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In a routine appointment with my therapist a few months ago, I told her about my exhaustive list of things to do. I wanted to travel to three places. I wanted to pay off the remaining balance on my debt by the end of 2019. I wanted to have a certain amount of money put away for a down payment. When I (finally) finished, she smiled, saying, “You need to take care of yourself, too.”

I was confused. Wasn’t the fact that I had a to-do list a way of caring for myself? Spelling out these goals made me feel accomplished and complete. But that’s not what she meant. She was hinting at a different word, one known for slowing down and taking a moment for yourself – the much debated concept of self-care.

I’m Shelby Blackley, the editor of Amplify. I spend a lot of time thinking about self-care and its varying definitions. Like many others, I struggle to take the word seriously because of how it’s become associated with capital gain for beauty companies, superfluous consumerism and a “treat yo’ self” attitude, rather than personal wellness. Interest in the concept bubbled up in 2016, when some advocated for self-care in response to a stressful election. But, as Charlotte Lieberman writes for the Harvard Business Review, that came with the demand that we practise it in a particular way, and, well, that’s just a whole lot of work.

Self-care isn’t a particularly new concept. This piece from Slate chronicles the history of the movement, as one that allowed women and people of colour to control their own health. Author Aisha Harris writes that women and people of colour viewed this “as a corrective to the failures of a white, patriarchal medical system.” She goes on, citing Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, who also writes on the subject: “Self-care was ‘a claiming [of] autonomy over the body as a political act against institutional, technocratic, very racist and sexist medicine.’”

But the fact that we even have to talk about self-care, justifying why women should be able to take a moment for themselves, should set off alarm bells. As University of Denver professor Michael Karson writes, justifying the act implies that it needs justification. This line really opened my thoughts about how we define the practice: “Even calling it ‘self-care’ states a claim that you are not to have fun – you are to extend your obligations as a caregiver to one further person who needs it.”

Taking care of yourself shouldn’t be this complicated – or hard. But oftentimes, it is. That’s where interactives like this one, which is designed to help you recognize the need to take a break, come in. But above everything, real self-care is about recognizing that this process is different for each person, depending on your own needs and your place in life; a woman who is in her mid-twenties may just want to get off the internet (I know I do), while a single mother of two may need reprieve from her admirable yet never-ending duties.

In this New York Times piece, for example, different members of staff described how they each define and apply the concept. To one editor, it was making a meal that reminds her of a simpler time. To another, it’s making a list of things, and completing each task. One editor has found that saying no is her own form of self-care (which my colleague Lara Pingue also wrote about a few weeks ago for this newsletter).

The strategies online are endless for women looking to find what works for them. Self-care isn’t selfish. You should treat yourself like you would your best friend. Quality time alone is good. Create supportive surroundings. Pause in your day. And mostly: Don’t feel guilty.

I’m still struggling to find a definition of self-care that I agree with. For me, it isn’t a wellness destination or an extravagant vacation, but it may be for you. That is just the point: We must define it for ourselves, depending on where in our lives we are as women. Taking care of myself comes (sometimes) simply – allowing myself to say no to social obligations after a long day of work in favour of a book, or spending a weekend going for walks by the ravine near my apartment. And sometimes, it’s finally catching up on that never-ending list of goals. Let’s just hope I can practise what I preach.

What else we’re reading

Disgraced gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar may be behind bars for the rest of his life, but questions still loom about how he was able to get away with sexually abusing so many young girls under the guise of being a medical professional. Kerry Howley’s heartbreaking long-read in The Cut focuses on exactly this: how much patients and parents trusted him. She writes, "The story of Larry Nassar is that of an edifice of trust so resilient, so impermeable to common sense, that it endured for decades against the allegations of so many women. If this is a story of institutional failure, it is also a story of astonishing individual ingenuity. Larry Nassar was good at this. His continued success depended on deceiving parents, fellow doctors, elite coaches, Olympic gatekeepers, athletes, and, with some regularity, law enforcement.”

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