The text was two sentences and in that moment those two sentences were everything.
“Look, you’re not on this journey alone. I’ll be your person.”
Tears immediately sprang to my eyes. Recent experiences had rocked me to the core and lately it felt like my world was crumbling around me. I desperately needed support. I needed someone to talk to who wouldn’t judge me. And even though I had known her for less than two months, here she was offering me advice, compassion and unconditional friendship.
Though I wanted to be surprised, I was not. And I gratefully accepted and received the help.
This is what Black women do for each other-- especially in times of crisis. Somehow, even though we have a world of burden and hurt that we are carrying for ourselves, we rally and create loving community for each other and those around us.
It is one of our greatest gifts.
It can also be one of our biggest downfalls.
In carrying the weight of the world, we often forget about taking care of ourselves. Self-care appears to be a luxury, not a necessity or a right. And because of it, we suffer. We have high rates of heart disease, obesity, mental, emotional and physical stress that goes unspoken and undiagnosed. Between racism, misogynoir, being superwomen who get shit done and holding space for everyone, we experience a combination of trauma and physical illness that is, quite literally, killing us.
Of course, what I’m sharing is not a new phenomenon. Black women have been writing and talking about this topic for years, especially in the wake of some of the more recent incidents police and structural violence directed at Black people. However, it’s been on my mind a lot recently as I move through the world, talk with and read the words of other Black women. During a phone call this week, a sister-friend and colleague shared the following with me:
“A brother said to me ‘Black women don’t take care of themselves. White women are always in the gym taking care of themselves.’ My response to him: ‘We are busy taking care of you, your children and the community. We are raising the community. We are saving the community. We don’t have extra time to go to the gym, too.’” – DJ
I reject this brother’s observation for a whole host of reasons. As someone who prides herself on nuanced, critical thinking and high level analysis, I have no desire to entertain intellectually lazy and simplified arguments. Clearly, it goes without saying that not all White women take care of themselves and that all Black women don’t. I know plenty of White women who are also stressed out by the pressures of daily life and struggle with self-care. I also know a number of sisters who are making self-care a priority and are always in the gym, at the yoga studio, eating right etc. And I’m definitely not here for ANY kind of shaming of Black women, particularly with comparisons about how White women take care of themselves in a way that results in a more physically attractive appearance than Black women. To me that comment is reflective of nothing more than internalized racism and oppression, patriarchy and ignorance that I don’t have time or interest in refuting or expounding on.
What I do wonder about is why we are characterized so negatively and judged so harshly considering that we literally give our bodies in the service of caring for other people?
Black women’s bodies (just like our hair) have always been and continue to be political. We gave birth to the labor that built this country and also built this country through our own labor. We’ve never fully been in control of our own bodies since literally anyone and everyone has been able to tell us what to do with it since we arrived in this part of the world. We’ve been enslaved and given birth to enslaved peoples. We’ve been the mistresses of enslavers and victims of their sexual assault. We’ve clothed and fed White bodies. We’ve nursed White children from our own breasts. We’ve cared for the elderly and dying relatives of White people. If you add up that labor from 1619 to 2016, we’ve been doing that work for 397 years.
Yet, outside of the conversations that we have with each other, there is no understanding of the physical, emotional and mental challenges that face Black women in this society and why it might be difficult to prioritize our self-care. It’s assumed that we are overweight and out of shape (and subsequently unhappy) because we are lazy. And if one of us is “in shape” (meaning a physique that is deemed acceptable by Western European standards), she is held up as a model to the rest of us to let us know that we are deficient in some way and need to do better.
The above idea is demonstrated by Kanye West’s music video for the song “Fade” which premiered this past weekend at the MTV Video Music Awards. To be honest, I’m not a fan of Ye’s (I gave up on him sometime between My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and his relationship with Kim Kardashian) or the VMA’s. But the resulting conversations about the model in the video, Teyana Taylor, and Black women’s fitness have provoked much to reflect on. While I haven’t seen the whole video, I have been inundated daily with GIFs, memes and photos of Teyana’s physique. Generally, the impressions that I get from these images are that I am super lazy for not looking like Teyana.
They scream: “Teyana has a newborn but she’s in great shape!” “Teyana is a Black woman just like you and she can do it all, why can’t you?” “Teyana proves that Black women actually do go to the gym and work out!”
There is little to dispute. Teyana has a phenomenal body and has likely put a lot of time and effort into shaping it. I commend her, support her and cheer her on as she makes her way in the world as a Black woman who is fly as fuck.
I also know that I am not Teyana. The women I know are not Teyana. She is 25. We are in our late 20s, 30s and 40s. Without getting into a comparison of our lived experiences, I will say that at 25, I most certainly had a different set of experiences and priorities than I do at 38. I was not married, I wasn’t even working full time (I was still in grad school) and I hadn’t fully experienced all those racial and sexist microagressions that let me know that despite my best efforts, the world would often let me know that it does everything it can to make sure that Black women do not thrive. At 25, I had much more time and energy to go to the gym and obsess over my figure than I do now- although I spent nearly every moment on my studies to make the $50,000 student debt worth it. And I certainly hadn’t made the connection to the fact that every ounce of mental and emotional energy I would put into fighting racism and sexism in my later years would leave me physically drained. But that aside, even if I had 8 hours a day to work out incessantly, my body type is different than hers. I will never look like Teyana. I’m ok with that. That’s actually the beauty of Black women; we come in all shapes, sizes, colors, textures and personalities. We do not have to look like Teyana to be worthy of love, attention and humanity.
While I know these things with absolute certainty, it would be nice for the rest of the world to understand that when we aren’t prioritizing our self-care, its not because we are lazy. In fact, very often its because we are prioritizing your health, happiness and well-being. We are also helping each other on our individual journey toward health, happiness and well-being.
Stop judging us. Be thankful for all we do.
While I know that my own self-care is not a luxury, I know need to pay better attention to it. Perhaps in some way my writing this down is my way of putting that intention out into the universe. However, I also know that, for me, self-care doesn’t necessarily mean going to the gym or eliminating carbs from my diet. While those are certainly forms of self-care, I’m certain that the physical is empty without the spiritual and emotional work I need to do to lift myself up. When I reflect on my self-care, what’s really teaching me the most about loving myself is what I learn through with other Black women. Through their words, actions and deeds, Black women show me that, no matter how terrible things get, we can always give much needed attention, support and healing to each other. It encourages me to reach beyond myself and to give back to other women. My interaction with other Black women is my self-care. In community, we make space for each other to be heard. To be seen. To be human. To be each other’s “person.” If that’s not self-care, I don’t know what is.
Recently, I was required to write a response to the question “Which woman inspires you and why?” This is how I responded:
“How do you name an amalgamation of every Black woman you know? The sister at my favorite lunch spot who always gives me a knowing smile and hooks me up with extras; the professor at university who insisted I had a right to be there like everyone else and wouldn’t accept less from me; the yoga instructor who asserted that, despite thick thighs and back rolls, yoga was for me too; the new friend who barely knew me but sensed trouble and told me she’d be my “person.” Black women are always inspiring me by loving and living with fearlessness that only we possess. We make magic and claim our humanity in a world that doesn’t want us to survive."
We may not always do self-care the way others do. Maybe it’s by going to the gym or running 20 miles. Maybe it’s by nurturing the community. Maybe it’s by eating our favorite cupcake from Crumbs bakery. Maybe it’s by spending time together. Whatever it is, the way we hold and love each other fiercely is nothing less than God like.
And for that, I am forever grateful.