Black Bodies, Self-Care, and the Limits of Class


By Deirdre Cooper Owens

I first read Audre Lorde’s quotation about the political nature of self-care about two years ago. Black feminist activist Lorde exhorted, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” Her words changed my life. I had never viewed self-care as a radically political act. Like many women I knew, I conceived of self-care as exercising, taking a bubble bath, visiting a salon to receive some beauty service and treating myself to an especially tasty meal. Before Lorde’s mantra entered my life, I defined self-care as engaging in some act that was indulgent and represented a reversal of roles; I was the recipient of pampering services and not the provider. It did not dawn on me that “caring for myself” could be either revolutionary or a political act. 

Two years later, I have discovered that other black women feminists have also been inspired to examine and write about Lorde’s bold dictum. They have done so on various media sites such as the Feminist Wire, Huffington Post, and personal blogs. Nearly all of the authors use Lorde’s call for self-care to analyze the politics of racism, feminism, political organizing and the powerfully subversive political nature of black women choosing to love themselves despite living in a society that has not demonstrated the same kind of reciprocity to this group. Clearly, their analyses are important and valid; however, I would like to broaden the existing conversation to include class.

The political dimensions of class are relevant to discussions of self-care, race and gender because black women, the group of which I am a member, tend to be either unemployed or underemployed, have less savings and more financial debt, live in food deserts, experience more illnesses and head households at greater numbers than other women, especially white women. Thus it is not only problematic but also dangerous when self-care becomes commodified. Just as I believed a few short years ago that getting a massage, attending a yoga class and going on vacation symbolized how much I privileged myself and my life, I had not yet connected the dots that in those moments of pleasure, I was also buying into a system that told me I had to spend money to achieve peace of mind. It seemed I had not escaped the middle-class values that my parents had so instilled in me as a girl; investing in myself was pecuniary, literally.

Of course in a capitalist society, I was not alone in my beliefs. Two years ago, I lived in a small college town in Mississippi. The messages were clear to members of the middle class and the wealthy who lived there; care for ourselves involved spending money.

There was a yoga studio; two barre and cycling studios were being built; and there were a number of spas, award-winning restaurants and a downtown area that only a few residents could afford to frequent. In the poorest state in the nation, I lived in a town where most of the population could not participate in a live yoga class with trained professionals because their average salaries would not allow them the disposable income to engage in this form of centering and self-preservation. Further, these businesses designed to rejuvenate women were overwhelmingly white and elite spaces where poorer women and women of color might feel isolated and in some instances unwelcomed.

If self-care is truly an act of political warfare, it must equitable and accessible. Women, especially those who are the most vulnerable and at-risk among us, must practice self-care as a political act of love; it must be rooted in community building and not in the maintenance of existing capitalistic enterprises that perpetuate inequalities in our communities.

In Methodology of the Oppressed, feminist scholar Chela Sandoval argues love should be

“redefined as a mode of social and psychic activism.” It is revolutionary to choose to love yourself enough to ignore societal messages that link money to self-care. Instead, how empowering would it be to reexamine what self-care means in communities of color? It might be the long conversation with a sista-friend that elicits a range of emotions that ultimately renews the spirit. Or looking in the mirror lovingly at your skin, features, hair and body and believing wholly that your reflection and presence is a gift to the world. Finally, to be able to embrace vulnerability as a central part of the political practice of self-care would revolutionize black women’s lives. I imagine this is what Audre Lorde was getting at when she wrote A Burst of Light: Essays, the book in which her now famous quote appeared.

Harkening back to Lorde’s forceful quote, we must examine it and her life at the time in context. In 1988, the same year A Burst of Light was published, Audre Lorde was living with breast cancer and was suffering severe economic hardships because of the costs associated with treating a terminal illness. In the epilogue of her essay about living with her disease, Lorde wrote, “Sometimes I feel like I am living on a different star from the one I am used to calling home. It has not been a steady progression. I had to examine, in my dreams as well as in my immune-function tests, the devastating effects of overextension. Overextending myself is not stretching myself. I had to accept how difficult it is to monitor the difference. Necessary for me as cutting down on sugar.

Crucial. Physically. Psychically. Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” Lorde’s realization of the political nature of self-care grew out of despair, pain and difference. Even still, she offered a “methodology of love” to all of us, but especially her sisters, that moved us from the margins to the center.


Cooper_Owens_AID_100.pngDeirdre Cooper Owens is an historian and DSA member who lives in New York.




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