We, or at least I, need to let go of the idea that self-care has to look good on Instagram in order to be legitimate.
So I was having an anxiety attack the other morning. (I start a lot of conversations this way these days.) My partner asked me what I needed for an emotional reset, and as I opened my mouth to answer, I felt myself hit a wall. I knew what I needed, but I couldn’t bring myself to say it.
Finally, I blurted out through tears that what I wanted, more than anything else in the world, was to sit on the couch with the lights off and watch a scary movie.
As a person living with mental illness (Generalized Anxiety Disorder), doing regular mental health maintenance is essential to keep my symptoms within the range conducive to day-to-day functioning. That means self-care is a high priority. Or at least it’s supposed to be. I’m coming to realize that there are very specific ways self-care is supposed to look in our culture, and that it’s surprisingly difficult to articulate my needs if they fall outside those guidelines.
For one thing, self-care is often a deeply, if invisibly, gendered concept. I don’t know many men who talk about their self-care practice. It’s not that men don’t do things to maintain their emotional well-being; it’s just that when men do those things, we call them “hobbies.” Women and femmes, especially those of us who parent, have to reframe taking a walk or reading a book as “practicing self-care,” because spending time on things we enjoy for no other reason than that we enjoy them is considered selfish and immoral. We often have a hard time justifying, even to ourselves, the kind of leisure activities to which men seem to feel entitled.
The way we associate self-care with women also means that stereotypically feminine forms of self-care are more likely to be considered valid. No one thinks of horror cinema as an emotional need. For a couple of weeks before my meltdown, I had been casually dropping into conversation with my partner: “I’m in the mood to watch something scary.” “I want to have a movie night one of these days.” But I was embarrassed to admit that what I really meant was “I need to watch a zombie eviscerate a cheerleader or I’m going to emotionally implode.”
If I had been desperate for a pedicure, or an hour of yoga, I don’t think I would have felt so embarrassed to say so. How is it possible that my mental health depends on chain saw murders and buckets of fake blood? But, somehow, scary movies reset my stress level and reconnect me with the core of who I am. As long as I’m thinking about whether the prom queen will get her face chewed off by werewolves, I’m not worrying that the laundry isn’t folded or my toddler is intellectually understimulated. My anxiety, which I sometimes refer to as my “Resting Bitch Brain,” constantly yells at me that I’m not doing enough, not working hard enough, letting myself and everyone who loves me down. Sometimes the best way to shut out that metaphorical screaming is through actual screams, and the occasional severed limb.
But that’s not how women are expected to take care of ourselves. We’re supposed to find emotional fulfillment laughing alone with salad. When you think of the tasks women are encouraged to do as self-care—exercise, spa days, shopping—it’s hard to escape the conclusion that they’re less about enjoyment than about maintaining an aesthetically pleasing exterior. Articles on women’s web sites tout the power of meditation to improve your skin, of jogging to make your hair grow. Women are invited to “treat ourselves” to smaller waistlines, perkier breasts, polished fingernails, and designer clothes. No one talks about the amazing restorative potential of lying on the couch playing video games and eating Cheez-its straight out of the box.
There’s a performative gender element to this as well as a class one; if you can’t afford massage therapists and gym memberships, self-care may not only be inaccessible but actually seen as illegitimate. We acknowledge “me time” as a valid emotional need for those who can afford recreational luxuries, but poor people (again, especially mothers) are rhetorically crucified for anything perceived as selfishness. When we talk about the necessity of self-care, we need to be aware of who gets excluded from the conversation before it even begins.
We, or at least I, need to let go of the idea that self-care has to look good on Instagram in order to be legitimate. Because you know what? After I watched Cabin in the Woods and scarfed some Ben & Jerry’s the other night, I woke up the next morning ready to be a better mom, partner, writer, and human being. That shit was better than a million bubble baths, and it was free (I mean, I paid for the DVD and the ice cream, but at an earlier point in time).
I want us to remind ourselves and each other aromatherapy and Pilates is not inherently better self-care than rolling a joint and listening to Destiny’s Child. More than anything, I want all of us—especially me—to remember that we’re allowed to need things that other people don’t share or even understand. Self-care doesn’t and shouldn’t look the same for everyone, because it’s for ourselves, our weird and unique and idiosyncratic selves.
Lindsay King-Miller is a queer femme who does not have an indoor voice. Her writing has appeared in Bitch Magazine, Cosmopolitan.com, Buzzfeed, The Hairpin, and numerous other publications. She lives in Denver with her partner, a really cute baby, and two very spoiled cats. She is the author of Ask A Queer Chick (Plume, 2016).