Stacking sweaters and long pants on the checkout counter of my new favorite store, Aritzia, I spy a brilliant apple red sweatshirt in the corner of my eye and quickly grab a size XS – carefully placing it atop the pile like a Jenga block in a risky game.
September typically rolls in with stifling hot Labor Day beach parties spent secretly longing for cool breezes and chunky sweaters. Along with it also comes a rush of hope; there’s a fresh air coming that will usher in a fresh start.
I hurried home to play dress up with my new fall clothing, and when I arrived, I looked at myself for a while in front of my full-length mirror. I am now the adult version of my childhood Barbie doll, Kenya. I get to spend meticulous hours grooming and dressing her. I get to orchestrate an entire lifestyle and storyline for her. I get to choose what happens next for her.
I pulled a pair of Aaliyah-inspired camouflage pants over my hips, expecting to immediately become a 90s R&B kind of cool. A little snug, I thought to myself and shrugged.
Moving on, I grab the red cropped sweatshirt with glee. I have every intention of giving Bobby Brown realness this fall. Scrunch. Scrunch. Scrunch. Inhale. Pull. The sweatshirt barely cuts off beneath my boobs and I suddenly look like Barbie in a mental hospital—skintight, stuffy cotton awkwardly stretched over each arm forcing me to hold my arms straight out to the sides. I wiggled for a solid fifteen minutes before removing the sweatshirt in a sweaty ball. My eyes then zoomed in on the tag. Why the hell did I grab an extra small? I questioned myself.
A familiar insidious feeling crept over my whole body at the realization that I am not an extra small, nor have I been in a long time, and I may never be one again. Firmly planted in my thirties, my twenty-something had body slowly melted away like a late August afternoon.
Before the feeling washed over my consciousness and took full reign over my emotions, I stopped myself with an affirmation. Lord knows I may be extra, but I’ll never be small. I don’t need to be anybody’s size small to be happy.
September is not only a month of fresh starts, it is also—perhaps symbolically—Self Care Awareness Month. And this year, it could not come at a better time. I’ve spent the entirety of 2018 on a radical self-care journey and learned to overcome the conditioned waves of shame that so many women are taught to have about their bodies. I spent months reflecting on what it truly means to take care of myself and discovered it was pretty damn similar to the way I cared for my Barbies so many years ago.
I’ll never forget one of them lost her entire leg to a reckless older cousin who was trying to show her how to do a split. Instead of tossing her to the wind, I simply made a storyline for her life. She was Ariel, the differently-abled, strikingly beautiful woman who Ken ultimately ended up leaving his girlfriend Kenya for (what can I say, I’ve always loved a little drama).
Somehow along the road, I lost my ability to see beauty in all women’s bodies, and only drama remained. I’d spent many years of my adolescent and adult life, like so many young women, being painfully insecure about my physical differences that deviated from European beauty standards (or reinforced the “less desirable” ones, like, not having a big enough ass). At worst, I was obsessively emulating women who were, as Jameela Jamil eloquently put it in her interview with Krishnan Guru-Murthy “double agents of the patriarchy.”
Then suddenly came a new movement that promised to make it all better. In actuality, it was a wolf in sheep’s clothing. The movement, ironically, was called “self-care.”
According to a 2017 Slate article, the concept originated in the medical field as something doctors often suggested patients with mental illness or high-stress jobs practice to find balance. Today, it’s much different.
In exploration, it was an Instagram co-opted opportunity for people to bombard us with images and tales of their physical or financial advancement. A “Who Did It Best” of sorts, self-care became a movement of exorbitant travel, expensive spa days, beautifully photographed at-home bath routines and so on. So much of self-care centered around improving your physicality or spending your money in an already anxiety-inducing consumer society.
A quick Instagram search for #selfcare brings up a self-care thread that suggests you straighten your hair, do a face mask, find a cute oversized sweatshirt, do your nails, and eat Halo Top ice cream (it’s only 200 calories, they promise!).
Another thread shows photos of white women under the caption “How to Get Clear Skin.”
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The most haunting ones obsess over how to achieve a singular desirable body type and “look like a snack.”
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This is the commodification of self-care. It’s insecurity repacked and dubiously thrown back in our faces as an antidote when it’s actually just poison in a pretty bottle. Drink the entire can of Kool-Aid and you can actually end up worse off emotionally and mentally than you were when you began.
Don’t get me wrong. My Barbie certainly got this level of top-notch care growing up, but there was so much more to how I cared for her. I cared about her life and her life story—her body was just a piece of that.
Therapist, coaches, and even religious counselors often suggest that patients go back and speak to their inner child to start a journey of healing. When I looked back at the care I gave women before I ever received society’s messages about them, it was rooted in love and a wondrous imagination about all the things a woman could be.
As I stumbled upon the discovery that self-care starts with love, imagination, and hope, I found my footing on a road to truly doing the work it takes to protect and honor my body in a world that regards authentic Black beauty with disgust, guilt and shame. I learned how to talk to myself, how to strengthen and heal my Black body, and how to resist and reject any meme or human who tries to control my body. I learned that self-care is remembering that I am more than a body and should never be defined solely by mine. Self-care became the recognition that I am a spirit, a mind, and a personality and my exterior can reflect that in a million ways at once.
I looked back at myself in the mirror and threw the two overly snug items of clothing back in the bag to be returned. I flopped my full weight on the King-sized bed that always supports me and thought about my next story for Hip Latina.
Who knew that at thirty-one years old I would find self-care for my adult body in my childhood mind?