“Self-care” is more than a buzzword




St Francis Bay freelance journalist Beth Cooper-Howell takes a look at the other side of life in Woman on Top, her weekly lifestyle column for The Herald





When money’s tight, the first thing to go, on the middle-class rung of priorities, is always the pampery, pleasant stuff, such as hair salon visits, dinner dates, eye creams and hot stone massages.

I’ve always been a “get-up-and-go” type gal, rather than the “self-care” sort. When I win or am given spa vouchers, I either give them away to my friend Roxanne or lose them in my handbag.

In fact I found a tattered, spotty “mini pedi” card crumpled between my wallet and a wad of old tissues just this weekend. It expired in January.

My formative years were spent documenting the lives of people a lot less fortunate than me and witnessing the gut-wrenching difficulties of day-to-day living on the breadline.

As news journalists, we didn’t have time (or money) for beauty tricks, yoga classes, flouncy hair or heels. Today we might be sucking our shoes through muddy, flooded township rivers, which once were roads, and tomorrow, chasing down an early morning traffic disaster on a highway on the outskirts of town.

We were never as important or heroic as paramedics, the police, community activists or trauma surgeons but we had to dress down, work overtime and neglect our homes and families, just as they did, so that we could record life as it happened.

To report the news, to be an objective, able witness to the lives of other people, you need to blend in. You can’t be tottering on wedges, or worrying with lipstick. Just be neat and show up.

So “self-care” is a bit of an alien concept to me. I want to look good, to feel great, but I can’t be bothered with the fuss of it all.

This often is learned behaviour – my mom has whisked through womanhood on a bottle of Oil of Olay and whatever affordable foundation happens to be on special at the pharmacy when she runs out.

She dyes her own hair, looks after her clothes to make them last, doesn’t visit therapists or counsellors to ground herself, treat any conditions or improve her mood and really just gets on with things. Just be neat and show up.

That’s not to say that mom and I haven’t evolved – or that we don’t believe in taking care of ourselves on all levels.

Before “self-care” became a sellable, packaged product, my mom formulated her own (completely free) meditation practices, believed completely in the power of positive thinking and spent a lot of time reading pertinent books and meeting philosophical, intellectual people as part of her natural interest in becoming a better, more interesting, happier and spiritually aware person.

Nowadays, “self-care” is its own brand. I went to a health and wellness expo recently, where I could easily have blown a small fortune in an hour or less. There are so many products, regimens and methodologies out there which not only promise youth, peace, mindfulness, beauty and general happiness, but mostly deliver on these.

The thing is, a lot of it costs money – and ironically, the very people who need it the most, are the people who don’t have money to spend on it.

That’s where people like Margarita Tartakovsky have nailed it – the art of making people happier, without spending a cent. We need more of this, says Tartakovsky. The basic concept of self-care should be so much part of who we are that it’s a natural extension of being alive.

I have no doubt that older generations followed Tartakovsky’s step-by-step guide to self-care whether or not they were poor, politically ostracised or depressed. The key is: ritual.

Wake up and have a ritual (this could just be tea from the same cup, in the same place). Go to sleep with a ritual (slippers under the bed, saying your prayers, lights out). In between, be aware of the fact that you are alive – and celebrate who and where you are, no matter how impoverished, sad or lonely you feel.

South African author Chris van Wyk, for example, made something of himself despite growing up poor in a township during apartheid. As a young laaitie, he engaged in self-care by reading, writing stories in a donated diary and spending as much time as possible playing sport, learning new games, getting muddy and engaging with nature. He took what he had and worked with it.

Tartakovsky explains that even eating mindfully, with awareness, is healing and nourishing for both tummy and soul. Smell, taste, savour and slowly chew your lunch or dinner, enjoying the fact that it’s yours to eat. Gourmet and street food taste equally at home in your mouth, if you give the plate a chance.

Somebody told me the other day that the only news worth sharing these days was political analysis. Fluffy stuff like psychology and “women’s things” belongs on the back page of a magazine nobody reads, he said.

Wrong. You can’t analyse the slightest thing if you’re sick, sad or dead. And as Tartakovsky says, taking care of yourself is guaranteed to eventually make an impact on someone besides yourself.


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