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Love and Afrofeminism: Is the Self-Care Movement Individualist or Revolutionary?

My first two posts focused on Love for Others (i.e., relationships), so this week, I wanted to focus on Love for Self. Here we go...

[Trigger warning for discussion of suicide]

Hi, My name is Spectra, and I'm a recovering first daughter of an African family. Many of you may not know what this means, but if there are any Africans (or better yet, Nigerians) reading this: You are not alone. For the rest of you, let me explain.

My first name, Adaora, in Igbo (a Nigerian language) means "Daughter of the People." The root, "Ada" (pronounced, "Ah-Dah") always refers to the first daughter of the family. So, when one meets other Adas (Adaobi, Adaeze, Adaaku, etc.), you instantly know they, too, are the first daughters in their families, and therefore share your plight.

Being the first daughter of an African family comes with many rewards: constant praise just for being the first girl, early leadership training due to your parents believing (for the mere fact that you were born first) that you can handle anything, doting Aunties, Grandmothers, and community members the instant they hear your name, and first dibs at every aspect of family life, including the stew pot, Christmas presents, and parenting mistakes.

Now that you know this, you're ready for the good part. My name is particularly interesting; the second root word, "Ora" (pronounced "Ore-Rah"), translates to "community." Thus, Adaora (my full name, pronounced Ah-dore-rah) suggests a permanent relationship between the daughter of a Nigerian family and her community. Adaora is the pride and joy of her people, the girl who will always lead by good example. Adaora is the child that will shoulder the responsibility of her siblings' welfare (because she is the oldest) and her community's livelihood (because she is a leader). Adaora's roles, responsibilities, and indeed, obligations to her family (to run the house), her community (to lead it and make it proud), and to herself (to be perfect, and never think of self), were decided for her at birth.

Most Adas will wear this ribbon proudly, never questioning their parents' casual, yet persistent dictations of their careers, paths, and romantic lives. The mother of an Ada looks forward to the day when her daughter will finally marry, make her the proudest mother in the city/village/planet, bear children (an Ada of her own), and never once question if any of this is what Ada wants.

Sound familiar? You don't have to be Nigerian to recognize the challenge of traditional gender roles—and women being pigeon-holed into caregiving. Some of us have these roles upheld through political systems or religious faiths. However, in my case, the gendered role (of caring for everyone else and sacrificing my needs, constantly, for the betterment of my family and community) happens to be dictated by my culture. Still, my Nigerian/African heritage is a very central part of my identity; our family values, community-centric approach to everything, and the strong sense of duty that comes with both of those things have guided me for as long as I can remember. Thus, even with the heightened awareness that perhaps an unusual amount of self-sacrifice came with my name, I was reluctant to deviate from this for a very long time.

a photo of scales on a red box

For instance, as the first daughter of my family, it was my unspoken responsibility to take care of my siblings when they first arrived in the US for school. I was just a freshman in college myself, but there was absolutely no question that I would find a way to pay for things they needed, host them during holidays (in my single coffin-sized bedroom, even against school policy that prohibited long-term guests), and play the role of surrogate parent until my parents could get back on their feet. That never happened. And so, while my friends could go afford to go shopping, party on weeknights, and get their hair done whenever they were having an unpretty day, every single decision I made about money or time revolved around my responsibility to care for my siblings (who, by the way, resented me for playing mother all the time, and thus rebelled constantly). I had become so accustomed to ignoring my own needs that I sank further and further into depression.

It became too much. I eventually exhausted my capacity to continue shouldering the burden of being "the first daughter" and, one night, could no longer stay shackled to being a role model of duty and self-sacrifice. I attempted to take my own life.

I have since then adopted self-love and self-care as a framework, and a lifestyle. And though I really want to tell you that it was the love for self that moved me to take better care of myself and tend to my needs, it happened to also be out of "duty" that I decided to get better. The thought of my siblings (especially my sister, who was undocumented and living with me in my dorm room at the time) being forced to fend for themselves in such a xenophobic country post-9/11 made the decision to take care of myself easier; after all, it was for them.

Before I go any further, I have to mention how uncomfortable I am with this notion of considering "duty" to others even in the face of severe depression. As a survivor who often speaks about suicide and mental health, I can't tell you how infuriating it is to hear people talk about people who died by suicide as "selfish," as this places blame on the person, and not on the system/environment that pushed them to the act in the first place. Yet, I also cannot deny the reality of my own experience, and that there is something very compelling (perhaps, due to my cultural values) about assessing either the benefit or liability of one's actions on the community(ies) to which one belongs. In my case, assessing the impact of my own mental health on my siblings' lives motivated me to better take care of myself, but this obviously isn't always the case, and won't work for everyone.

African culture prioritizes the welfare of the whole over the individual—perhaps too much so. But on the flipside, the individualism I've experienced in the US isn't much better. For instance, LGBT people of color and members of the faith community are often judged by coming-out-obsessed mainstream "Gay, Inc." for not being "strong" or "selfless" enough, essentially devaluing how strength is defined within their own contexts, perhaps as self-sacrifice. As such, people who literally "choose life" by prioritizing their self-care and general livelihood over family expectations are celebrated (whereas they'd be judged harshly in other contexts).

The tension between self-care and community care (or individualism and martyrdom, as I prefer to label them in extremes) is evident in the media: The ongoing debate about whether celebrities should be forced to come out (e.g., Queen Latifah's ongoing battle with the media trying to out her), the way praise is delivered à la remarks of self-sacrifice when they do (e.g., Frank Ocean's recent coming out in the face of a homophobic hip hop industry), and the incessant policing of how survivors deal with their trauma (e.g., Rihanna as a controversial role model for domestic violence survivors) are just a few examples.

But it's not just celebrity that is plagued by the question of whether taking time out to care for oneself is individualist or truly a revolutionary act in a system that restricts women to caregiving; unhealthy nonprofit martydom culture, too, often celebrates the poor, harried, unappreciated activist while admonishing those who prioritize their financial stability over world peace.

Despite this tension, however, self-care is undoubtedly becoming increasingly popular, to the point that some debate has already been sparked about its tendency towards individualism, and lack of accountability. I certainly am not for a culture of shirking responsibilities under the guise of "self-care" and self-absorption—disregarding the impact of one's actions on our community/environment/others is no better. Yet, as more and more people adopt self-care as a way of life, I potentially see irresponsibility charading as self-care as a trend.

Ultimately, here's what I believe: We need balance. I believe that by taking care of ourselves, we're in a better position to care for community. Whenever my mother was strained, I preferred she disappeared for a few hours into her room then came out in a better mood then stay nagging and snapping at us the entire day. As an activist, I find that I'm no different. I'm much more efficient, tempered, and capable of supporting others when I feel nourished and spiritually centered.

Historians often hail Mother Theresa as the icon of selflessness; a woman of meager economic means, she dedicated her life to serving others who were less fortunate. Yet, even she—the most popular saint in the entire world—preached the importance of self-love and self-care. Her quote, "Love begins at home," is a constant reminder that our communities are only as strong as we are; caring for ourselves must be our top priority if we desire the capacity to continually care for others. So, despite the messages that tell us we're selfish for caring for ourselves, we must remain steadfast in the belief that when we're kinder to ourselves, we're better to each other and stronger for our communities.

What do you think? How have messages around servitude impacted you? Do you feel guilty when you take care of yourself? How do you manage it? What factors determine your decision to ultimately care for yourself and act for the benefit of your community?

Previously: Queer Bois and the Gendered Politics of Partner Dancing, The Curious Case of Gender Roles

Image: BlauEarth via Flickr

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Comments

4 comments have been made. Post a comment.

You already know

Bru this was so cool, I was like totally thinking about this shit and why people can't just give me a break. I'm so tired of having to be something for everybody else and not taking the time for me. So I'm totally getting a mani/pedi, drinking wine and masturbating BOOYAH! Self care is a revolution!

Thank you for writing this. I

Thank you for writing this. I hope that you are able to give yourself the self-love and self-care that you need.

As a white American, I know that I cannot fully understand your experiences, nor have I shouldered the same burdens.

Still, as the oldest daughter in a family hurt by alcoholism, drug-addiction, and abuse, I have been thinking a lot about self-care lately. I tried to take responsibility for my parents and sister, and I wonder how much of this was a role I adopted vs. a role that was culturally sanctioned. Growing up in a religious environment, I sometimes applied bible teachings to my own situation, and despaired because I didn't want to "turn the other cheek" and didn't feel I had enough love to endure abuse and keep on giving.

I left my family to go to college and grad school, and I sometimes feel guilty for this. I felt guilty having more expendable money than my parents -- and for the most part, not sharing it so I could afford books, a decent apartment, and pay off my loans. But I tell myself that I had always wished my mother would have been less of a martyr, and more energized and able to care for us. I tell myself that if I take care of myself, I will not only be a healthier individual, but I will ultimately have more to offer my sister, my parents, and my community.

Self-care is literally a big challenge for me though. As a kid I could take care of my family. As an adult, I feel accomplished when I sleep, brush my teeth, wash my face, and eat 2-3 meals a day for a whole week. Has anyone else experienced this?

Give from your surplus, not from your core

I help to facilitate a program for people who have attempted suicide, and self-care is one of the most important and challenging aspects of it. Many people who have attempted suicide have given everything to others and have nothing left for themselves. We say, "Give from your surplus, not from your core." This means that taking care of yourself comes first, and when caring for others is a priority, your #1 priority is still to keep yourself strong and healthy so that you can care for others the best you can.

Thanks

As a person of color and an immigrant to the U.S., I really appreciate highlighting the tension and (sometimes) contradiction between self-love (care) and the caring responsibilities to one's family and community. It's an issue that many queers and feminists that I have encountered do not often get when I explain to them. That said, taking care of oneself is very important for those of us involved in various aspects of community organizing, comunity-building, community work. Thanks for writing this article.