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A Self-care Approach to Life – and Sexuality

A Self-care Approach to Life – and Sexuality

Do watch the dramatic chipmunk though it’s not on the list of jobs for the day. No, it’s not about the sex life of chipmunks or whether they’re gay.

Self-care is about understanding yourself

One does not need to watch the chipmunk video, it is not on the to-do list. Scarleteen may be thanked for that tiny bit of self-care that took less than 10 seconds. Here is their take on it, Self-Care: A La Carte! Don’t add that to the to-do list. Here’s the most important bits of take-home for those who don’t want to read it, explaining self-care:

“…self-care is a big part of not just getting through your life intact, it’s also something that helps people learn to take care of themselves, literally: to develop the independence, autonomy and resilience that is part and parcel of growing into a person who can, earnestly, take care of themselves.

“… What things are or are not self-care for you is going to depend a whole lot on you: on who you are as a person, what your interests are, what’s available to you for self-care, and what you need based on how you’re feeling, what’s going on in your life, and what you tend to find, over time and through trial and error, works best for you.”

Independence. Autonomy. Resilience. Things we hope to make integral to our lives and things we hope to teach our children. Of course, that is a blanket statement that doesn’t account for gender and sexual stereotypes, nor does it account for cultural practices. Not everyone, everywhere, teaches all of their children independence, autonomy or resilience, or the many shades of colours that comprise those three concepts. Which means that not everybody, everywhere, learns self-care, though most people learn how to wash their faces, brush their teeth, wear clean underwear, and lock the door to keep themselves safe. These are all elements of self-care, but at the heart of it is the self-care approach. The approach is everything. The approach depends on the individual and the family and community within which that individual lives their life.

For example, on Everyday Feminism, I found a comic strip called How Judging Women for Dependence on Men Reveals Your Internalized Misogyny that begins with a small introduction that asks, “Have you ever thought about why some women depend on support from men?”

The relationship between socialisation and self-care is complex. You cannot care for yourself if you do not understand yourself and give yourself some room, breathing space, permission to be. Parents, partners, children, family, friends, and most people we are connected to socially and at work must take the same approach, or self-care and understanding yourself are limited by controlling factors beyond the self. These controlling factors include the voices and attitudes that we have grown up with, that repeat themselves, playing in loop in our heads when we try to understand our own self and how to care for that self. Other controlling factors are more urgent and direct, taking the form of parental instruction, family norms and values, peer group pressure, or difficult personal circumstances such as being caregiver to a person with high care needs. If these voices in the head or circumstances outside of ourselves do not allow or value and respect the concept of self-care, it becomes difficult to take a self-care approach. The self lives in relationships, and therefore self-care and understanding the self all happen within the framework of relationships. Not in isolation.

Self-care is about living as yourself

 In the abstract of an online paper on sexuality, disability and care of the self, I read, “Care of the self is about enactment of identities and choice of how to live one’s life.” This articulates a universally applicable idea. While “enactment of identities” may be a little complex-sounding, the amazing complexity is hidden in the more simple-sounding part of the sentence, “choice of how to live one’s life”. Is it enactment of choice? Because choices exist for most people, I think quite often, but enactment of those choices is certainly also a matter of great complexity.

It’s not even about life choices, New Year resolutions, and suchlike. Sometimes there is great complexity in enactment of the choice of what to eat. Cynthia in The Carmichael Show has a meltdown where she says, “Well, I used to eat just whatever they had leftover you know, but then, I was at the window and I realised I didn’t even know my own order without theirs! I’m a grown woman and I don’t know what I like at Wendy’s!”

The choices of how to live one’s life needs to be expanded to include one’s own choices. That would be self-care.

In a listicle about unconventional ways to be true to oneself, the writer begins by asking, “Have you ever had a clear sign of who you really are and then totally ignored it?” Some good answers and directions can come from this question.  Out if the author’s ten-point list I like the sixth the best: “Don’t worry too much about making mistakes.”

We are always taught to be considerate and caring of others, especially certain others – family members, parents, children, partners. How often are we taught to care for ourselves and extend to ourselves the same love, respect and listening, the same responsiveness?  For most of us it’s reached a stage where we think the right thing, the correct and error-free thing to do is to be there for the others. We are convinced that straying from such a path is a mistake in itself.  Now, how do you challenge that?

Self-care is about living your sexuality

What does this have to do with sexuality? In WHO’s definition of sexuality, “…a central aspect of being human throughout life encompasses sex, gender identities and roles, sexual orientation, eroticism, pleasure, intimacy and reproduction. Sexuality is experienced and expressed in thoughts, fantasies, desires, beliefs, attitudes, values, behaviours, practices, roles and relationships. While sexuality can include all of these dimensions, not all of them are always experienced or expressed. Sexuality is influenced by the interaction of biological, psychological, social, economic, political, cultural, legal, historical, religious and spiritual factors.”

What is the meaning of living your sexuality? For one thing, it’s about much more than sex, sexiness, or who you choose to be sexually intimate with, though it does include all of those things. Sexuality is about who you are, how you view the world and relationships, and also how you view yourself in all these spaces.

Many people believe that the perfect relationship with a significant other, spouse or partner, involves a merging of identities, a we-are-as-one. So in caring for the other you are caring for yourself.  Many people also believe that they are what they have been raised by their parents to be, a certain kind of man or woman, with certain values and beliefs.

So much of our most important intimate relationships are about the things we must do, the things we do on auto-pilot and the things or people we respond to that are out of our control. These relationships therefore are not about self-care, but about to-do’s.  You’ve got to do whether you want to or not.  You’ve got to look a certain way, behave a certain way with certain people, construct the expected persona and then live that out till you’re dead. For many people, this dictates their presentation of their sexuality, sexual behaviour and relationships. That’s life as constructed for us, but it isn’t necessarily self-care.

In India, marital rape is not legally recognised, making therefore, the matter of self-care within your marital sexual relationship, a highly negotiable business, vulnerable within that seen-to-be primary relationship. The writer of a news article about the campaign for marital rape laws in India says,

“The WCD Ministry had given a reply in the Rajya Sabha earlier this year which read that ‘the concept of marital rape, as understood internationally, cannot be suitably applied in the Indian context’ and that criminalising it will put ‘the entire family system will be under great stress’. Following the backlash against WCD Minister Maneka Gandhi after the statement, the ministry retracted its reply to the Rajya Sabha. The ministry’s amended answer only said that matter is being examined by the Law Commission without specifying the ministry’s stand on the matter of criminalising the act.” [sic]

The key concept here is “the entire family system”. In this lies the truth about much of why we live as others want us to.

On 30th June, 2016, the UN Human Rights Council passed a resolution on “Protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity“,  creating the post of an Independent Expert in the process. India, in company with Botswana, Ghana, Namibia, Philippines and South Africa abstained from voting on the resolution.

In India, IPC Section 377 violates the rights of a human being to enact their identity and choice if they are anything but heterosexual and engaging in anything (carnal intercourse, as they call it in the law) perceived as being against the order of nature. Certainly no question of self, identity or self-care within this legal framing of sexuality. Presenting yourself as per the current social and legal prescription, self-care is not a right nor a possibility here. It’s about much more than hiding or suppressing sexual and gender identity. It is about being somebody else your whole life. You go missing.

Self-care may take the form of small and personal expressions of being, or may require large legal, social, political, local, national and global battles. Self-care requires sanction – sometimes one’s own personal sanction, sometimes community, and sometimes legal. Self-care requires practice. It’s an approach to life. If you practice it at work, at home, in relationships, in front of the mirror, reaching out to choose what you want at that point in time, between heels and flats, lipstick or nothing, the leather jacket or the silk stole, you are always coming home to you. If you don’t, then you risk becoming a stranger to yourself. Your life isn’t your own.

Cover illustration: Tomodachi by Stephanie Inagaki