by Cara Strickland—
As a preteen I got a magazine in the mail called Brio. It was basically a Christian answer to Seventeen and Teen Vogue. I remember very little about that publication’s content (although I always read it cover to cover), except for one article. It was an invitation to take a bath, with a series of suggested activities. First, make a smoothie
(a recipe was included), add some Epsom salts to the tub and run the water. Once in the tub, shave your legs, exfoliate, then sip that smoothie. There may have been other steps in between, but the part that still sticks out, all these years later, is the final sentence: “Congrats, your to-do list is done.”
It’s fair to say that this simple sentence shaped my ideas of self-care until recently: Self-care? Just another chore on my list. It’s funny that my first memory of intentional self-care involves a bath. It seems like that’s always the go-to prescription for those feeling a little neglected in body or spirit. A bubble bath, often with a glass of wine, is cultural shorthand for the kind of needs we were expected to have as women.
Don’t get me wrong—I love a good bath. As a teen, I would bring that article into the bathroom with me, following the directions to the letter. As an adult, I’ve enjoyed the ambiance of a nice candle or of soaking in a tub of warm water, especially when my muscles ache.
But there is more to self-care than baths.
THE BEGINNINGS OF ‘SELF-CARE’
Coined in the 1950s, the term first described an accompaniment to medical care—a supplement to what health care professionals were already providing. Self-care involved things that patients, mainly those living with aging bodies or mental illness, could do to make their quality of life better. Over time, self-care became a tool for the Black community and for women, as both groups continued to fight for equality. As any activist knows, it’s hard to keep fighting when your cup feels empty. The goal of self-care is to fill that cup. In these contexts, self-care can look a lot less sexy than a bubble bath. It can look like eating balanced meals that satisfy you, getting enough sleep and exercising regularly. Or it could look like paying your bills or doing your taxes.
Growing up in the church, I never heard anything about self-care—of either the bubble bath or the balanced life variety. What I did hear about, especially as it pertained to women, was selflessness. It sounds innocuous:
Selflessness is putting others first, not caring about your own interests. It seems a handy antonym to selfishness, pitting care for yourself against care for others. As a young girl, I certainly didn’t see these nuances. As an adult, I have a great deal of sorrow for my teenage self, who thought any extra attention I paid myself meant I wasn’t following Jesus well.
A lot has changed in the intervening years, including the types of faith communities I choose to be in. Yet one thing hasn’t changed nearly enough: Self-care is still talked about quietly or not much at all in the faith communities I’ve been part of.
When I became a mother, suddenly there was a very real possibility that I might become selfless. I regularly ignored even my most pressing needs in my daughter’s first weeks of life. My body was not happy with me. At
first, I didn’t hear people talking about how important it was to tend to my own needs—showering, eating, not putting off using the bathroom; I only heard people agreeing about how they, too, forgot or couldn’t find time to do those things. Because of the messages I’d heard growing up, at first this didn’t ring alarm bells. I just assumed this was what I had signed up for.
I was in a vulnerable place. Other women intervened. Women I knew and loved, who had been down this road before me, began to share their wisdom. “Ask for help,” they said. “Carve out an hour or two a week for yourself.” “The dishes can wait.” In seeking out more wisdom, I discovered a whole world of memes on Instagram, with eye-catching graphics and such messages as “Self-care is childcare” and “Meeting your basic needs shouldn’t be a treat.” I soaked it all in and tried to reconcile it with what I’d previously believed—that self-care was too self-interested.
I began to ask myself: “What can you do to make your quality of life better?” Or, as my spiritual director friend, Hope, states: “What do you need today?” Once I began to listen, it was harder to deny myself what I was crying out for. The answers were simple, even if getting there could be complicated: Eat regularly. Bathe. Have a few moments of time without expectations. I also needed my friends, and time to be myself.
Cara Stickland writes about food, faith and life from her home in the Pacific Northwest. You can read more of her work at carastrickland.com.