Black Women, This Is What Self-Care Looks Like

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Jamaica Gilmer

In A Burst of Light, her aptly titled collection of essays, Audre Lorde famously wrote, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

Almost 30 years after she put that oft-quoted, oft-referenced and oft-memed thought to paper, black women are still trying to figure out what self-preservation and its companion operative, self-care, look like in their lives.

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Is it taking an annual vacation that actually includes vacationing and not stealthily reading emails in a beach chair by the ocean?

Is it leaving the babies in the care of a relative and sliding off to the day spa to indulge in a mani-pedi and massage?

Is it seeing a therapist? Buying a new dress just because? Taking time to read a novel in the middle of the afternoon and feeling absolutely guiltless about it?

Self-care is still a mystery because we still don’t see it often enough—because we still don’t do it often enough. Some of us do it inconsistently, some of us not at all.

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The Beautiful Project, a Durham, N.C.-based nonprofit, has launched an online exhibit—“The Self Care Exhibit: A Word and Image Act of Self-Preservation and Political Warfare”—to help us see, through a photographic collective, how that self-preservation Sister Audre was referencing takes shape. The organization has long empowered black girls by making them partners in reframing their images in the media, but this is the first time it is applying its unique artistic activism through photography to an issue specific to adult black women.

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The concept emerged during a conversation in 2013 when Jamaica Gilmer, a professional photographer gifted in the art of storytelling with her lens, and fellow co-founders of the Beautiful Project, writer and educator Pamela Thompson and educator and activist Erin Stephens, led a discussion with their group of contributors.

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“Our crew is all over the country, and during a meeting about our last exhibit, ‘The Black Girl Triptych’—late at night because that was the only time that would accommodate all of our schedules—one of our former interns, Alexis Dennis, asked a key question. She said, ‘It’s great that we work with and for girls, but can we add a component to ‘The Black Girl Triptych’ that focuses on women? Like, I need to know how they take care of themselves despite everything going on in their lives. I need to know how to take care of myself. How do I take care of myself!?’ That was when the idea came to life,” Gilmer remembers. “The need to make time to care for our emotional, physical and spiritual well-being is crucial because if we’re not functioning as we should, nothing around us is functioning as it should.”

Since that concept was manifested, a network of black female photographers have taken up their cameras to showcase how sisters of different ages and backgrounds design, intentionalize, even struggle with their individual self-care practices in “The Self Care Exhibit.” They’ve put out a call for submissions for other black female photographers—professional, semipro, talented hobbyists, cellphone-camera ninjas, selfie queens, it doesn’t matter—to interview another black woman and ask her how she does self-care. Capture the stories of other sisters between the ages of 25 and 90 and submit them for consideration to be added to the exhibit. The top 10 will be announced on Facebook in August.

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Most important, said Gilmer, this exhibit gives us an opportunity to connect our stories and experiences, see ourselves in one another, and overturn the misconception that “self-care” is the same thing as “self-indulgent” (but even if it were, that would be OK, too).

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“Photography has the powerful ability to capture a nuanced moment in life and hold it still, especially when the photographer can ride the wave of emotion in a room. For black girls and women,” she added, “it becomes a tool to shape the telling and retelling of our stories because society is often happy to accept representations of us that do not reflect our layers and humanity.”

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The deadline for submissions is 11:59 p.m. on July 31. The first iteration of “The Self Care Exhibit” is available for public viewing permanently in our website gallery. Plans are in progress to create a national traveling exhibit that reflects black girlhood and womanhood as experienced by the families of the Beautiful Project during the past 10 years.

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