Writer Tamara Curl-Green Explores The Meaning of True Self-Care and Learns to Prioritize Herself While Honoring Her Foremother’s Lives of Service.
How much of your relationship with wellness is learned? Beauty? Skincare? Body care? Often our mothers are our first teachers and we learn these habits through emulation. I’ve picked up a lot by studying the women in my life. When I delve into these observations, one definite lesson rises to the surface—self care isn’t for Black women.
My recollections are rich with details of the many rituals around beauty and wellness the women in my family performed. My grandmother and her sister spent their Saturday nights meticulously parting and setting their hair in pink and yellow foam rollers. But this ritual wasn’t for them. It was to be presentable when they served food to the congregation in the church’s kitchen, to represent the church well.
On special occasions my grandmother would dab on cold cream—mostly Ponds, but later in life, Avon. This also wasn’t for her. It was so she didn’t look so tired after cooking for and feeding families at the neighborhood community center around the holidays.
Sometimes she’d even bring out a plastic tub and soak her feet in warm water. But this seemingly indulgent act was not for her. She often did these soaks to prepare for being on her feet all day. Not to restore or care for herself, but to prepare her body to serve others.
In so many subtle and not-so-subtle ways, I learned that these rituals and therefore “self care” meant preparing yourself to serve others.
My grandmother, and many of the women in my family, lived life by a simple creed: do all things in service of others. And because of that, they often exacted just enough “self care” to preserve themselves so they could offer labor to others.
My mother learned many of these lessons too. She lived her life in ponytails. When she was younger, they served a specific purpose. Her tomboyish nature required low-maintenance hair. When she was older, time spent grooming herself or even relaxing in any trivial way was time squandered. Time she could have spent caring for her aging parents, her young children. Time she could have spent cleaning, cooking, working. Time that would be better utilized elsewhere.
For most of my adult life, I internalized the notion that measures of self care were selfish and frivolous. Observations of the women in my family conditioned me to believe that self-neglect and ignoring your needs in favor of others meant you were a pillar, a role model.
As the world crumbled under the weight of an unchecked pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests this summer, I realized how woefully unprepared I was to experience such a wave of grief. I answered DMs and took calls to explain why activists called to defund the police, describing my experiences of racial violence to non-Black friends, all while coping with job loss, recuperating from a major surgery, and planning a cross-country move. To grapple with the overwhelming stress, I performed self care in the ways observing my foremothers taught me. A foot soak to prepare for marching all day. A face mask to perk up my neglected skin before a FaceTime call with a friend who needed someone to talk to through it all.
All of this to risk my wellbeing—in more ways than one—in service of others.
Then the dam burst. One of my closest girlfriends told me how much she admired my strength when I felt anything but strong. I realized that I was fighting for people to see Black humanity while hiding my own.
The longer Black women continue to de-prioritize our care, the longer we perpetuate the “strong Black woman” stereotype and strip ourselves of the chance to be vulnerable, soft, and to be cared for by ourselves and others.
No, self care has never been for Black women, because to prioritize our care and needs contradicts a world built on our labor and sacrifice.
Audre Lorde once said, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” And for that reason, I prioritize my version of self care. Not to prepare for service, labor, or sacrifice. Not for my mother, aunts, or grandmothers. But for me. Because that’s a good enough reason.