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Self-care and Privilege during the COVID-19 Pandemic
By: Ashlynn Polanco and Kate Loving
As ProInspire has been looking for ways to best support our network during this rapidly changing environment, we kept hearing amongst our partners the need for more resources on self-care for their staff. I found myself grappling with this and not quite fully understanding why I felt so unsettled about sharing self-care practices. During my research I realized that many of the “self-care” practices out there were not accessible to many communities and most seemed tailored to specific individuals This individual was healthy and now working remotely with a full time salary and benefits (PTO, paid sick leave, medical benefits), lived in a two parent household or had no children, and was getting external support on self-care. So where does that leave everyone else?
Who gets left out of the Self-care narrative?
I’ve sat in on a few different self-care webinars recently and although I am thankful for the tips shared, the conversations were centered around those who have the flexibility and resources to take care of their well being and mental health. The webinars are often held during office work hours, in english, and on virtual platforms that require wifi. Are there an equal amount of resources being provided for those who do not have access to wifi or the ability to take an hour out of their work day? The reality of the situation is that access to mainstream self-care resources like webinars, therapists, or even many popular practices like online gym memberships are reserved for those who can afford it and have the disposable time to do it.
Think about those deemed “essential workers” outside of the realm of healthcare professionals. Grocery store employees, mail couriers, factory/warehouse workers, and farm workers are some of the people at higher risk for COVID-19 exposure and are more likely to have economic insecurity and little to no access to healthcare. Many of the jobs in these industries don’t pay their workers minimum wage, provide paid sick leave, or healthcare benefits (including mental healthcare). These roles are often filled by people of color, who have had disproportionate health outcomes and higher mortality rates during the COVID-19 pandemic . Earlier this month Brookings released a study that found that Black people “in about every state with racial data available have higher contraction rates and higher death rates of COVID-19 .” The structural inequities at play continue to cost the lives of the most disenfranchised communities.
When you’re struggling to survive a pandemic, economic instability, and centuries of structural racism, practicing mainstream forms of self-care might not be possible. But just because popular practices aren’t accessible, doesn’t mean self-care has to be.
Self-care Is Not A “One Size Fits All”
What do you think of when you think of self-care? The first image that comes to my mind is a white woman doing yoga, taking a bath, or drinking a cup of exorbitant tea. Is there something wrong with these forms of self-care? Absolutely not! Is there something wrong with this being the first image that comes to mind? Absolutely!
After doing a quick Google search on self-care, I saw that I was not alone in my image of self-care, several articles, blogs, and fitness app banners all displayed the same image. Why is it just this thin, white woman in her Lululemon workout outfit in her beautifully furnished living room that gets to practice self-care?
The short answer is, it’s not. Self-care is not just for those with privilege, but privilege does play a role in our self-care practices. Many mainstream self-care practices are often inaccessible and go hand in hand with privilege. As well-intentioned social sector leaders, identifying and acknowledging our individual privilege can be a difficult but necessary thing to grapple with. It makes us take a hard look at ourselves and analyze what advantages and unearned benefits we have been granted in life just from the characteristics or resources we were born with. It’s easy for a person to believe that if they experience hardships or have some identities associated with a marginalized or disadvantaged group, they are immune to having privilege. Once we dispel this notion it is easier to accept that we all experience some types of privilege and we can begin to frame conversations differently. There is more than one identity in the world of self-care and many different factors and barriers that impact how people practice self-care.
So let’s go back to our earlier question, why is it just this thin, white, woman in her swanky living room that gets to practice self-care?
The longer answer is, it’s not, that’s just one form of self-care. Self-care is not just for those with privilege, it should be something that is accessible to everyone. At its core, self-care is about identifying your needs and what helps you show up as your best self. It doesn’t need to come with expensive wellness apps or copious amounts of free time, it can be as simple as listening to your favorite song in the shower or going outside for 10 minutes every morning to drink your coffee or tea.
When promoting self-care practices take into consideration the needs of different individuals and groups. We all have different identities and lived experiences that shape how we best are able to take care of ourselves. Self-care practices are unique as people are.
Self-care Guilt is Not The Answer
Self-care guilt is a very real thing. Guilt is a well known barrier, particularly to women, in engaging in forms of self-care. I see this more often amongst those with caretaker duties who believe if they are taking time to care for themselves, they are doing a disservice by not providing that care for a child or family member.
I don’t want you to leave this post feeling like you should feel guilty about your self-care practices. Understanding the role that privilege plays in self-care does not mean you abstain from the practices that promote your health and healing. If you have the ability to do so, then prioritize any and all forms of self-care! Putting your needs first can often be seen as a selfish act, but it actually is just the opposite, prioritizing your self-care can ultimately give you the ability to better support others.
Think of the nonprofit leader, overburdened and under resourced, looking at the ways to continue best serving their communities during the time of COVID-19. In caring for others it can seem like part of the job is to set your own needs aside. This can lead to burnout and resentment which ends up being a disservice for yourself and those you serve.
When you put your energy into self-care you are developing yourself both mentally and physically. You are healing, working through past traumas, nourishing your body, exploring your emotions, and becoming stronger. Self-care can be a vehicle to create a deeper sense of self-awareness that can allow for shifts in how we process emotions, create boundaries, and build healthy relationships with others.
We are living through a pandemic, this is a challenging time for all of us. Don’t feel guilty for having the privilege to practice self-care, with awareness comes the ability to make change.
Acknowledge Your Privilege and Make Self-care Practices more Accessible
Privilege shows up in self-care practices and that is okay. Having privilege is not a condemnation and often you do not choose the privileges you are granted. However, not acknowledging privilege is harmful and can lead to the continuous oppressive power structures that keep marginalized communities from gaining access to benefits like self-care.
With accessibility and equity in mind, here are some ways to start making self-care more accessible to others:
Don’t think of self-care as a “one size fits all” but look at it is a practice that can show up differently based on time, access to resources, identities, energy, and lived experiences
Your self-care practices are just that, yours. They might not be what others need. When promoting self-care practices to others, think about your audience, whether it’s your family, friends, colleagues, or community and how needs might show up differently.
Share self-care practices that are free or don’t require as many resources
Many mainstream self-care practices like fitness, mental healthcare, and healthy eating have high and inaccessible costs.. Recommend free apps for meditation and mindfulness, spread knowledge on journaling and reflective writing, or just encourage someone to take 10 minutes a day to just be with yourself and breathe.
Create spaces that invite others to practice self-care
Provide a safe and healthy environment for self-care. What are the times that best work for your staff for self care? What about your communities? For example: an organization who works with a large population of latinx/hispanic population had an open mental health “charla” open to anyone in the public to raise topics or talk. Understanding that language and having workweek events were often barriers to access, they held it on Saturday afternoon in both English and Spanish.
Prioritize compassion over advice
Start conversations with questions, suspend judgment, and don’t feel the need to always offer advice or jump immediately to problem solving. Instead, offer affirmation and validation. Always honor lived experiences and boundaries while showing support and listening with an open heart.