Culture, Conformity, and Care

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Welcome to ‘Decolonizing our Practices: Conversing about Care’, a three-part blog post series. This series is a culminating conversation between Tangent MHI and One Future Collective as a part of our collaborative initiative, which was undertaken in October of 2021, to work towards decolonizing the perceptions and practices of mental health in India.

This is the second post of this series – ‘Culture, Conformity, and Care’. Be a part of this conversation as our speakers ponder on the impact of culture and normative narratives on the practice of care. [Please note that for the purpose of readability, the speakers’ responses have been divided into paragraphs.

Each new response begins with their name (Ankita and Anvita), followed by their initials (A.B. and A.W., respectively).]

Disclaimer: Before you go ahead, we would like you to remember that this conversation is informed by the personal and professional stances of the speakers, by their respective socio-political location, and by the resources, they have been able to access. We recognize that this is not the only way one can think about the ideas mentioned here. We would encourage you to bring your perspectives, share your thoughts, and any other resources in the comments below!


Ankita [A.B.]: (continuing from the earlier conversation)…I think what you started talking about automatically moves into the next question: what are the factors that influence the idea of care? Since you already kind of moved the conversation in that direction, when you spoke about privilege and being able-bodied, do you want to go ahead and talk about what according to you are factors that play a role in the idea of care? 


Anvita [A.W]: Definitely. Thank you. I think–so many thoughts in my head–I don’t know which one to like, pick [laughs]. But when I think of the factors that influence our ideas…firstly, as I mentioned, just our social identities, right? Like, considering how care looks different for different social groups. And it also makes me think of how–how anyone who has a mental health issue–it’s not always a visible issue. We don’t always acknowledge or even realize that the person may need care. And of course, there are physical manifestations that come along with it, but they don’t necessarily show for every issue. So, that’s one thing: the invisibilized nature of a lot of mental health issues and the implications it can have for caregiving. 


A.W.: And again, the way that we provide care, too. People from certain social groups are required to provide care, whereas those from other groups just expect to receive it. Or when they do provide it, they’re expected to do so in a different way. And that’s also where paid, productive labour comes in, right? 


A.W.: This makes me think of the value we place in different forms of care. The effort and skills that go into forms of care that require empathy and nurturance and interpersonal sensitivity are relatively devalued, even today. But also, if a cis-het man were to provide care in this way, it’s likely to be celebrated because it’s so rare or, you know, to be condemned because it’s going against the norm. Either way, it’s spotlighted. Even in the field of mental health and social work, I haven’t come across a lot of cis-het men. I think that speaks for itself. The norms that define the nature and scope of care provision are gendered. Our culture really shapes how we perceive, provide, and receive care.


A.W.: And the idea of care has evolved over time as well. You know, I’ve observed that people from my parents’ generation usually talk more about communal kinds of care. But when people who are around my age talk about care–it’s a relatively individualized form of care. I’m not sure that this is necessarily related, but it’s something I find quite interesting. Would you like to talk about the factors that influence the idea of care as well?


Ankita [A.B.]: Certainly! When you pointed out that there’s a clear, albeit unwritten, distinction between the group receiving care and the one providing care, it struck a chord with me. Also, for example, let’s think about cis-het men and the kind of care-related expectations that patriarchy expects of them. Like they are going to be breadwinners,  the ‘logical’ and ‘emotionally stable’ support, ‘manly’, the list goes on and on. And I wonder what this means for male-identifying individuals who do not necessarily ascribe to this particular narrative? 


A.B.: When we are talking about care, we can’t not talk about patriarchy and the kind of messages that we’re taught to take as the word that was just meant to be followed. Like, a rule that you can’t break, and this is exactly what you do if you want to be rewarded. So it’s like, okay you silently ascribe to these rules and we give you the privilege to access, space, stability. The privilege to be visible and exist. That means a lot. 


A.B.: I’m probably repeating myself here, but I would once again like to highlight how ideas of productivity influence ideas of care. As you’ve mentioned, irrespective of the fact that you’re doing…I’m just taking up from what you were sharing about your own personal experience. I hope that’s okay for me to do? [Anvita] Yeah!


A.B.: Okay, thank you! Um, when you say that despite putting in hours of work, taking 10 minutes of break feels like “wasting time”, “being lazy”, etc. this tends to be a common experience for so many people right now. We’ve been made to understand that, if we’re taking time to take care of ourselves or focusing on our needs, the systems around us expect us to come back (as soon as possible, if I may add!) and be “productive again”. So a person can do whatever it takes to care for themselves, do yoga, take a break, go on leave, go on a holiday, et cetera, but they have to come back and “perform”. What is even more fascinating to me is how well this expectation is hidden under the garb of care, mental health, and well-being. 


A.B.: I wonder when we made the transition from seeing human beings as human beings, to seeing human beings as just pieces in a machinery that need to be there; need to be functioning well, need to be well-oiled so that the system can function. And I wonder what that means for, like, generations of individuals and their mental health. If I could take an example from my personal life, I’ve seen my mother consistently place her health and pain on a lower pedestal in the face of responsibility. And I can say with confidence that others have had similar experiences with people in their lives. I don’t understand why you need to be in pain; you need to play second fiddle to the role that you’re playing. When did we make the decision that the role is more important than the person fulfilling it? So yeah, I think that, is there anything else that comes to mind? Something that you just want to say, because you’re nodding your head, which feels good. So please go ahead.

Anvita [A.W]: I really resonated with what you said; it highlighted how we can’t think about this in a black-and-white way. Like, how even though cis-het men form the privileged gender group, there are still certain social norms that bind them. If a man would rather provide care in the sphere of his home for no income, what would that mean for him? Do most men even have that choice? These patriarchal ideas of care affect men, too; not just by defining how they’re allowed to provide care, but also by shaping how they seek care–or how they don’t a lot of times. 

A.W.: You’d mentioned that self-care is seen as a means to an end. I think the way we currently perceive it is close to the general perception of productive labour and individualized success, which is supposed to generate an outcome. But it’s not necessarily about the product–it’s a process in itself. And over the last few years, we’ve been making a commodity out of this process. Across social media platforms, caring for ourselves is being equated with going on a vacation or going to the spa or treating ourselves to a meal in an expensive restaurant. These are great forms of self-care, but when they are seen as the only form of taking care of ourselves, then that poses an issue. This isn’t to say that people should stop posting about it altogether, but it’s important to simultaneously acknowledge that these are very privileged forms of care. And, as we discussed earlier, it’s usually people from privileged groups who set the norm or the standard. We’ve come to adopt a one-size-fits-all perception of care without thinking about what care can actually look like for different people with varying, intersectional identities. 

A.W.: I also agree with what you said about pain in relation to this context. I think so much of this is related to the way we are socialized. There have been instances where I’ve even romanticized this pain. After a long day, if I’d be really exhausted, it would make me feel like, okay, I’ve been productive enough today. You know, I did something today, and now I have proof of it. And I think, for me, caring for myself has included the process of unlearning this idea. 

Ankita [A.B.]: There’s just a lot of resonance in this, there’s so much to speak about. Every time we have these conversations, I also think about how different this conversation would look, if we were to speak with, like, people from different intersections as well, which I think we’ve been trying to do through our collaboration over the last couple of months. Picking up from where you were, what you were talking about – over the last two years, we’ve seen a certain kind of taking care of oneself has been, uh, getting a lot of attention. And while there are individuals who do connect with and benefit from this kind of self-care, it is not something that every person has the luxury or the desire to engage with. Neither does it acknowledge what care can mean for another individual or for communities. So, uh, would you like to speak on that a little bit as to what are some of your thoughts on this respect?

Anvita [A.W]: Thank you, Ankita. I think the issue is that this kind of care is not always accessible to everyone. If we standardize this as the sole form of care, then care seems almost unattainable for some social groups. Which, it shouldn’t. Care is not a tangible commodity that we need to buy; it’s really about our lived experiences of a process. This particular brand of care is also presented in an attractive way, which may in part explain why it’s so desirable. Why is dressing up and going to a restaurant considered a form of treating yourself, but stuffing your face with comfort food at home–which has been a form of care and coping for me a lot of times–seen as something to hide? Does taking care of ourselves have to look attractive for it to be accepted? Why are certain forms of care celebrated when others are associated with shame? It puts a lot of pressure on everyone–including, at times, the people who subscribe to this brand of care–when the purpose of caring for ourselves is supposed to be just the opposite of that. 

A.W.: When we accept that this is what care looks like and this is all it looks like, it stops us from questioning, what else can it look like? All of us come from different places and carry different histories and have different preferences, so of course, care is going to be different for all of us. This one type of care that’s currently being popularized may work for some of us, and that’s great, but not everyone is able to access this; not everyone is able to afford it; it’s not available in every geographical location; and not everyone may even like it. So, it’s important to ask ourselves, what does care really mean for us and our communities? What helps us heal? What brings us hope? 

A.W.: And I want to emphasize the role of our communities, too. We can’t speak of care without addressing the history of community care. I once read that the term “self-care” was originally used in the 1950s and 60s to describe acts of preservation and autonomy for patients who were institutionalized in this very racist, sexist, paternalistic medical system. And since this was also when the American Civil Rights Movement was rising, it came to be used by activists to protest against a system that did not care about them; to protect their communities; and to practice radical self-care in the face of oppression. There’s this quote by Audre Lorde that I love so much. She writes, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” Caring for ourselves can be a form of liberation–and collective liberation–from these scripts we’re socialized to learn about who we are and what we’re worth and how we’re supposed to live our lives. 

Ankita [A.B.]: Thank you so much for bringing that up! 



Thank you for accompanying us on Part 2 of our dialogue around care! This conversation continues in the next blog post. 


To access resources that have shaped our ideas of care, please find our resource list here. You can also find the summaries of our Sharing Circles 1, 2 and 3 with Mental Health Professionals here, here, and here, respectively; and that of the Participatory Workshop for Mental Health Users/Survivors here.


About the Speakers


Anvita Walia is a student, researcher, and eternal learner. She is a Senior Program Officer at One Future Collective, a feminist social purpose organisation with a vision of a world built on social justice, led by communities of care. To know more about OFC’s work, please click here

Ankita is a listener, a mental health professional and one of the co-founders of Tangent Mental Health Initiative. Tangent MHI began in 2020 and works in the field of mental health service and advocacy. Their work is informed by the values of intersectional feminism, inclusion and accessibility. To know more about Tangent MHI’s work, you can click here.