Why Self-Love and Self-Care Are Radical for Black Women

My phone vibrates with another news alert. Notifications inundate my screen. Competing headlines report the latest onslaught of political strife, environmental despair, and fearmongering surrounding contagious diseases. I take a deep exhale and turn my phone on silent. I flex my shoulders in discomfort against the burden of each headline that weighs heavy on my back. 

Historically, within periods of unrest, those that fall within the most vulnerable intersections of identities are often the most heavily affected. As a Black queer immigrant woman moving through the world, the tumult of our political, social, and environmental disorder has exacerbated the everyday oppressions of racism, sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia that I face. Black women are more often than not the primary caretakers of their families, households, and communities. This is not only supported by a myriad of data but also has a deep history rooted in slavery. When our livelihoods are endangered by dogmatic institutional forces that put profit over people, who cares for us? 

According to the Study of Women’s Health Across the Nation, “black women are 7.5 years biologically ‘older’ than white women… our telomeres (the ends of our chromosomes, which control aging and other key biological functions) are literally shrinking due to excessive oxidative stress factors like everyday racism.” Couple that with rising black maternal death rates—especially for academics—and the unequal pay gap for Black women who earn 61 cents for every dollar made by their white, male counterparts, and we are looking at some bleak numbers. 

Now more than ever it is imperative for Black women and women of color to prioritize their mental, emotional, and physical health. Self-care has become a murky, commodified buzzword exploited by corporate brands (especially the beauty industry) to drive revenue. But face masks and crystals aside, what does a radical, substantial, self-care framework for Black women look like outside of the confines of capitalism? 

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Grounding our self-care in radical self-love 

We live in a world and time that profits off the self-hatred of Black bodies and identities. As self-care activist Sonya Renee Taylor reminds us, ultimately our struggles against oppressive social constructs start with “our relationships politically, socially, and interpersonally with other peoples’ bodies. And it starts with us as individuals, with our relationships to our own bodies.” Inevitably, as Black women, the personal and political cannot be separated. By grounding our activism in our own radical, unconditional love, we can dismantle the master’s tools and disrupt systems of power that rely on our self-deprecation.

We all share the experience of having a body, and many of the events transpiring in the world are caused by our bodies. Therefore, it seems only logical that our journey to effective self-care begins with unconditional love of our bodies. Grounding my self-care in gratitude for my body and making that practice of gratitude a consistent ritual in my life has dramatically altered the way I move within my life. 

Prioritizing our holistic health

A common anecdote reminds us that you cannot pour from an empty cup, but this is easier said than done. I often find myself pushing beyond my limits to see how productive I can be in the workplace, in my relationships, and in my personal projects. Even when my body is showing signs of fatigue or dehydration, the inner critic in my mind is never satisfied and non-consensually propels me to take on more.

On a particularly draining day, as I pushed for a place to plant my feet on the crowded New York subway, it dawned on me: If I don’t put myself first, who will? This question, simple yet revolutionary, grounds me whenever I feel guilty for taking a sick day or shame myself for not completing that project yet. Prioritizing my emotional, mental, and spiritual health is neither selfish nor indulgent but ultimately necessary for me to show up as my best self. 

Investing in community support and accountability 

Growing up in a Sudanese household, my extended family and relatives played a large role in my upbringing and education. As they say, it takes a village. The Black mothers, aunts, and sisters in my community were my greatest mentors. As I grow older and create my own chosen families across the world, I replicate this model of mentorship and communal accountability. Even though it is up to us to prioritize our needs, it is our support networks that hold us accountable to the practices of self-care and self-love that may be challenging at times. 

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It’s been a hectic start to 2020, and often when the world looms around me I tend to retreat, become smaller, and escape into the warm corners of my Brooklyn apartment. But today, as I reflect on the tremendous sacrifices that Black women—myself included—shoulder for the comfort of others, I am empowered to take up space in my life and find ways to ground my health, safety, and sanity.