The author just wanted to get a relaxing massage. But her masseur wouldn't STFU. Here's how Black women can get the self-care they so desperately need.
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I’ve been working hard lately. In addition to freelance writing, I’m teaching writing classes, applying for writing fellowships, and working on my forthcoming memoir, all while maintaining my full-time job as a user-experience designer. Though I’ve historically struggled with practicing self-care, a few weeks ago, it became abundantly clear to me that I needed to find a relaxing way to pat myself on the back. I booked a massage. On the train ride to my appointment, just thinking of the soothing touch, peace, and quiet awaiting me made me do a little shoulder shimmy in my seat.
When I arrived, I was greeted by my masseur, a young Black guy with an energetic aura. After I got undressed and comfortable on the massage table, he lifted the blanket to begin work on my knot-filled back. “Do you oil your hair to get it to grow so much?” he asked me. Uh oh, I thought to myself. We’ve got a talker on our hands.
An introvert trapped in this chatty world, I’ve learned how to answer a Chatty McCathy’s inquiry with the perfect balance of politeness and decisiveness to extinguish any follow-up questions that could lead to a full-blown conversation. But this time, my tricks were no match for him. For the next two hours of what was supposed to be my relaxing, quiet, massage self-care time, I learned about his thoughts on spiritual ancestors and polyamory, and I was pressured into giving advice about his latest not-boyfriend not texting him daily. In other words, I was being put to work.
I could not concentrate on his good massage technique because I was being forced to listen to him list his genealogical family tree. An aspiring rapper who forgets his own song lyrics, he offered a few recitations—while I was naked and lying face down. My armpits were sweating because even they knew that I did not sign up for this labor. I considered asking for a quiet massage, but that just made me more frustrated because it’s a massage! I shouldn’t have to advocate for my rest during what is supposed to be a restful experience.
I was practicing my box breath when the lessons passed down from my own ancestors filled my mind.“You might be there for someone at the right place and the right time,”and, the ultimate inarguable saying, “God put you here for a reason.” I rolled my eyes and surrendered to the reality that this massage was no longer self-care, but his. I made peace with this until he punctuated the end.
“Thanks so much for listening to me and giving me good advice, especially as a Black woman,” he said. “My mother doesn’t listen to me, so this was really helpful.” He ended our massage with the same gracious tone I ended my therapy sessions with, minus the payment for my labor.
Oludara Adeeyo, multi-hyphenate psychotherapist, social worker, and author of Self-Care for Black Women,defines radical self-care as “the active decision to put your wellness before anyone or anything else.” Black women are disproportionately affected by systemic injustice at work, school, and at home, so we know that self-care is critical. Practicing self-care is another thing. It’s tough for most Black women to deprioritize others because we’ve been socialized to put everyone else before ourselves. Self-care experts urge us to move past this, however uncomfortable.
“That moment was your moment, so you definitely should have put your foot down a little bit harder,” says Adeeyo in reference to my massage. It turns out that our ability to practice self-care, uninterrupted, often resides in our commitment to setting boundaries.
“We as Black women, we have to create boundaries. It means we’re most likely going to be the villain in someone’s story,” says Adeeyo. “Because there’s an expectation that as Black women, we can take it all on and everyone has a right to our space.”
Initially, I bristled at this boundary notion because it sounded an awful lot like work to me, the very thing I’m trying to escape while practicing self-care.
“Boundaries aren’t necessarily for other people,” Adeeyo continued. “They’re for you to protect you from other people. A boundary you could have used be like, ‘Hey, this is a great conversation, but I really just want quiet time right now.’”
To be clear, I am an assertive person who has never struggled to stand up for myself, angry Black woman stereotype be damned. Even before I was explicitly told that he unloaded his burdens on me because I am a Black woman, I was enraged that I had to advocate for a quiet massage at all.
“I know the labor it is to listen to someone,” says Kelechi Ubozoh, a mental health coach and consultant. “But I don’t always have the energy to interrupt them and deal with that feeling that I have afterward.” I’m grateful to be a strong Black woman, but I get tired of exercising that strength, especially when I am supposed to be resting.
In addition to Adeeyo’s inventive self-care activity book, the internet is full of articles, listicles, and information that articulate this need. When I googled “how to support Black women in practicing self-care,” it simply returned the sound of crickets because little has been published about supporting Black women in practicing self-care. Ubozoh once attended an all Black women self-care group that she couldn’t wait to join. Unfortunately, she was confronted with a sobering reality for Black women attempting to practice self-care. “Every Black woman was like, ‘I’m so worried about my son,’ ‘I’m so worried about my husband,’ ‘I’m so worried about my cousin.’ No one talked about themselves at all,” said Ubozoh. “Even when it’s just us, we are still not talking about our own needs.”
Our ability to practice self-care also requires us to inspect our own internalizations about what it means to be a good Black woman. Despite my unintentionally feminist upbringing, I’ve received the same messages that Black women should be supportive and available, and that any display of self-care is most likely old-fashioned selfishness. “Black women are expected to support and carry the men, children, and loved ones in our lives,” said Nikki Campbell, a personal trainer in New York City. “It almost feels impossible to be vulnerable to prioritize self-care.” Ubozoh also thinks about what we internalize. “Because of years of respectability politics from family, ‘if you just work harder,’ or ‘you have to work twice as hard to get half as far.’” she said. “[Black women] have all of these narratives to contend with, and we’re just trying to take a bubble bath!”
When Black women practice self-care, it means others have to do more while we care for ourselves. Yes, employers need to offer healthcare and flexible work schedules so that Black women can go to therapy, but also, partners need to pick up kids from school while we practice yoga or meditation. Family members need to give Black women space to cook, journal, or whatever it is Black women need to do to care for themselves. Chanelle Frazier, an urban planner in Houston, told me that she practices Self-Care Sunday. “It’s really just cleaning and moving with ease and not minding anyone,” she said. “But since my parents live with me, they very routinely interrupt even though I’ve said and established that it’s Self-Care Sunday.” Giving Black women the space we need to practice self-care is both institutional and personal.
“For collective community care, people need to let Black women rest,” said Ubozoh. Making space for Black women to practice self-care means that people who’ve come to rely on Black women for things like fighting for democracy, holding corrupt politicians accountable, and shining a light on the perils of public school teaching while making us laugh will have to help themselves for at least the length of a deep tissue massage. “When you take your labor off the table, people are not pleased with you,” said Ubozoh. We tend to think of labor in terms of jobs or employment, but as it relates to Black women, labor includes daily tasks such as being there for a friend, being there for a cousin, being there for a masseur who is marveling at the fact that “y’all” rhymes with “all.” Black woman labor means being there for everyone but ourselves.
Admittedly, all of this still makes me sad. Most people have to advocate for their own rest, but the advocacy and boundary-setting that Black women have to do feels weighted. Maybe it’s because the post–George Floyd protest Instagram illustrations about supporting Black women have amounted to nothing but a pile of old pixels.
To better understand the state of Black women attempting to practice self-care in real life, I polled my humble Instagram network. Out of 159 story views, I received 44 responses from Black women articulating the importance of self-care and the challenges in practicing it. I received only four responses when I asked my non-Black women followers about supporting Black women in practicing self-care. The delta between saying Black women deserve self-care and supporting us in doing so is wide.
Supporting Black women in practicing self-care should be a joyous inconvenience, but for now, the onus of creating space to practice-self care is still on our shoulders. “Self-care is about self trust because you have to really allow yourself to believe that this is what you want,” said Adeeyo. “You don’t begin to bargain with yourself like, ‘Oh, this is not what I want… well maybe?’ No. This is what you want. You wanted a quiet massage, and you should have gotten it.”
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