On Self‐Care and Risks

Written by
Kelly J. Baker

Dec 31, 2019

Dec 31, 2019 • by Kelly J. Baker

It's November 2016, the day after Thanksgiving. I'm at an amusement park with my family, and my kids and their cousins are all grins and laughter as they sprint from one ride to another. It's also the day my op‐ed on white supremacy runs in a national newspaper. I'm not thinking about the article at all as I enjoy the day.

A notification pops up on my phone. A friend asks if I'm OK because of all the threats I'm receiving on Twitter. His message catches me unaware. What? I thought that my mentions wouldn't be good but not that there would be threats. The op‐ed was historical and tame really. And yet my mentions filled up with insults, slurs and threats of violence and harm.

I should have known this would happen.

As a woman scholar online, I already knew there would be a certain level of harassment and abuse I'd encounter. In fact, I'd already been threatened before online. I was used to it. But these threats, particularly the death threats, shook me. I blamed myself for what happened even though I knew I was blameless.

I was angry that I hadn't properly prepared for the online onslaught. I hadn't really planned for what could happen. I took a risk I didn't quite know was a risk.

So, I took a break from Twitter, took walks, played with my kids and painted my nails. I also reconsidered my career.


I practiced what we call self‐care—that often‐recited advice that appears everywhere these days. It's a hashtag on Instagram attached to shots of attractive white women recommending complicated beauty regimens. It's the barrage of products that will somehow help us live our best lives. It's the common recommendation of yoga or mindfulness. Self‐care now appears not only as what you do but what you can buy.

But self‐care wasn't always what it is now. In A Burst of Light (1988), Audre Lorde pointed out that self‐care can be revolutionary in a world that thinks you don't deserve care or actively tries to harm you.

Now, self‐care appears mostly as what individual women do to cope with a world full of danger, harm and loss. To take a risk seems the opposite of caring for yourself. Self‐care should be a balm, right? Not courting the possibility that things could take a bad turn.

Risks, however, are unavoidable. We take risks every day, because life is risky. We live in a white supremacist patriarchal culture that is, at best, antagonistic to women, gender nonbinary and trans* folks, and, at worst, tries to destroy us. Risks are abundant and not always obvious.

Look at the numbers. Four women a day are killed by intimate partners. Eighty‐one percent of women have experienced sexual harassment at the workplace. One in four undergrad college women have been sexually assaulted. The intersections of our identities determine our level of risk. Black women are more likely than white women to experience sexual harassment at work. And the murder rate of black trans* women is more than seven times higher than that of the general population.

How could we not need self‐care when we consider how dangerous life is for women?

Self‐care might—at first glance—be about coping. Perhaps self‐care might be about carefully considering what the consequences might be of our actions and evaluating our risks. In an often‐unforgiving, misogynist culture, perhaps, we should try to protect ourselves and prepare for the horrors that come from just being a woman in the world.

Considering Risks

In my career and life, folks—often well‐meaning folks—caution me to consider the risks of what I do and to consider my safety. Folks warn me about how the articles I write will have vicious commenters, how my tweets might lead to trolls and/or death threats and how my work on provocative topics might be a detriment to my career.

Isn't it too risky, they ask, to continue to do my work as a scholar and writer? Isn't it safer to limit what I do?

If their warnings don't convince me, they tell me to expect harassment because that's the way it is. Harassment and threats appear to be something I have to prepare for. I should make better decisions or not take a risk at all.

By emphasizing safety, these folks are not only constraining me but also blaming me for not preparing for the terrible things women face. How can I prepare for the threats that might follow a tweet, an op‐ed or an offhand comment caught on video by a student? How can I prepare for the men who harassed me at work and faced no consequences for their actions? The academy, like our culture, is a sexist, racist, ableist, classist, homophobic space. How can I, or you, prepare for that? I can't entirely. You can't either.

The Burden of Preparation

Preparation and planning for one's safety falls solely on our shoulders. Harassment and violence appear as inevitable, so we must prepare. It's our own burden to bear. Instead, we all should shoulder the burden by working to eliminate both.

Just because life is risky doesn't mean we are on our own to face those risks. When women are told to plan, endlessly plan, for the risks we might face, we're told to prepare ourselves for the consequences of our existence. Institutions aren't held responsible. Our culture surely isn't. Instead, the burden falls on women to plan how we should prepare for the hate, harm and harassment we might face. We are the ones held accountable not only to prepare for the bad things that could happen to us but also for the bad things that happen.

This blame gets internalized. I've blamed myself for the threats that happened to me. I've kicked myself for my lack of preparation and planning. The burden fell on me. I also took care of myself because I was told I was supposed to. And yet, no amount of doing my nails helped me cope with death threats. How could it?

Take a Risk

Trying to cope while the world blames me for my choices made me afraid to act. Isn't it easier to just avoid risks?

And yet, curtailing our risks isn't inherently caring for ourselves. Not taking risks limits us. It constrains our careers—our lives. It limits our opportunities and possibilities. It's not a balm or a safeguard; it's a trap.

Self‐care can also be about taking risks. Yes, it's risky to speak up, to be visible and to live our truths. And yet, not taking a risk doesn't let us avoid pain or suffering. We can plan and prepare. Planning doesn't necessarily keep us safe. Sometimes, taking a risk can be self‐care. It can be revolutionary to assert ourselves and show up. It can be a protest about a world that tries to grind us up. It can be a commitment to not be constrained by those who want to limit us. We care for ourselves when we don't let the world cow us. Taking a risk can be care. It can save us.