Self-care entered our vocabulary around 2016 and prompted an evolution, almost a rebellion, from neoliberal work values. From quaint artist interpretations on Instagram, quotes from activists, to now, the final chapter in how content turns into profit. Ultimately, self-care was hijacked by for-profit companies selling “self-care” to us in bath bombs, moisturizer and face masks. It is a cruel joke when capitalism finds a way to sell us self-care when these ideas originated as a new way to think about the time we give to our jobs and the endless hustle to survive. The last, most despicable twist of capitalism stealing the rhetoric of self-care is seen in not incorporating self-care into your employers and social structures, pushing self-care into an individual responsibility we have to ourselves. The catch? No real change happens to allow employees to implement self-care. By pushing self-care on the individual, our individual, physical and spiritual needs are now on us in the rare moment we get to catch our breath. Deadlines pile, increase responsibility without changing leave allotments, pay or breaks.
Burnt out? Well, that’s now on you for not providing yourself adequate self-care. If you’re South East Asian, you also end up filling the quota of brown, the added responsibility of speaking for everyone who shares your skin colour. The microaggressions, erasure of our voices when diversity becomes inconvenient. The unacknowledged burden of being part of any minority group.
I learnt about self-care in 2013 when I volunteered for a local sexual violence service. Some of the stories we had to hear and hold meant that we had to be very self-aware and communicate and recognise when we needed space. The difference was that we received the space, time, provision and supervision needed when we knew we weren’t in a safe space to support survivors. While it wasn’t perfect, it was the most flexible, aware and encouraging space I have been in that let me take time for self-care when I needed it.
By pushing self-care on the individual, our individual, physical and spiritual needs are now on us in the rare moment we get to catch our breath.
Self-Care blew my mind into a thousand pieces when I first heard the term. I had recently been diagnosed with fibromyalgia, finishing my honours degree with tendonitis in my hands. I struggled to keep up with my peers, most people with long lineages of family members who had attended university. I also balanced a job, saving to move out, and my unaddressed trauma was beginning to take its toll. Added was the extra spicy level of an eating disorder, over-exercising and not sleeping.
I drove my body into the ground.
Determined to show my parents that my arts degree would get me somewhere, I had to continue the dream of financial progression. I could be everything they wanted me to be - successful, thin and smart. I knew everything my mother and father had given up to raise us, including injuries from back-breaking labour and working countless nights. I had to be successful. I had to make it.
The complex layers of our identity and history are missing from our conversations about implementing self-care, which makes self-care inaccessible, overwhelming, and lacking.
My ancestors were indentured labourers who, under false pretences, were lured to Fiji. Social mobility in India remains difficult due to compounding Hindu beliefs around karma and the caste system. For many, our futures are determined by the random lottery of which family we are born into. So like many of our parents and grandparents, they left trying to escape poverty. My ancestors, however, landed into abhorrent labour conditions and were exploited for cheap labour, their tears wetting the sugar fields they were indentured into. Indentured labour was the British governments work around new slavery laws. Yes, they paid labourers, but meagre amounts or loaned sums of money that labourers had to work off in the sugar cane fields. However, the British colonial system continued enforcing the violence and racism that was prevalent in slave colonies.
I knew everything my mother and father had given up to raise us, including injuries from back-breaking labour and working countless nights. I had to be successful. I had to make it.
This trauma runs deep in our veins. It was only 1920 when we were freed. Decades later, my parents would make a similar journey to New Zealand. As South-East Asian Diaspora, many of our stories have similar themes of sacrifice, exploitation, and backbreaking labour. The dream of a better life hangs heavy on our shoulders. While science has now caught up with the field of epigenetics emerging, we now know that trauma can literally change our genetic expression. The histories we carry bleeds into our identity, decision-making processes, values and how we live our lives.
My upbringing and historical context meant that I had never thought of the concept of self-care. I see self-care as deliberate actions and tasks that enrich our lives, necessary ways to nourish ourselves and the necessary time we care for ourselves to handle the intense demands of our daily lives. We all navigate opposing cultural norms of Western individualism and South-East Asian collectivism. To intentionally do something that benefits ourselves? It can feel guilt-inducing and alien. Especially when your ancestors, your parents, seem to work so hard to provide opportunities they didn’t have. Instead of being able to live their best lives, they sacrificed to give us the opportunity to live their very best lives. They sacrificed their own opportunities for education, having to make an awful decision between studying or affording food. It was almost like they worked so hard to this point, to survive, and whatever came beyond surviving didn’t really exist. I see my parents, who have worked so hard to be comfortable and afford symbols of financial status, now feeling a sense of deep loss at their children carving their own identities.
When you are surviving, there is no room for “self-indulgent” practices of self-care. There is resentment, anger and hurt. There is no space for you to assert your individual rights to happiness, peace and safety, especially for women who carry the burden of being responsible for family values such as honour and chastity.
Self-care is also alienating to us since it has morphed into a consumer good. However, when I first came across the term, like all good ideas, it seemed like, “oh, of course I should do that.” One example was to limit the number of clients I would see in a week to avoid burn out. Another, if I had heard a story that deeply impacted me, perhaps, I should plan something nice for myself when I got home, watch an uplifting film. My introduction to self-care was gentle, but the impact of thinking and predicting the need for care and gentleness flowed into the rest of my life. Something was missing though, and as my mental health and physical health declined, it seemed that this was not cutting it. I could apply self-care to my volunteer duties but not the rest of my life.
Self-care is not a one-time movie, or the one afternoon I decided that I wouldn’t work on my thesis. Self-care is a practice, and like all things that require practice, I would need to learn more, do more and evolve my understanding to adapt it to my life.
I see self-care as deliberate actions and tasks that enrich our lives, necessary ways to nourish ourselves and the necessary time we care for ourselves to handle the intense demands of our daily lives.
In New Zealand, we have an obligation to honour the Treaty of Waitangi and actively practice biculturalism. Part of my learning was to look into Māori models of health to provide culturally sensitive care and service in my work. What I found was a more robust and culturally aware framework for self-care that took into account the differences and needs I hadn’t been able to articulate. Decolonising health and self-care mean that different cultural and social needs can be taken into account when we try to create our own self-care plan. Mason Durie’s model “te whare tapa wha” looks into four cornerstones of Māori health that seemed closer to my own values and needs. The whare is a house-like structure with four pillars- Taha tinana (physical health), taha wairua (spiritual health), taha whānau (family health), and Taha hinengaro (mental health). These four pillars hold up the overall structure of our home, and if any of these columns are missing or damaged, a person or collective health of a community may become unbalanced.
My understanding of self-care had now evolved into some very difficult questions. How do I take care of my physical health? What does spiritual health mean to me? How could I have a strong pillar of family health when I was constantly navigating the cultural chasm between myself, my family and the Fijian-Indian community? These were important, vital questions that I had to work through because I did feel a deep sense of alienation with my family and spirituality. Born into a strict Hindu household, part of my identity had become to rebel and reject any form of spirituality. I had to work from the ground up to really ask myself, what spiritual needs do I have? What family needs do I have, and how can I meet these safely?
It took years of reflection, gently reaching out, and finding safe ways where I could identify and meet my needs. Since battling an eating disorder, my relationship with my physical body had become a minefield. I simply did not see exercise outside of diet culture and “no pain, no gain.” With time, I realised that going for gentle walks in forests really grounded me in the present moment. Gardening, also, was a great way to safely diffuse my frustration and build physical strength. Applying lotion on my body was another way I connected with my body. With time I realised that all the pillars of health I had learnt intersected and weaved with one another. My mental health is very tied to getting some sunlight and moving my body. My spiritual health could be integrated with my physical health, so I began meditating and doing yoga. I also reclaimed my Hindu roots by researching different goddesses and queer stories.
The hardest pillar to reflect on was taha whanau -- family health. I had very deliberately moved to a different island to avoid my family and the abusive, sexist norms that they had pushed onto me. With time, I realised, “Hey, maybe... I can choose my own family.”
I had to work from the ground up to really ask myself, what spiritual needs do I have? What family needs do I have, and how can I meet these safely?
Platonic friendships and my pets could be safe places where I could gather strength from. I also reconnected with my younger siblings, who were now older and understood my decisions for leaving home. That deep longing for family could be fulfilled in other safe ways. Lastly, boundaries with my parents and extended family became incredibly important self-care tools. In my activism, I often found other South-East Asian diaspora who felt this deep loss and alienation from their family because their choices did not line up with the pathway their family and community wanted them to follow. Others like me, who had to escape their communities to survive, avoid getting married against their wishes, often shared these painful, alienating experiences. While it took time, tears, therapy and deep reflection, I do feel like I have a family now. Perhaps we’re not all joined by blood (or even the same species), but we are joined by a deep love for one another.
The last layer of self-care I have had to learn and come to terms with is the unique, individual needs I have as a person who is neurodivergent and chronically unwell. Some days, self-care is simply brushing my teeth, taking my pills, having a shower, eating three meals and wearing appropriate clothing to keep myself warm. Other days, I’m able to add in an added dimension of self-care by moving my body and catching up with friends. I have created a model of self-care that is constantly evolving to meet my abilities and fluctuating needs. Because in the end, self-care is fluid, it is a practice, and it will change as we change. Self-care is dependent on the histories we carry and the communities we come from.
Today, my self-care plan is like an onion. It has layers, but at its core, are the practices that are most important for me to be a functioning human being. Wherever you are, whatever your understanding of self-care is, I hope you can use some of the tools and illustrations in this article to create your own plan. You are worthy, you are unique, and you deserve to live your life honouring what you need to be your very best self.
Michell is an artist, writer and activist based in Dunedin, New Zealand. She is a second-generation immigrant of Fijian-Indian descent who lives with an invisible disability. Michell holds a Masters degree in International Studies and BA (Hons) in History. Her areas of interest include mental health, the intersection of gender violence and trauma, postcolonial studies and intersectional feminism. She is enthusiastic about South-East Asian women connecting and working together to support each other and rise together to have our voices heard. You can check out her work on her Instagram @memo.does.art.