True Self-Care Is Not About You

“Self-care” is marketed as an isolating, individual activity, but the best way to care for ourselves is to care for each other.
Lia Kantrowitz
illustrated by Lia Kantrowitz
self-care must be decolonized
Illustration by Lia Kantrowitz

After a West Coast–East Coast move last summer, I realized I overestimated my ability to manage living in New York, a city that thrives over-work, mixed in with the daily stress of casual racism and sexism that comes with living in as a woman of color in predominantly white spaces. When my anxieties reach an unbearable pitch, I speak to my mother on the phone about how disconnected I feel without the Latinx artists and writers that were my anchor in Los Angeles, how distant and cut off I feel from the earth, and myself. This year’s sickening wave of anti-Latinx, anti-immigrant hate, the recent tragedies at the border, an ongoing uptick in deportations are finally getting to me, though it makes me feel weak to admit it. I'd felt so confident that I had processed the trauma of violence and deportations from my childhood, but now they are freshly stirred up and never far from my mind, despite my best efforts.


Growing up, I had no notion of the now-inescapable concept of self-care. Now, especially in our current political climate, we are captivated by this inescapable trend. It’s both a very real need and survival skill, as well as and a Band-Aid for the failures of our government to serve its citizens with adequate healthcare. While I understand and have even indulged in the retreat-and-heal self-care approach, in a time when my community feels under constant, violent attack, it’s never felt more inadequate.

In these phone calls, my mother's response is one she stresses often: “Even when you are alone, you’re not alone.” She reminds me of the culture in which I was raised: There is a lucent force in others' care if only I set out to search for it, and provide it outside of myself, too. Though I may feel immediate aloneness, it’s ultimately an illusion. In other words, my vision of self-care must be a decolonized one, where the borders of my self are mutable, formed by my relationship to the world around me.

I am a product of violent Spanish colonialism in Mexico, both Indigenous and European. I am also a Chicagoan, a woman of color born in America—a place that seems to vibrate with its hatred for people like me, the product of the intersection of oppression and survival. I was raised by a clan of Mexican women, mothers, sisters, and cousins who assured me I was capable of anything, as well as a neighborhood of working class immigrants whose watch maintained our mutual safety. Caring for myself was built on caring for others, for all living things, in an interdependent relationship that our communities had maintained for generations.


In the urban garden of my childhood, a postage stamp-sized interruption in a decaying sea of concrete, my father would point out a nearby bird and explain how it was not a mockingbird, but a cenzontle—a creature with 400 voices. Everything around me, he taught me, was imbued with personal meaning: I had a connection to the land, the birds in the sky, and ancestors I’d never known.

As Jordan Kisner wrote for The New Yorker in 2017, “The irony of the grand online #selfcare-as-politics movement of 2016 is that it was powered by straight, affluent white women, who, although apparently feeling a new vulnerability in the wake of the election, are not traditionally the segment of American society in the greatest need of affirmation.” Teen Vogue even directly presented this type of self-care as an effective way to cope with white supremacy. But modern definitions of self-care are designed to serve those who understand the self and mental well-being as individual. Because of that, it particularly fails people with community-centered notions of personhood; people who, not incidentally, are marginalized, and as a result at greater risk.

Many western notions of good health are not reflected— mentally or physically—in Indigenous communities, or by people who see their own health as inextricable from that of a community. Western health practices ranging from “self-care” all the way to mainstream therapy do not account for this. People like myself would benefit from seeing them take on a decolonized approach, one where relationship-based identity is foundational to individuals, the environment, and the past in otherwise hostile political, environmental, and economic circumstances. This approach could fill many gaps where American healthcare and culture remain exclusionary.

Renewed by my mother’s perspective, earlier this summer I attended the Aniwa Gathering, where Indigenous leaders and elders from around the world collected to share their wisdom and rituals with an audience of largely American attendees. While imperfect in some ways, it gave me access to the traditional, Indigenous ways of life that are too rare in my everyday life, practices that my ancestors might have dreamed for me. I found myself healed in the physical presence of familial relationships, in the knowledge that we are all related, outside of the bonds of nuclear family. I was able to make sense of my place in the world. This spirit is present in the warmth and joy of meals shared with other women of color in my field, in new-found acceptance to Latinx communities in New York, in helping others find their voice and in finding value in my own. The most revitalizing part is seeing all the ways the women I am honored to call colleagues become my healers and guides.

For my own well being, I must remember my sense of self has always been, and needs to remain, plural. In the face of recent events as well as an entire lifetime of oppression, finding survival and care for my body and mind has meant melding my ancestral practices with the modern world I live in. In looking to the past—my own, and my ancestors'—I find empathy and harmony with the way I walk through the world, no matter how cruel it can be, to find what I sought all along: a wholeness with my self.