Last week I made what might look like a reverse-resolution: to aim to go to the gym just twice a week instead of three times a week. I’m not a compulsive calorie-burner; in fact, my relationship with exercise is quite healthy and positive. I enjoy working out because it feels good and helps disperse mental stress and physical tension. I just don’t have time for all the self-care routines I’ve taken on to balance my life and keep myself happy, healthy and whole. At this point I’m managing stress that’s partly caused by the stress of stress-management routines.

The notion of self-care – that it is not just OK, but radical to take time to look after your own physical, mental and emotional needs in a world that is not always built for human well-being – originates in activist and mental health communities. The message was originally espoused by and directed at individuals most at risk of burn-out: people who daily navigate and resist heteropatriarchal, white supremacist , capitalist social structures designed to oppress, marginalize and stigmatize them. In the hands of white feminist social media personalities, self-care has morphed into a trendy aesthetic: a variety of the performative vulnerability that is so often rewarded on Instagram. Crying selfies, face masks, hydration, and unapologetically cancelling plans in favour of staying in bed are all #selfcare.

I don’t want to suggest that white privilege precludes the need for self-care or that selfies, face masks and napping are not legitimate tools of self-care. At its heart, self-care is about making a more loving world by starting with self-love and that is a worthy message for everyone. But as is its nature, social media has both contributed to the propagation of a positive idea and blunted its critical edge. Self-care contains an implied critique of the capitalist imperative of productivity, but it has been easily subverted to sell Band-Aid solutions for the symptoms of burn-out without addressing their root causes. It is a way to market everything from $5 face masks at the drugstore to expensive yoga retreats in Costa Rica.  Self-care is no longer about surviving and thriving despite capitalism, it is about maximizing one’s use of capitalism by maintaining productive functionality. And that is problematic for so many reasons.

Like a lot of millennials, I’m an overworked non-profit employee doing creative work on the side, but I’m also healthy, childless, dog-less and have a 15 minute commute to work. I have no reason to be as tired as I am, but maintaining an exercise routine to keep myself energized and relaxed, meal planning and packing lunch every night to stay healthy and on budget, tidying clutter to keep a pleasant space to come home to, pursuing hobbies for the satisfaction of making something, keeping a journal for mental clarity, etc., etc. is too much to fit in alongside a full-time job and basic domestic chores, let alone real leisure. When I inevitably fail to keep up with my checklist of self-care because I’ve been actually resting I get… stressed out! I’m driven by the feeling that if I don’t keep up on all these good habits, things will be much worse down the road. I’ll turn into one big knotted muscle or something. Worst of all, my time and energy for more fulfilling creative work dwindles as it is repeatedly postponed to the end of the night, and then the next day and the next.

Consumerist self-care is marketed at women (it meshes well with existing gendered complexes that marketing capitalizes on, such as body image) and women have been at the forefront of espousing self-care in all its varieties. There’s good reason for this. Women have historically been care givers, and that legacy continues to inform the expectations placed on women by themselves and others. Self-care can be an antidote to the toll of all that other-care. Real self-care as it was originally conceived is not pretty or cute. It can look like taking medication, or setting boundaries in relationships, or making genuinely difficult and rewarding life changes. But it is always work and the mainstreaming of #selfcare obscures the work and the mess and conflict that come when people who are routinely and systematically expected to care for or accommodate others center their own needs in a meaningful way.

As self-care eats into my leisure hours, becoming a source of pressure itself, I wonder if #selfcare is just another way that women are pressured to have it all, and be it all. As delayed (or foregone) parenthood, house ownership and career stability are increasingly accepted parts of millennial adulthood, perhaps the balanced lifestyle promised by self-care is just a new form of unrealistic feminine perfection that conveniently keeps us busy and keeps us buying.

In comparison “Treat yo’self”, a motto popularized by characters on Parks and Recreation, so transparently invites indulgence and consumption that it resists the same insidious subversion of message.  If not taken in moderation, “Treat yo’self” may lead to debt before balance but at least it promotes a self-love based on giving yourself permission to enjoy life, rather on grimly doing things for your own good.


IMG_20180718_115103_621Elisabeth Hill is an Edmonton-based writer and researcher who currently works as a Programming and Engagement Coordinator at the Art Gallery of Alberta.

What does radical self-love look like?

Sometimes it looks like moving your family across the world so you can finally write a memoir.

For people living with mental illnesses, the emphasis on self-love and some of its assumed performances can be alienating. For people who have C-PTSD or have grown up in dysfunctional homes of continuously traumatizing incidents, the term self-love can ring hollow. As one friend recently said, it simply doesn’t penetrate.

And that’s ok.

In the times when we are stuck in our own programming, even when we have the dual awareness to recognize we are stuck but we can’t do much about it, it is important to realize that putting one foot in front of the other, or even just longing to, is self-love.

It is not actively destructing.

It is still you in there.

For me, a big part of practicing self-love has been doing things for myself, even when I don’t feel the love: booking therapy appointments in advance (even when my brain is telling me it’s hopeless so why bother), booking home support like cleaning services (even when my brain is telling me I am worthless because I need help to do basic things), or any other steps (small and large) I might take towards helping myself continue to survive.

It is a common thing among folks living with mental illness that we can only feel in memory, never in the present moment. Our nervous systems have been trained expertly to shut down in the here and now as a protective mechanism.

And that’s ok.

That is your body loving yourself.

A big part of healing is in rolling one’s consciousness forward to now. In building one’s own safe spaces and then allowing one’s self to feel in those spaces. Even if little by little.

Radical self-love looks like such commitments to survival, even when your brain tells you that you do not want to survive. Radical self-love even looks like simply yearning to take these steps, even when your brain tells you that you cannot go on.

This is an act of radical self-love.

I am set to begin a sabbatical or leave of absence from my advocacy work with Alberta Muslim Public Affairs Council (AMPAC) on August 1st.   The community work I have set in motion will graciously be continued by my committee of dedicated directors and volunteers. This leave will entail me and my family moving to Morocco for six months to visit family and make space for the research and writing of a creative non-fiction memoir

About the project:

Why do you want to enter? Simon Levy asked me outside the entrance of the Casablanca Jewish Museum he founded and directed as of 1997. An armed Moroccan military officer stood close by, listening to our conversation. When I replied that I wanted to see the Moroccan Jewish artifacts inside, he seemed surprised, and gestured to the hijab covering my head. He said, it is not often that we have your people visiting the museum, before waving for me to follow him inside.

Five years later, I was sitting in Levy’s old office with the new museum director, Zhor Rehihil, who took over primary curatorship after Levy’s death. We were talking about my research project and dropping names of historians doing work on the departure of Jews from Morocco between 1948 and 1968. I was explaining my interest in the silences of its memory, particularly the anxieties brought on by the Holocaust and a host of other issues largely absent from both Jewish and Muslim memories.

The Holocaust had nothing to do with Morocco, she protested. I let her finish without agreeing or disagreeing, wrapping up our conversation with a promise to keep in touch and update her when my work was completed. As she was walking me out, she looked at my hijab and said, you know, that headscarf will make your research very difficult. Trust, in this field, is a complicated thing.

It was only in wading through the multivocal, emotionally-charged and often painful memories of the departure that I would come to recognize the truth of her observation and how my own work might come to be perceived because of my identities. I also came to notice patterns of belonging and rootlessness in my own story as a convert to Islam, living in a foreign country, descendant from immigrants and married to a man who also gave up his place of origin as a Mediterranean migrant.

The pursuit of homelands, both literally and figuratively, shape my experiences – both a physical and an internal migration echoed in the movement of the people I have studied and how the memory of their journeys is expressed.

What does it mean to search for home as a Muslim convert, wading through established communities? What does it mean to exist as a racialized Muslim woman in Canada, in an era of rising Islamophobia? What does it mean to immigrate to another land in pursuit of the familiar? For myself, my ancestors, my spouse?

Deeper than this, what does it mean to look for home as a wandering soul? I can hear the revolutionary chants of the Arab Spring protesters on the television my first time in Morocco: Jannah, jannah, jannah, Jannah al-wataniya. Paradise, paradise, paraside, Paradise the homeland. 

The project that I am working on is a creative non-fiction memoir, a true novel of sorts, that will braid together these stories of migration and homeland, combining my academic research with stories from my life and those close to me. I am unsure yet if the writing I am making space for will become a graphic novel script that I will commission an illustrator for, or it will remain a work of prose.

I am asking for support while I take some time off from my advocacy work to travel back to Morocco for visual research and to conduct additional interviews for the writing of this work. As I said, my sabbatical begins August 1st and will continue for 6 months. I hope to return to Canada with a complete first draft and have set up a mentorship relationship with a Professor of literature and writing to ensure I achieve this goal.

All I have to offer is my participation. All I am able to do is take each voice in the turbulence of remembering and listen to them equally. I cannot do this without your support.

To learn more about this act of radical self-love and this project, to support it and to access exclusive benefits that I am providing for my supporters, please visit my Patreon account: https://www.patreon.com/homeland/


16265681_10154323322850753_2679466403133227560_nNakita Valerio is an award-winning writer, academic, and community organizer based in Edmonton, Canada. 

Tonight, a new friend came to visit me. She is the wife of a mentor and colleague of mine and I have been meaning to connect with her for awhile. Our visit was simple enough – talking over coffee and a platter of fruit while my daughter chattered away, excited about this new friend in our home. I watched as my daughter fed her grapes and placed a hand on her shoulder – simple, immediate intimacy with someone she had only just met. Our conversation was punctuated with finding my little one in hiding as she shrieked with delight from behind the cupboard.

I had been promising my daughter this visit all day, mentioning that this friend was coming over and that we would all go to the nearby park together, which we eventually did. While my kid made instant friends with another girl  on the slides, we talked about our experiences living in different places around the world – Morocco, Pakistan, the United States and Canada.

“What was it like living in America?” I asked. We both knew what this question meant without further elaboration. It meant, what was it like living as a veiled Muslim in America? It meant, had you experienced discrimination or violence there? It meant, did you live in fear there?

She told me about some of her experiences, narrowing in on the fact that Americans tell it like it is – for better or for worse – and that this is something she found surprisingly refreshing. People sometimes shouted out that they liked her clothes. Or they would smile at her out of nowhere.

“I think people have forgotten how to love one another,” she said. “Especially the Ummah” she added, referring to the global Muslim community.

“People don’t even compliment each other any more,” she added. “Something as simple as ‘you have beautiful eyes’,” she stated, nodding towards mine.

I hadn’t received a compliment in a very long time and didn’t even know how to react, but my body did. I had a huge smile plastered on my face and my heart lifted up for a minute. She was right. A compliment is something so simple and is, in itself a form of love, of uplifting one another just for its own sake.

How long had it been since I complimented someone?

I recalled a cartoon that had been making its way on social media – an image of a man and his son. He turns to another man wearing a hat and says “Nice hat!” When the hat-wearer smiles, the man turns to his son and says: “See? Look at his face change: Everyone can have magic powers!”

And it’s true. Heartfelt words are magical and they are powerful. They can disarm hostility and relax a hardened heart. They come unexpectedly and so they take us off-guard. We feel vulnerable because we are so used to being in defensive mode. We laugh it off as a reflex.

After she left, I decided to try out her simple strategy for social change and I started on my mother. It helped that she arrived within a few moments and she looked absolutely beautiful. I took the moment to compliment her on her shiny new eyeliner, noting that, in fact, her whole outfit was put-together and nice. She looked lovely.

“Ok….” She didn’t know what to say as a smile slowly crept onto her face.

“You look beautiful, Nanna,” my little one echoed, smiling as well.

The car filled with love as we drove away together.

One thing I have learned time and time again is that the most meaningful and lasting social change comes from the simplest of continuous interactions and compliments are yet another tool in our arsenal of tools aimed at compassion and acceptance.

I challenge everyone reading this to #complimentsomeone in our #drawingboardchallenge. Spend the next month making the conscious effort to compliment at least one person per day, whether or not you know them. That person might be you some days because, let’s face it, a whole lot of us are going a very long time without having anything nice to say about ourselves.

In a world that is becoming increasingly uncertain and where meaningful and purposeful interaction is diminishing, break down your fears and connect with others: no matter how far someone might feel to you, they are usually only a smile away.