My mother is a 64-year-old woman from Bangladesh who has only had a massage once in her life. And even then, she only went because my father and I forced her into it; we made the appointment and took her there ourselves because we hoped it would help soothe her arthritic hip. We mistakenly chose a traditional Chinese massage thinking it would relax her, but instead of humming through the type of pain that you know will inevitably make you feel better, she wept. Later, in the car, she declared that she’d never do it again.
When I lament my mother’s hardships, I think of that—her closeness to relief, but her insistence on bypassing it. I think of how my whole life, she’s never nursed her wounds, and instead let them turn into big gaping holes of dissatisfaction. In comparison, I feel so bougie and bratty to have had even a tenth of the indulgence I’ve experienced in my life. But I’ve come to realize that comparing us makes no sense—we are different beings with two different needs.
The generational divide: is self-care necessary… or nonsense?
My mother comes from a family of socialists and wore ratty clothes as a child—her father didn’t believe his children had a right to new ones when many of their neighbours had no food to eat. So, she grew up disdaining the idea of indulgence. When she immigrated to Canada with my father in the early ’80s, she brought with her an ingrained thriftiness, keen ability to save and an abiding love of hard work. It came in handy—my father was a PhD student, so she babysat to make extra money. For the longest time, that was her main sense of income, though she didn’t actually enjoy caring for other people’s children when she had two of her own. She did, however, enjoy the self-sacrifice. Actually, she reveled in it. And to this day, she enjoys hard work, and still denies herself small pleasures or even conveniences.
An example: My mother has gone on and off her medication for since I was born. This is partially because she didn’t think she was sick and therefore didn’t want to dull her senses—she has said as much to me before. But another part of it, I know, is because she’s afraid of spending the money. For her, money and scarcity are irrevocably linked; you don’t just come by it, it “doesn’t grow on trees,” as she’s told me, time and time again. She’s afraid to become reliant on something that makes her feel good—if she does, she’ll have to spend money on it forever, so she avoids that thing altogether.
When I talk about my own self-care practices, on the other hand, I often wax poetic about acupuncture and regular reflexology. Though I despise myself when I express such things because I think I sound pompous (I have internalized a lot of my family’s socio-political ideals), I do actually mean it. They make me feel better about myself, my own existence, my body—which, for a person who has stifling body dysmorphia, is a very wonderful thing.
Self-care is not actually about $$$
A few years ago, I realized I could’ve saved so much of the money I spent on “nothing clothes,” garments that I no longer own and have long since donated to the Salvation Army. It was suddenly clear that I needed to think more actively about the money I spent, and why I spent it. That’s how self-care came to the forefront of my mind. I decided I wanted to learn how to be a better spender and treat myself with diligence. My body was getting older and my needs more specific. Things were no longer sustaining me. Around the same time, I realized I actually hated myself, and I wanted to work towards healing whatever was inside of me. Slowly, self-care—though I never called it that at the time—became a way for me to think more critically about my needs.
It’s hard to untangle my self-consciousness about my self-care practices from my mother’s feelings on the topic. In so many ways, I admire her frugality. It’s an art, frankly, and one that I never inherited. Unlike my family, I have always leaned towards self-indulgence. I started working at 14, at the Body Shop in my local mall, and soon garnered enough money to feed my habit of accumulating clothes and makeup. I’m 28 and I still don’t have a savings account.
But I’ve come to understand that I need self-care despite the messages from my family. It took me a long time to learn that I don’t need to “deserve” to care for myself, that I just can, in whatever way possible. That’s why, as much as I struggle with money, or have a destructive voice in my head that tells me I’m useless, or ugly or disgusting, I persevere. I tell myself that I owe myself care. That nobody can give it to me, and that I shouldn’t expect anybody else to. That when I’m feeling low or lonely, I need to pull myself out of it and give myself a break, a kind familiar reminder that I am worthy of the love I want, from myself. Whether it’s a snack I’ve been withholding from myself, or even a Netflix show I haven’t thought I worked hard enough to watch… or yes, even an acupuncture session or a reflexology massage, that I deserve to feel happy in my body, despite all the conditioning that’s told me otherwise.
We’ve been missing something important, though: who actually gets to practise self-care?
I acknowledge my privilege as an artist who makes money off of their desired medium, who can take breaks throughout the day to make an appointment with a kinesiologist about a pulled neck or even just Skype a friend who can read my tarot when I’m feeling in a funk… but, what about everyone else? What about people who don’t have these same privileges? Who have a 9-5? Or need prescription medication for their depression, and can afford little else afterwards? All of which is to ask a larger, more difficult question: Who gets to care for themselves? The rhetoric of “self-care” is capitalist. It’s about our external selves—nails, hair, massages. But the people who arguably need to care for themselves the most—the poor, the sick, the disenfranchised, the marginalized—are precisely the ones with the least access to this type of care. They likely would be better served by a deeper understanding of self-care, anyway, as they’re the ones that are most denied it.
That’s why we need to think more actively about what self-care means for the people around us. Spending what my mother thinks is an exorbitant amount of money might not be her chosen act of self-care, but these days I try and remind her that self-care is not actually about spending money on things or experiences. It’s an idea, it’s a mindset. She denies herself some pleasures, yes, but there are things she loves—like her career as a painter, her gardening. She doesn’t see these things as self-care, but I know she needs them for her survival.
What we should be teaching folks—young and old—is that no matter how much money is involved, the cost is nullified by the incredible satisfaction you gain from looking after yourself. That right there is priceless. So, I tell my mom, massages or no massages, she has to learn how to like herself enough to care for herself. That’s really the first and only step of self-care. The rest is just self-curation.