self careA few weeks ago, I started this post by writing:

“I am eating cold chicken fried rice out of the carry-out carton and watching flight tracker, which has suddenly and mysteriously changed my son’s arrival time from 9:30pm to 3:40am. He is on his way back to school for his final semester. And then … who knows?

“He says that the underclassmen have learned that “What are you going to do after you graduate?”  is the worst possible question to ask a senior. I suspect he told me that preemptively, in case I had planned to ask him That Question. I hadn’t. When he has firm plans or good news, he’ll tell me. Meanwhile, I believe that he has ideas brewing and interesting options ahead. He is resourceful and creative and I trust him to take good care of himself and his future.”

Now it’s almost March and I am thinking again about taking care of oneself. I spent time with a dear friend (DF) who had had a painful health scare and had decided to go vegan as a result. It wasn’t easy but DF was committed and is now feeling good, feeling healthy, and is hopeful that this will be life-prolonging as well as life-improving. DF talked about veganism not as a prison or punishment but as a choice DF makes every day to “take care of myself.”  Veganism is also in line with DF’s belief system.

I was very happy to see DF feeling great and doing so well. At the same time, I am aware that I usually recoil when someone says “take care of [one]self.” Usually a recoil is a sign that something has crossed a boundary or triggered a sense of violation for me, so I spent the next couple of days thinking about how and why I could be so happy about the idea of DF and my son “taking care of” themselves, when often those words make me want to scream and shake someone. After some thought, I concluded 1) that context matters and 2) that biased assumptions, hierarchy, judgment, paternalism, and lack of respect for others’ autonomy are often involved in the making of such statements.

Regarding context, it matters whether someone is talking about themselves (“I am taking care of myself by doing such-and-such”)  or whether they are speaking of someone else, as in “I wish he would take better care of himself” or “She should take care of herself.” DF had identified some priorities  and is taking specific steps to honor those priorities. DF is deciding for DF what DF wants, needs, values, and is willing and able to do, and then is choosing each day to act on those.  I find that inspiring and admirable and not at all triggering.  All too often, though, I hear people making the second kind of statement about someone else and about what that other person could or should be doing. That’s what activates my scream-and-murder impulse.

It used to be that when I’d hear that gendered phrase about some woman not “taking care of herself,” it referred to her physical appearance and her failure or refusal to follow social norms involving makeup, hair, and clothing. It was often linked to another homicide-worthy phrase, “letting herself go.”  These things were almost never said about men. They indicate a willingness and desire and assumed right on the part of the speaker to judge another person and to find them inferior on the basis of appearance and behavior. These statements also represent moral judgments, because if a woman is not doing what she “should,” then it must surely indicate a moral lapse (such as laziness) or faulty judgment or improper socialization (in which case the blame extends to the previous generation, particularly the ever-problematic Mom). In each case the speaker is placing hirself on higher ground than the person being discussed. In each case the speaker is assuming to know better than the person being discussed  what the person being discussed needs.

Now when I hear that someone is not “taking care of herself,”  it’s often a statement about weight or body shape  and their presumed connections to health.  Again, the phrase is applied more often and more heavily to women than to men, and again the speaker is assuming superiority (physical, mental and moral), a right to judge,  and better knowledge of what the other person needs. Most of western society seems to believe that large body size is itself proof of “bad” habits or behaviors, that fat people must surely eat too much (all the time!), must never exercise (or they wouldn’t be fat!), and must certainly be walking time bombs set to explode and die at any moment. Being fat, then, is evidence of failure to “take care of yourself.” Bring on the concern trolls.

In addition to being monumentally arrogant and irritating to a mandatory-throat-punch degree,  these statements are often based in ignorance or denial of scientific findings or the actual behaviors of the person in question, and they display a harmful paternalism which cements a social hierarchy holding fat people down. Worse still, these statements deny fat people’s – particularly fat women’s – autonomy. Having a thin body does not confer super-powers of judgment or omniscience or moral strength, and having a fat body does not require anyone to forfeit basic rights. Fat people don’t need anyone to tell them that they are fat; they know. They don’t need unsolicited advice on what or how much to eat or how and when to move (especially from people who don’t know them well enough to know how they DO eat or how they DO move). Fat people don’t benefit from bullying, ridicule, shaming, or hateful assumptions from biased idiots. And most importantly, a fat person doesn’t need someone else to define their self-care needs and goals. Like everyone else, fat people get to decide these for themselves.

“Taking care of ourselves” comes in many forms, some with a big social stamp of approval, and others discounted, dismissed, or invisible to society and those who would judge. The assumption that there is a fixed, finite one-size-fits-all set of ways to care for oneself is harmful and flat out wrong. For someone suffering from depression, getting out of bed and showering can be a major self-care accomplishment.  For a disabled person, successful rationing of spoons can mean the difference between a bearable day and a nightmarish one. For anyone of any size who struggles with disordered eating, learning to listen to one’s body and eat without shame or guilt is a huge self-care victory. And for members of socially-despised groups (including but not limited to fat people), getting through a day without succumbing to self-hatred is a triumph, and whatever you need to do to get there  is self-care.

Nobody else knows as well as each of us what we need and value. Nobody else lives in our skin and experiences our lives and our unique challenges. Nobody else gets to define our self-care for us, and nobody else gets a vote in how we are doing on that. We don’t owe anyone explanation or “perfection” or “health,” and we certainly don’t owe anyone anything that interferes with our autonomy. In my presence, then, you can safely say “I take care of myself by…” followed by pretty much anything you want that doesn’t involve infringing on another person’s rights.  I cannot guarantee your safety, however, if you try to tell me how I or anyone else should take care of ourselves. People who say such things in my presence tend to need a lot more care afterward themselves.