However, she also finds the topic to be a tricky one to navigate. “I think a lot of times with the self-care conversation, there is a way that it is weaponized to make us feel shameful for not necessarily checking off all the boxes of what self-care is considered in the mainstream. And that's not okay. We should not be shaming people in our lives for surviving the best ways they know how," she tells ishonest.
Figuring out what we need to do to make ourselves feel good is personal, but that doesn't mean we can't offer each other words of wisdom or some of our own tried-and-true tips. Willis has a few of her own, especially as they relate to avoiding burnout as an activist, acknowledging your beauty lineage, and figuring out when you need a breather.
Plants as meditation
Each morning begins with meditation for Willis, though it might look different from what you're picturing. "Every day I wake up and I tend to my plants," she says. “I imagine my plant time as meditation in a way, and it forces me to slow down. It forces me to take stock of new growth, literally."
Communing with nature also helps ground her in her own body, and to remember what's necessary for her own healing; she's reminded to stay hydrated, nourished properly, and to get sunlight and air. "That's a big part of my self-care; my friends are always like, 'Here she goes with them damn plants again,'" she says.
Other than this, however, she doesn't have many daily rituals when it comes to self-care, she tells ishonest. "Sometimes it's incorporating lavender, because I love the scent, whenever possible. Before the pandemic, it would have been trying to schedule a massage when I can," she explains.
The importance of taking breaks
Right now, there's a spotlight on the continued movement for liberation for all Black people and a call to accountability for (and an end to) police brutality, all in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. The necessity of nurturing oneself has become all the more obvious — especially for those who are systemically oppressed.
She mentions that oftentimes (if not always), marginalized people are doing the lion's share when it comes to liberation work. "It is by design to really work ourselves to a point of wasting away because of the systems of oppression. White supremacy wants people of color, in particular, to work themselves to the bone. The patriarchy wants women and people of other genders to work themselves to the bone," she says.
"If you don't take care of yourself, you will not be the best version of you to do that work."
Breaking down systems of thinking that have taught us to think of ourselves — and each other — as machines is necessary. Pushing yourself to keep going without rest is dehumanizing, even if what you're doing is important. "The work is important, and there will always be work to do. There will always be urgency, but if you don't take care of yourself, you will not be the best version of you to do that work. That's important, right? I think we have to model in our personal lives what it looks like to take care of ourselves in order to care for our communities," she explains.
She adds that capitalism, in addition to the patriarchy, is another system that pushes the most marginalized to their limits, exploiting vulnerabilities. When she feels like she's reached capacity, she assesses whether she needs a break — and then, she takes one if she does. "I actually don't buy into the ways that we have to put off how our body is responding to different things, particularly within a work context," she says.
"We're forced to kind of push our breaks off until a more ‘acceptable time,’ but if you are mentally or physically drained at any time, it's on you to figure out how to rest when necessary or take a breather, take a deep breath," she continues. Willis stresses the importance of vacations; while they're difficult to take right now and may not look like what we're used to, allowing ourselves to safely escape from work and our everyday lives, if possible, can be a great reset.
A look at her beauty routine
Beauty is often another welcome refuge from pain and is as valid a form of self- care as any. Right now, Willis says that her own beauty and skin-care routine are undergoing a bit of a change. "I am trying to shift more into a Black-owned beauty moment and really just support Black-owned brands. In terms of makeup, I'm pretty much there," she says.
As for skin-care, if she's washed her face the night before (her fave is Laniege's Moisturizing Cream Cleanser) and has had a pretty low-key night since, she typically skips a cleanser in the morning and just rinses with water before moisturizing with Kiehl’s Glow Formula Skin Hydrator. In her makeup bag, you'll find Fenty Beauty's Pro Filt'r Foundation (applied after the brand's Mattifying Primer, and also uses products from Iman, including the brand's Luxury Pressed Powder. However over the course of the stay-at-home orders, makeup has stopped being as much of a staple for her, at least when it comes to putting on a full face.
"I've come to hate the way it feels on my skin. Especially if I have to put something on for the camera, I can feel the layers that I'm packing on. I like it simple," she says. In the name of simplicity, she has some favorite techniques and color preferences, including a smoky eye, pink blush, and highlighter (Fenty's Killawatt Highlighter in the Afternoon Snack and Mo' Hunny duo is her fave). “I love a gold shimmer, so I put that on my lids, my brow bone, and in the corner of my eye — I love that little shimmery effect there," she says, continuing, "I have also become a lip gloss girl; I used to only like lipsticks."
"I often think that some of the biggest beauty decisions come from asking, ’What am I going to do with my hair?' And I've come to like it all."
Other staples? She loves Milk's Kush Mascara. After using it, she sets her face, and then she's done — at least with makeup. "I think as a Black woman, the makeup part isn't the more involved part. Sometimes that's the hair, you know; like, am I doing a wig moment? Am I wearing natural for this fit? Am I going to twist my hair? Am I going to go for a ‘fro, am I going to put it up?" she says. "I often think that some of the biggest beauty decisions come from asking, ’What am I going to do with my hair?' And I've come to like it all. I love the versatility of Black hair, our history of being innovative with our aesthetic."
Tracing her beauty lineage
But where did her aesthetic come from? Willis recalls watching her mother apply bright red rouge; a cloud of Estée Lauder perfume that followed her grandmother's every step; the way her older sister could seamlessly traverse the oversized and hyperfeminine fashion moments of the '90s. "Some of my first experiences with beauty were playing in my mother's makeup. It's kind of that quintessential story, I think, for a lot of queer folks," she says.
She grew up helping her grandmother touch up her platinum blonde roots (a memory she calls sweet now, though it was just something she did to pitch in at the time) and watching her mother apply makeup and roll her hair in big curls every Sunday. "She always had a bright red rouge and a bold lip, some kind of red or plum. Those are kind of like her go-to colors. I mean the whole nine yards, I mean, it was like, 'Kevyn Aucoin who?' No, that's my mama," she recalls.
"There's such an expansiveness to Black beauty."
As she developed her own beauty aesthetic, she looked to not just these formative experiences, but to popular culture, as well. "I remember looking at folks like Missy Elliott, Destiny's Child, or Janet Jackson. Black women and beauty were always around me, so in addition to that Southern kind of beauty school I came up in, it was also about what was happening in popular culture," she says. As she's gotten older, she's also pulled in references as an activist.
"There's a particular beauty history for Black activism. I think about the Panthers, the natural hair movement, and the connection of Black power there. I think about our queer history and the history of drag makeup. I think about Marsha P. Johnson and her affinity for flowers. which I also have," she says. "It all kind of like it flows in and out of each other. There's such an expansiveness to Black beauty."
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