veryone exerts energy to care for themselves, whether it’s a physical act or a simple thought about celebrating and valuing oneself. So how can the self-care movement leave anyone out, as if care isn’t a basic requirement for people everywhere?
There’s no shortage of ways for self-care to feel exclusive. The general view is that it centers thin white folks who can easily access and afford spaces where they feel accepted and acceptable. Most self-care suggestions cost money, like vacations, spas, fancy meals, and “retail therapy.” Related advice can also be ableist, shutting out people who live with chronic pain, illness, and trauma. This leaves many communities, especially queer folks of color, out of the mainstream picture of individualized, personal care.
The uncomfortable reality of what self-care means for marginalized people is not reflected or acknowledged in popular conversations about mental health and wellness. Self-care isn’t inherently relaxing for everyone. When a person is already on guard, accessing a feeling of safety can feel like an unsolvable puzzle; the solution is not as simple as doing something fun. Not only is it a struggle to get in the right headspace to relax, but self-care work itself might feel uncomfortable. Uprooting internalized ideas that disrupt self-care can be painful, but committing to that process can eventually create more space to disengage from that battle. These more difficult aspects cannot be replaced with a massage or retail therapy.
The self-care struggle is an overlooked but common experience, and countless marginalized folks are rewriting the rules to center their own well-being in a world that teaches them not to. So I reached out to other queer and trans people of color (QTPoC) to learn what can be done to expand the view of self-care so everyone can catch a break from time to time, including busy and broke marginalized folks.
Anyone whose culture was damaged by colonialism is in some respects still learning who they are, rediscovering the most supportive framework for their identity and well-being. Restful moments can provide space to explore the missing pieces and regain a sense of connectedness.
“Self-care is rest and listening internally. Self-care is decolonizing, unwrapping ourselves from the structures that bind us. Resting toward freedom, asking: How can I support my wholeness? How can I ask others to support me in being whole?” shares Blache Marie, co-founder of the healing organization For Brown Bleeders. “Self-care is study and connecting, with oneself, with ancestors, with source.”
Katherine Tom, an organizer within BUFU and collaborator with Yellow Jackets Collective, also speaks of the importance of inviting their ancestors into their wellness practices: “Self-care means to tend to my roots and stay grounded and nourished so that I can continue to do the work that I'm called to do and sustain it. It means to heal not just the pain and traumas accumulated in this life so far, but also to heal all the ancestral and intergenerational trauma and cycles that live in my body.”
One reason self-care can feel like such a struggle is that community care models have been intentionally broken down by colonization, and replaced with Eurocentric values. The lost resource of community can be rebuilt through practicing self-care as a collective act. Janhavi NP, of Cultivate: QTPoC Healing Practice in the Boston area, explains, “QTIPOC communities are revolutionizing self-care by rejecting mainstream models of care that may be more accessible but actively harm us. We can revolutionize the way we care and heal by creating environments that commit to unpacking power and dismantling violence while offering models of collective care where we actually see ourSELF as a part of a collective, as an integral part of a community. Self-care is ultimately a humbling practice of risk-taking and heart work, best done with others.”
Healing should not have a price tag attached. However, messages about how to heal too often insinuate that money and free time are requirements of self-care. Katherine Tom of BUFU explains, “A lot of mainstream self-care focuses on going to the spa or on a retreat. There's less emphasis and acknowledgement of how difficult it can be to meet your basic needs and how transformative it can be to mindfully tend to them such as eating food, getting sleep, drinking water, taking a shower, breathing – things that are often taken for granted, but don't seem as glamorous or profitable.”
And in considering lack of resources, including energy for oneself, it’s important to look at the emotional impact of those deficits. Veronica Agard, organizer of Sister Circle Collective, shares, “I think that the piece that is missing from the [self-care] conversation is how those who have to practice empathy for a living are able to allow themselves to be vulnerable in return. I say vulnerable particularly in light of facilitating a conversation, Who Heals the Healer. A collaborator’s answer struck me as something profound [...] Moving towards a practice of community care requires that we are brave enough to name our needs. To say that we are in need of the same support that we consistently give to others over ourselves.”
This gets to the heart of an unspoken barrier to self-care: that many marginalized folks are expected to give what resources are available to other people before tending to their own needs.
Katherine Tom expands on this: “With that comes the need to normalize asking for support and communicating boundaries. Also I think it's important to talk about how hard it can be to assert boundaries when people are used to you not having any and also to talk about the differences between boundaries and disposability.” Conversations around disposability culture often focus on how individuals are ostracized, but how do priorities in self-care practice reveal that it’s possible to dispose of oneself by not communicating realistic boundaries and needs?
There is also intergenerational trauma at play here, the built-up impact of folks not having enough resources in the past and how that reflects on the present, as well as how acknowledging the wisdom within as a resource in itself can be a means to decolonize self-care. Blache Marie explains, “When I rest, I make space for my ancestors to rest, as thought about by Tricia Hersey, resting for those who couldn't rest. If they're able to rest, they're able to teach me the lessons they've learned in their lifetimes. It's strategic politics warfare to be able to reach across timelines to transfer information.”
Reconnecting with a full sense of self can serve as a reminder of an internal resource that is always waiting to be tapped into: self-love. While it may be obscured by internalized oppression, that self-love is underneath the surface. Self-love can take many forms, including communicating needs, accepting oneself, and giving permission to just feel good, whatever it takes.
Stand-up comedian Robin Tran shares the love found through self-acceptance: “I define self-care as knowing your limits and not pushing past them. I think it's also about figuring out who you are, what you like, and doing the things in life that make you happy, not because somebody told you to do them. I think what's most important, though, is resting when you need to, and not making yourself feel guilty for taking those breaks.”
As Audre Lorde wrote, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” This quote has been appropriated by many who fail to grasp the depth of what it means for a queer Black woman’s survival to be political. Danielle Stevens, the Black femme behind This Bridge Called Our Health, elaborates. “Self-care is an act of self preservation, protection, and cultivating resilience in a white supremacist and capitalist society that is all too satisfied with seeing us dead, completely and thoroughly devoid of life.”
Agency and honoring oneself are also important to Stevens, and that can include indulgence. People without social power have a different relationship to luxury because the message is that indulgence is only for those who can afford it. “In this world, value is not granted to us,” Stevens says, “so gifting joy, healing, and indulgence to self is revolutionary.”
When thinking of the “self” in self-care, it’s important to expand out from the individual and think of the self in relationship to others too. Self-love is not only about cultivating love for oneself, but also for others who share similar life experiences. By recognizing this interconnectedness and practicing unconditional love in community, the love for others can transform into love for oneself. Katherine Tom of BUFU explains, “Our survival is dependent on one another, so when we take care of each other we are actually caring for ourselves as well.”
Not sure who to turn to for help with deepening self-love? Tom offers suggestions: “There is a lot of amazing work being done by folks such as Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha and adrienne maree brown about creating the networks of community care and support built on transformative justice principles and participating in movement work in ways that feel not just sustainable, but pleasurable.”
There is an inherent resistance in performing self-care that can add to the difficulty. Acts of self-care often take the form of what a person may not want to do, but that they know is best for their well-being.
Robin Tran, mental health advocate and host of the new podcast Ask A Trans Person Anything, shares her view. “When I picture mainstream self-care, I see someone in a meditative yoga state, constantly meditating, and a person who never gets frazzled or irritated. That's very unrealistic to me. In my experience, self-care is messy. It's a constant struggle between not pushing yourself enough and pushing yourself too hard. It's a constant compromise you're making with yourself. It's constantly messing up and forgiving yourself. It's living life imperfectly and being proud of yourself for the effort you've put in.”
This real – and not necessarily blissful – self-care can take many forms, such as going outside when you’d rather stay in bed, taking medication, or cooking at home when you’d rather have takeout. And the self-forgiveness is just as uncomfortable: remembering it’s ok skip a self-care plan, allowing yourself to take that day hiding under the covers, or even coping through a method deemed “unhealthy” like self-medicating. Perhaps the hardest part of all is accepting what is and finding ways to push through the unwelcome reality anyway.
Robin emphasizes that goal-setting is important “because part of self-care is feeling good about yourself, and one way to feel good about yourself is accomplishing a goal.” A loved one or mental health professional can help with finding aspects of life to change and grow, but only you know what goals you need. Emotions can be a sign of where you feel stuck, or where your limits are on any given day. Whether you set big or small goals, as Robin says, “the key is not to push yourself beyond your limitations, and to forgive yourself when you don't meet the goals you've set for yourself.” Whatever you are working on in your self-care, it should help you get to the next step rather than make you feel like taking that step is impossible.
Last but not least, self-care is about whatever helps a person cope. It’s an important part of every day because it means getting through to the next 24 hours.
The foundation of self-care is “safeguarding your emotional energy to survive the day,” offers Mikaela Miguel Xochitl, aka Ihiyotl, who creates healing spaces like Trans is Magick in Brooklyn. “Self-care is finding the courage to leave the house, despite the staggering amount of unknowns lurking outside the door. Or opting to stay inside to ensure your safety & survival."
Preservation is the root of self-care, according to Janhavi NP. And what can be more important than sustaining oneself for the journey up ahead? “So I practice self-care unapologetically by communicating my values, boundaries, needs, and flaws,” they explain, “so that every day I am reminding myself I have standards, I have desires and needs, I am deserving, I am flawed, and so is everyone else.”
Perhaps the most important aspect of self-care is radically accepting flaws, both in oneself and the world. Caring for your internal reality, no matter what’s happening in there, can’t be overlooked in favor of glamorous self-care. “Life isn't something that I'm looking forward to later. It's something I'm living this very moment,” says Robin Tran. “I'm even living the bad moments. [So] I have to stop the negative self-talk. Basically, don't say anything to myself that I wouldn't say to a friend.”
Even though everyone is overcoming different struggles, “self-care can be at every step,” says Blache Marie. It’s about being in touch with your own needs and finding a way to honor them in a way that doesn’t add more stress to the dumpster fire of life. “Self-care is individual and messy,” Marie reminds us. The magic of it self-care is in “making the world around you art – in how you make your bed, make your meals, how you fuck, how you groom, how you nap.” And when it feels like self-care isn’t working, remember that it is yours to redefine. Definite it so that you have more of the support you need to get through this day and days to come.