when I think about spending time on myself, on the things that make me feel good.

    I feel like I have to justify self-care. That there has to be something that proves I earned it, I deserve it.

    Maybe I need to find a self-care buddy too.

  2. @sleepydumpling I know what you mean. Especially if it involves spending money, I really have to justify it to myself.

    Perhaps this self-care buddy/self-care exchange thing can circumvent some of the roadblocks to self-care. I like that we made a schedule or minimum because otherwise everything else in my life would take precedent...because everything ELSE is more important, right? And maybe making it a regular thing can morph our idea of self-care from "something extra that I have to deserve" to a habit of self-care as a matter of course.

  3. Aw, I wish I lived closer. I'd totally do this w/you!

  4. i love this, absolutely delightful! growing up in my family, lying around and reading a book was "lazy" because there were always chores to do, horses to feed, etc. and mani/pedi/facials? totally indulgent and a waste of time when, again, there were things to be done. it's taken me a long time to outright reject the word "lazy" in my family, but i'm getting there!

  5. I have nothing to say except: Woo!