Self-Care, in Theory and Practice
This column has a singular purpose: to talk to women about navigating a world where they are their own savior.
I’ve fluctuated between dating a few men after the end of a fairly significant relationship. After sleeping with people who, I learned, were ultimately uninterested in me (and generally incapable of thinking of anything other than themselves) I realized I desperately needed to focus on me. All me. All the time. I had never done that. I was scared, as a lot of women often are, to explore what existed in the great abyss—me. I realized how much I relied on others telling me that I was pretty, so I began to depend, a surfeit amount, on other people’s opinions of myself in general, putting emphasis on their assumptions over mine.
After months of self hate and destruction, I knew I needed to learn how to be better. But self-love was this weird concept. I was aware of what it meant but had never interacted with it; I thought it too audacious a commitment. Then I began reading: Susan Sontag, Eartha Kitt, Ruth Asawa—all of these women who I admired, who had also battled with self-care. One of my favorite writers, Jean Rhys, was a raging alcoholic. I used them as examples to be and not be at the same time. I wanted to tap into whatever greatness I knew existed inside of me so I could be happy with myself. Self-love can mean whatever, to whoever.
This column is a way for Sara and I to connect with other women and their self-care habits. We’ll be focusing on more holistic ways of self care, and routines, but also the struggles that come when you’ve been socialized to equate an act of self-love with solipsism.
A few days ago, I met Sara at the Williamsburg apartment we’re staying at for the duration of our New York trip. It was 9 p.m. and I had just gotten off an eleven-hour train ride. My body was wrecked, and I felt broken and ravaged by my journey. As I started unpacking, we focused on asking each other how we felt. We often bond over what products use, and how we use these products, because we believe that learning to care for yourself teaches you to comprehend your vastness, your beauty. This is both an introduction and our travel special; please enjoy.
Sara, I know this is a new concept for both of us, so, what does self-care mean to you?
The ultimate goal of self-care, I think, is to achieve some sort of balance for yourself. You have to have a routine and this usually requires planning ahead. I’m terrible when it comes to planning ahead for anything related to myself—especially if it’s not work-related. So, my relationship to self-care, as it currently stands, is more about the difficulty of committing to it. The problem, in fact, is that I’m reluctant to prioritize myself; to carve out that time where I can just…disconnect. For instance, it’s difficult for me to not stay up that extra hour so I can clear my inbox, but then again, I’m an insomniac, so why not be productive?
The other thing is this past winter, my body was going through shit, and of course health problems further complicate the relationship between you and your body. There is this polarized view on health, like you’re either healthy or you’re not and the minute you feel as though your body has failed you or turned on you, you no longer trust it. And a lot of times, this means that, in turn, you stop seeing the point in taking care of it. And there are many reasons for this; the big one is that in most cases, someone else is taking care/treating you, so that responsibility is shifted.
The other thing—and I’m working on it—is that I have always been so hard on myself. I justify it by telling myself that it makes me better, and a lot of times it does, but sometimes I just need to relax. It’s so difficult trying to ignore those naysaying voices in your head. It’s so easy to just sit there and beat myself up for an hour than it is to just take a walk or even cook a meal.
Self-care is difficult because, like other things that are worthwhile, there aren’t immediate results. Without that instant gratification, you have to keep repeating these steps and almost blindly hope that they’ll benefit you in some way. But, on the other hand, what makes self-care so great, too, is that it’s also not about the results, but how you feel in the moment.
A big thing I did for myself, as soon as I got a clean-ish bill of health, was that I painted my apartment, bought some herbs and house plants, and redecorated. I cleared out clutter and made a space that was more conducive to work (I work from home), but that was also relaxing when I wasn’t working. Someone also suggested I sage my apartment, but I don’t know. Should I? I grew up in a Greek Orthodox household, and we were less about cleansing and more about avoiding things like getting the Mati or letting a bird fly into the house (this is a death omen). So, I don’t know, cleansing out bad vibes? I’m more worried about ghosts.
Okay, firstly: SAGE YOUR HOUSE, GIRL. I sage everything. I’m Cancer Rising and Moon so a positive energetic environment is very important to me. Ok, I want you to elaborate on why there’s a blockage when it comes to being kind to yourself. I totally relate to it, and I think others will too, but what’s going on in your head? Is it a “worth” thing?
(Re: saging house and all caps)—noted.
I think it’s that I’ve never taken myself seriously—and I’ve realized, recently, that when I’m having a conversation with someone I don’t yet know, I avoid talking about myself. If the conversation somehow becomes focused on me, I do whatever I can to redirect that attention to someone else. I don’t know if it’s so much a “worth” thing, though, as that I’m stumped. It’s more about rooting for my own team and recognizing my own abilities, I think. And I refuse to. I’m all about building up everyone else and then when it comes to me, I feel sick doing it. I feel weird. Like the other day, a friend of mine forwarded me a job posting and told me to apply, and my first instinct was something like: “But I’ll make a fool of myself during the interview!” It’s just my go-to response. I’m writing the email right now, and I’m doing whatever I can to not finish writing it.
It’s like, if I’m being pulled in so many directions, yes, I can prioritize tasks to meet deadlines, but that’s as far as it goes. During my worst weeks, I fall asleep in my bed and usually with my laptop on me. I’m at this stage where I still feel like I need to prove myself and so I can’t say no to things, and I feel like sometimes you need to suffer a bit. But I start to feel the effects a lot more. And I feel less elated and more burned out.
You know what? I’m especially willing to put myself first when I feel as though I have the time to do it; it’s so dependent on workload and obligations (or what I deem obligations).
Okay, so you’re in a state of insomnia—what products do you turn to make yourself feel better? Is there something that you find comforting that’s a go to product?
Ooof. Sleeping pills terrify me, so those are a big no. I started swimming, because it really tires me out and I sleep/pass out like a baby. My friend Emily suggested I stop drinking coffee in the afternoon, and that has been working. But for the nights when I’m just wide awake, no matter what I did or did not do during the day: I re-read books, write emails to friends, or watch TV. At one point, I was watching Frasier, because there was something so soothing about it? I also quit insomnia Twitter because it was less soothing and more enabling (re: staying up).
I think it’s very important to stop bad habits that don’t benefit you.
Yes! It’s also important to minimize your interactions (or cut out) toxic people.
Why do you think you have insomnia?
This is so hard. The only thing I can think of is that I definitely get insomnia during the winter because the day is shorter, so maybe I need a sunlamp? But some nights I’m just so awake.
It’s a constant struggle, but why is self care so hard for you when you’re traveling?
It’s difficult because you usually aren’t in your own space, but it’s strange, because I sleep better when I travel? The temptation I find with traveling is that, because you aren’t rooted in one place, you want to travel light, so you leave out what is likely to leak, weigh a lot, or take up space. But, beauty products, I find, have strength in numbers in different ways—in terms of effectiveness but also in weighing you down. So, when my aim is to pack light, I exclude important, usually necessary things. But so does everyone else, and you just make do. I even worked on a story recently about packing tips for women, and apart from solid shampoo or 100 mL bottles, none of the women I interviewed had any other alternatives or tricks for effectively packing beauty products.
Okay, well, how do you think that you could get better at self care?
I definitely need to get better at putting myself first. Most of time, if I have a lot of work to do, I take on even more instead of prioritizing me time. Also, just learning how to use my time wisely—that could mean what and with whom you work with (if you freelance, for instance) or even your friend circle.
I’m not the only one who does this, and this is one of the many reasons you and I are doing this column. It’s hard putting what you want first, and there is this guilt associated with doing so. Putting yourself first doesn’t mean you don’t want to help others or make time for friends. It just means not losing yourself, getting swallowed up, and defining yourself by all these external things. It’s learning how to listen to yourself and your instincts: when to say no, when to take time off, when to shut off your computer.
I used to feel guilty about that too, and there are days when I lag, but I also learn so much more when I fuck up, so baby steps. The thing is yes, you want your friends to thrive, but you need to thrive and have a life too.
I know we’ve talked about this before and we’ve realized that there’s so many restrictions for women w/r/t how to be vs. how they naturally are. So, I know we both want to know: What do you for others, and what do you for yourself?
I have always had acne. After two rounds of Accutane and countless topical, potent whatevers that were supposed to decrease outbreaks, my views on skincare have always been about eradicating a problem. So, a lot of the time, the way I look at my skin and how I take care of it is definitely for other people and how they perceive my skin. I was always used to my dermatologist’s evaluation on the status of my skin—texture, bumps, redness, etc. The less bumps and the more even the skin, the less likely I would have to return to the doctor’s office. Also, I am used to someone else telling me how my skin was looking and doing and I kind of internalized that. I still do today: like, even with a couple of PMS pimples, I start to feel like shit because my skin is shit. My skin is shit, therefore I am too. I pick at the pimples.
When my skin is clear and smooth, I lag on my skincare routine. I have always been used to this polarized way of looking at skincare: clear or breaking out. The thing I’ve realized is that skincare is mostly about balance and upkeep—balancing the natural oils, etc.—whereas my perception of skincare has always been about eradicating a problem—getting rid of this stuff—or doing nothing at all. So instead of always being in a state of “fixing problem skin” I’m realizing more and more that it’s about maintaining my skin.
In terms of makeup, I love putting it on because there’s a ritual to it. For foundation, though, I’ve always bought it with four things in mind: 1) will it match my ghost face; 2) coverage—can it cover up redness, pimples and acne scars; 3) does it look cakey, because no thank you; 4) will it clog my pores. So, I think the foundation I’ve always bought purely for self-presentation—because it gives both others and myself the illusion of a clear face. It gave me a taste of what my skin would look like when the acne finally cleared up. (I’m still waiting, because adult acne, guys!)
The other things—eyeliner, highlighter, blush, lipstick—I’ve always bought with myself in mind. All those things exaggerate my natural features—the features I love the most. Makeup, I always thought, was a way for me to look at myself differently or to really look at myself. So if it’s bringing out my green eyes or lining my big lips, then yes.
I think moisturizing your skin is important, especially during the winter, but it’s the self-care thing that I skip the most, because it feels like soft skin is both an illusion and entirely for the benefit of someone else’s hands. It feels like a chore because it doesn’t feel like me, unless it’s peppermint body lotion, which is just soothing and makes me feel wonderful in my skin (especially during the summer because I have no air conditioning).
Honestly, the self-care habits that are most important to me right now are a home-cooked meal and face masks. Face masks are a super convenient, no-nonsense way of doing something good for yourself without exerting too much effort. Eating a meal I’ve made myself every single day is harder but feels fulfilling in so many more ways. I love snacking, too. Snacks are important to me—even comforting. I’m good with drinking water. I’m bad at drinking less coffee. And I’m trying to stick to swimming because it helps me sleep. The idea of waking up feeling well-rested is a dream, though.
The thing I need to remind myself is that everything is a process and things that are important and worthwhile don’t work out or sink in overnight. And I definitely want some insight from the women we interview, because so many beauty products come with these promises of rapid, overnight changes—which in most cases, is bullshit. Again, this is about maintenance, not treating yourself like you have a problem that needs to be obliterated with a cream or lotion.
Before we move on, I want to know what your faves are—so let’s break it down.
Lips: Nars Lip Pencil in “Damned,” Bite’s BB for Lips in “Dolce,” or Hourglass “Femme Rouge Icon.”
Skin: Mario Badescu’s Drying Lotion. It smells awful, but it really works. I also do a bentonite clay mask—I just mix the clay with apple cider vinegar.
Hair: Amika hair oil treatment—good smell and it helps with the frizz. I also rub lavender oil into my scalp at night. Also, because this is hair too—eyebrow gel or clear mascara.
After Fariha got off an eleven-hour train from Montreal I couldn’t buzz her into the apartment we were staying in. The last time we covered a film festival, it was in Toronto, where she stayed at my apartment. The first thing she did was unpack all these oils—rosehip, argan, apricot, jasmine oud. She had Coconut Body Cream and balms for chapped skin. Actually, the very first time I had met Fariha, she pulled out a blue-red lipstick and applied it at the dinner table without a mirror, and that time, sitting in my apartment in Toronto, she pulled out a lipstick pencil and applied it, not at all noticing the mirror right behind her. She always applies it so perfectly, you’d think she was glued to a mirror at the time of the application. When I finally got the door open, I could smell that jasmine oud oil she always wears. We sat together while she unpacked, and I asked her, again, about all the things tucked into her beautiful canvas, drawstring bag.
You wrote a piece recently for Medium about selfies. You made a larger point about how you struggled with self-acceptance and even accepting that you’re beautiful. You’re one of my friends who is probably the most vocal and open about her self-care routines—you’ve shown me every single thing you apply to your skin and there’s a reason behind every oil and ointment. Is self-care about self-acceptance for you? Does it help?
I didn’t know that I was beautiful until, like, very recently. For the longest time, I wanted to be accepted and for someone to really look into my soul and tell me that I was enough, as I’ve had a deep, deep yearning to be loved my whole life—it’s a very terrifying void at times. Self-care has been about wanting to fill that void, and I know (now) that I am the only person who can do that. And it’s kind of exciting! I don’t feel like I’m searching for anything anymore. I was always kind of on the lookout, you know? Each person could be “the one.” And I was constantly unhappy because nothing was satiating. And then, of course, I compensated myself over everyone, all the time. I am an incredibly generous person and part of my self-care practice has been like, “Oh, not everyone deserves me!” My romantic relationships with men always involved me being a caretaker of sorts and it was only until a “thing” disintegrated earlier this year that I was like, “What am I waiting for, though?” I liked to think that I was just waiting for myself.
I think I’m so vocal about vaginas, and self-care/love because women underestimate themselves because we’ve all been socialized to do so. We all get so uncomfortable with talking about our periods and vaginal discharge, but it’s like: it happens! My sister is a really cool healer and life coach and from her I’ve been able to see that all women are goddesses, some of us are just yet to know it. We want to be saved from ourselves, but we’re the actual solution. Self-care is acceptance; it is everything. It is the love I always craved, and its finally all-fulfilling.
I’m not going to pretend like I am an after case. It’s an exhaustingly slow process. But it’s been really liberating to appreciate everything about yourself. You have to be Team You, just to survive. Otherwise I’m not sure life is ever really worth it.
The reason I have an ointment for everything is because I do sincerely believe I’m a witch. I grew up in quite a natural household. I wasn’t allowed refined foods, I wasn’t allowed to drink (though, that’s also because my family is Muslim), so now I have a complete intolerance to sugars, dairy, etc. My sister is raw and that’s helped her heal in a lot of ways, I was vegan for a long time, but I realized I liked meat and my life was too hard if I couldn’t eat soy or gluten. I was also not allowed medicine growing up so I learnt the skills to cure myself, so I have staples for illness. Bragg’s Apple Cider Vinegar is my lifeblood. I ingest large quantities of it, put it on my hair, my skin. It’s funny, I feel like a witch because over the years, I’ve grown acutely intuitive. I feel like my body speaks to me so I know how to ~feel better~ these days, which is such a fun part of growing up. You’re in a relationship with yourself and after a while you start learning the tricks that’ll turn you on, put you at ease. I have large sources of Organic Echinacea and Oil of Oregano for anytime I’m sick, I drink lemon and water every morning to clear my body out. I also ingest garlic like it’s candy. I put it in my vagina whenever I feel out of balance. If I’m itchy down there, or if I’ve had rough sex—I pop it up there.
My other staples are oils. My sister works with this really cool natural oil company called doTerra and I’d recommend them to anyone who’s interested in healing and balancing their body with the use of essential oils. I oil-pulled for a while, but I’m really too lazy for the regularity that is involved with that. I have a loose regime because I’m changeable. I generally wash my face with Mario Bedascu Cleansing Lotion (which isn’t fully natural, but it works really well) but for the longest time I used Angels On Bare Skin by Lush. After I wash my face I use Organic Rosehip Oil because it’s really good for scarring and I have some scarring because I LOVE picking at my face. It is so pleasurable to pop pimples—I’m sorry mom, whatever. But also, having nice clear skin is also nice so you learn to find a balance that works for you. ¯_(シ)_/¯
At night I clean my face again, but I’ve started using Organic Carrot Seed Oil (thanks to you, Sara!) and I like it so far. I use Lucas Papaw Ointment because I grew up with it, and it’s really good to soften your lips, especially in winter. I rarely shampoo my hair, and I condition only with oils. My shampoo is generally Bragg’s Apple Cider Vinegar or John Masters Organics Lavender Rosemary, I use the doTerra Conditioner and generally Cold Pressed Avocado Oil or Josie Maran’s Argan Oil For Hair when it’s dry.
I do these things because they do help. It helps when I lather myself with Coconut Oil and my Mountain Ocean Coconut Cream, it’s orgasmic. It means you’re worth something. I used to only look after myself when I was in a relationship, or you know, fucking, but then I realized: “Wait, wait—so some rando deserves my body to be nice, but not myself? That’s whack.” And it is whack! It’s totally fucking whack. I want to be beautiful all the time, just for myself—as opposed to last year, the dark ages (Year of Snake, so bad!) where I spent most of my time being awfully self destructive. I cut off my hair, and I wanted to be ploughed into oblivion. Now, I feel centred, I feel whole. It’s such a juxtaposition.
What part of your self-care routine is most important to you? And is there one that is vital to you even when you’re having the worst day?
Truly, part of my self-care process that’s most important to me is not to listen to the voices in my head that are so comfortable with obsessing with what I hate about myself. I have a running enumeration of what I don’t like, a lot of the time. I used to think it was comforting—like: “How will I be better if I don’t know what to fix?” But then you’re like, “BB girl, you are worth love in whatever capacity!” Also, so much of my self-hate roots from comparing myself to others. It’s so easy to look at someone and be jealous, and yes, people have privilege, duh, but also you never really know what someone’s battles are.
If you’re a woman, I want to give you the benefit of the doubt. And, well, like that Hilton Als quotation—enough (white) men have been sucked off by the world, so I’m kind of over that right now. I’ve really developed good feelings about other women, and that’s been really cathartic for me. Another woman’s success is a good thing for all of us, and instead of using it against myself—when it has nothing to do with me, I’ve embraced the importance of women’s voices that aren’t mine. Besides, a lot of us are fighting each other when we should be fighting the patriarchy. I’m not saying that I don’t do it, but I’m stepping away. It’s really toxic to focus on trolls, IRL or internet ones. They are actually meaningless. I used to get so sick (physically and emotionally) if someone would write something horrible to me, or about me, or if I heard some mean, futile comment—these days I find that it still hurts, but with less potency. If people aren’t on your side then they are damaging, and you have to cut them out. There’s no way around it. Cut. Them. Out. So on the worst day I remind myself that I am enough. That’s been my process in the last few months, and you know? It’s been working.
So which self-care routines do you do for you? And do you find yourself taking on some habits for other people? So you can appeal to them in some way?
Here’s the thing, I want to talk about how there is a very real fetishization of being skinny in the society that we live in. It is ubiquitous. So many intelligent and feminist women I know are also obsessed with being thin—so am I, but it infuriates me because I feel like I’m controlled by some kind of invisible force. I cannot tell you how awfully depressed I get when I look at the mirror sometimes and I don’t like the size of my thighs. I obsess over every angle, because I think if I can stare for long enough I can erase the fat. And it’s the literal worst when you feel hot, but look in the mirror, and it all goes to shit—instantaneously.
I put on some weight when I broke up with my longterm partner almost two years ago and then I lost a bit of it this year when I got dysentery overseas. Guess what? Amidst the agonizing shits I took, I fantasized over the few pounds I would lose because I couldn’t eat for two weeks. We don’t talk about bodies in an organic way. We don’t talk about how so many of us are ravaged by this disease of desiring to be skinny, even if it means being cruel to our bodies. There’s a girl on my instagram that posts photos of herself, and she is devastatingly frail, yet the comments are always like “I wish I had a body likes yours”—which is scary! Everybody’s body is theirs, and no one should be shamed for what they have, but there seems to be a real trend of eating disorders that nobody really talks about unless it’s life threatening. There’s such a normalization between women and needing to be thin, that we don’t really question why we do it, or whether or not there’s something inherently wrong with wanting this. Where does it come from? I want to know why when I feel great I somehow always end up feeling angry at myself for not being thinner. Yet, ironically, I feel my happiest when I eat with no concern.
My sister was anorexic, so I tried a lot of things to be like her. She had this one friend who also had an eating disorder. Once, she casually slipped in that if she happened to eat cake one day, she just wouldn’t eat, at all, the next. I thought that this was the way I needed to live my life. That any normal woman would casually not eat because you have to sacrifice your desire for food for your desire to be skinny. But this is an idea that has been sold and packaged to us, subliminally. It’s not that we think being skinny is the only way, but that it’s the best way. And I fight with this conditioning daily. I just wish I could have more conversations with women where there was transparency. Where they could be like, “OK, yeah, I did a juice cleanse for three days the other day because I hate my stomach region,” or, “Yeah, I have a coke habit.”
Something that really impacted me was this Meredith Graves interview for Stylelikeu where she was talking about her struggles and how often she goes to the gym, and it got me thinking how much healthier it would be if we were honest with everyone about how we view our bodies, because then it would force us to be honest with ourselves and really examine what we are, critically. It takes being vocal to make a change. And I want to make a change. If I have a daughter I don’t want her to feel as though she’s not enough, or that she has to change to be better. These feelings have been so damaging to me—and they have greatly impeded on my practice of self love and self care.
Does food or cooking factor into your self-care routine or definition at all? Or how does it?
Oh yeah. I love food. I like sourcing good and local ingredients. I think it’s super important to know where your meat is from, but I get that it’s hard to maintain. After not eating meat for so long, it’s also been hard to temper my need to eat at all meals. Which is kinda gross.
I cook with coconut oil a lot. That’s my favorite oil. I also love a rich olive oil. When I was in Italy I learnt that food was an art. After that experience my relationship with food is forever changed, I want to enjoy it and appreciate every morsel. North America has a reviving food culture but it’s very specified. I feel like, in general, there’s this desire for immediacy. In the Arab world, or Europe—that’s just not the case. You appreciate food, it’s the centre of your world, of your relationships, your family. This is why I love cooking for people. That joy is so visceral, and pure. I’m definitely healthier—I have a gluten, dairy and refined sugar intolerance, which limits me, but I make do. I think I’ve learnt some good substitutes. I grew up in Australia I also have a deep and effervescent love for coffee. Australians also have a superb food culture. I also love pairing wines with food (Cotes-du-Rhone, Syrah, Gamay—Lambrusco) and I like learning how to cook things. Latest go-to-meal: Pho.
Before I die, I want to learn how to have a healthy relationship with food where I don’t feel guilted by wanting to yolo.
How did you pick and choose the products you packed? And were there some important ones you left behind?
Yeah, like you, I revel in light packing. My dad is a Marxist and he owns, like, six shirts. He’s the coolest person, man. He hates consumer culture and I think there’s this constant goal to be like him. So when I pack, I always think of my dad. And I’m always like: “Fariha, you don’t need four pairs of shoes on a ten-day trip!” But there’s a balance. I’m just yet to strike that. Funnily enough, I didn’t anticipate sickness on this trip, so I didn’t bring some of my staples. And now I’m sniffling, as I write this, pissed at the world, knowing that’s all I need for a lil’ TLC.
The other thing I keep meaning to ask you IRL always is how the hell you apply lipstick without a mirror. I’ve always thought that this ability means that a person really knows their face. Am I delusional?
I’m a witch, so duh.
What do you think you need to improve in terms of your self-care practice?
I need to be kinder to myself, in general. I’m doing the best that I can, truly, so I don’t know why I’m so unfair. That, and being patient with the process. I understand we want it all, but wanting it all comes with time.
I know your favorite oils and skincare products, but let’s talk makeup.
Best red lipstick: Ruby Woo by Mac, my jam. For a orangey red I use Tesoro by Stila.
Best eyeliner and what makes it the best: Stila, downpat. It stays on forever, it’s also super easy to master a good cat-eye.
Favorite mascara and why: I’ve been using Josie Maran’s mascara. Also, even though it’s not natural Lancome Hypnôse Drama is so good.
I have really long lashes, so I want to accentuate them. They’re naturally curled—so it’s more about making them darker. For me, what’s most important for a mascara is to ask—does it leak? If no, then does it sting the eyes? Both of these products are full proof!
This column will be a way for women to talk about what they talk about when they put themselves first. There have been some pervading concepts of “me time”—like, treat yoself—but women, in general, feel guilty about taking time off. The women I admire and read are the women who taught me to sometimes be selfish; to stay me; to be me. Their words came at different moments when all I wanted to do was be someone else. Fariha and I will be talking to women and observing their self care/self love/self self routines. So, if a woman wants us to sit in as she watches a show and eats chips, well then so be it. If a woman wants us to slather on a facemask while we talk to her, then hell yes.
Take care of yourself,
Sara Black McCulloch is a writer living in Toronto. Mute her on the Internet here.
Fariha Roísín is a writer extraordinaire. Follow her rambunctious tweeting @fariharoisin.