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  • Sula Ndousse-Fetter

The Radical Act of Self-Care

“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare” - Audre Lorde

As women, we find ourselves fulfilling an endless list of roles—grandmother, mother, daughter, sister, friend, caretaker, confidant, provider—the list is infinite. And for Black women, these roles are fulfilled in the context of a society that constantly asks us to defend our own personhood, and navigate structures designed to violate it. At times, it seems as though we are able to juggle the many aspects of our lives, but in other instances the everyday stress of life can overtake us and we find ourselves lost to the rhythm of life. Those instances should not be the only moments when we feel entitled to give ourselves time for reflection, reevaluation and self-care. As is true in all aspects of health, it is far more effective to act proactively than reactively, which is why it is important to develop a routine for self-care.

Stress has both physical and mental manifestations. Dr. Nancy Krieger of the Harvard School of Public Health, has described a compelling theory of embodiment—that we “literally incorporate, biologically, the material and social world in which we live, from conception to death”. Our bodies tell our life stories (Krieger, 2005). The consequence of this is that our biology—our health, cannot be understood in the absence of our social and physical environment and the stressors therein. For example, stress in adolescence and young adulthood has been correlated with an increased risk of depressive symptoms, as well as impaired memory (Lupien et al., 2009). Stress resulting from discrimination is correlated with increased blood pressure, coronary artery calcification, elevated BMI, increased abdominal adiposity, pre-term birth, and a host of other factors (Gravlee, 2009). Stress can come from a variety of places--from family life, the workplace, school, friendships, marriage, etc. It’s also important that any conversation we have about the health within the black community acknowledge the forces of discrimination and racism—the stress of living in a world that is physically, socially and psychologically assaultive cannot be ignored. Of course, these environments exist at different levels—structural, community, familial, etc., and not all of them have factors that we can individually control. However, embodiment does suggest that we critically examine the ways that we operate in the environments we find ourselves in, how those environments affect us, and then identify ways that we can mitigate and manage stress.

In our most recent Community Conversation, Righteous Anger: How to Harness Anger to Empower Black Women & Families, we considered the critical importance of self-care as a way to deal with the stressors in our lives. Feelings of pain and fear can manifest themselves as anger, especially when we feel powerless to deal with the causes of those feelings. The CC faculty facilitators distinguished between optimal and suboptimal ways of managing anger and other emotions. Some optimal ways of navigating stressors include finding supportive and safe circles of friends and allies in which we can share our feelings and explore ways to deal with them. Another involves finding effective ways to talk about and take action against events of stress and marginalization. Suboptimal ways of managing stress and anger might look like holding in our emotions and isolating ourselves from others, taking out our anger or stress on other people, or engaging in self-destructive behaviors.

Ideas of self-care counter the prevailing archetype of the SBW, the Strong Black Woman who can withstand all and still be a pillar of strength and wealth of compassion and care for those around her. This expectation can be harmful because it does not make room for those vulnerabilities, fears and pains that contradict the image it promotes. Yes, we are strong. But we are more than just that, and should allow ourselves to experience life with the full range of human emotion and perspective. And in doing so, give ourselves the attention and time that we need to process and respond to those emotions properly.

Self-care is different for every person depending on individual needs. It involves everything from small daily habits like meditation, exercise and “me-time” to finding safe and supportive spaces and friendships, to reaching out to health professionals to get more extensive care (whether physical, emotional or mental care). Engaging in some form of exercise like yoga, biking, swimming or running can be a great way to boost both mental and physical health. More contemplative activities such as journaling, doing art, or engaging in some other craft-making activity can be great creative outlets for stress as well. What unites all of these healthy actions is honing our ability to assess where we are and give ourselves what we need to not merely keep going, but feel safe, fulfilled and content.

Here are some resources for your self-care inspiration:

  • “So What Is ‘Self-Care’?” : Explains different types of self-care

  • “The Self-Care Exhibit”: Black women share what self-care means to them

  • “I search 4 it blinded: the power of self-love and self-esteem”: A TED talk by Caira Lee


About Sula Ndousse-Fetter

Hi, I’m Sula, a junior at Harvard College studying Chemical and Physical Biology with a secondary in Global Health and Health Policy. Although a lot of my time is spent trying to understand the intricacies of the biological systems that contribute to health and disease of the human body, I am equally passionate about understanding the complexities of health and health systems at the community and societal level. I am so excited to be interning with Community Conversations, an organization I feel is helping to create an open, honest and empowering space for women of color to discuss the health of our communities, families and selves.


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