What's In Your Bag, Revisited: The Sims, My Half-Eaten Box of Raisins, and Self-Care

My Sim-Called Life

Several years ago I spent embarrassingly large chunks of time playing The Sims. For those of you who don’t know, The Sims is a life-simulation video game in which you program your characters with certain characteristics, both physical and mental, then set them loose in life—education, work, family, etc. You chart their progress through a variety of means—income, assets, sickness, emotional health. Only Farmville rivals it as far as speaking to Americans’ need to turn play into work, but I digress.

Being just un peu d’narcissiste, I made a Sim of myself. I rated her above average in creativity but not off-the charts; I slanted her toward extroversion and away from commitment (I’m a freelancer, after all). I made her intelligent, absent-minded, a little lazy, emotional. I even made her a Gemini. I wanted her to do well, so I had her study a lot. Her money went toward education, not toward furniture that would upgrade her from the game’s starter apartment kit. She spent her time sleeping, studying, and working. She did not see her friends, nor did she clean her house or cook, nor did she have a love life. My plan worked: She did well. She raked in the money.

And then—she stopped. She refused to exercise, standing up and yelling “YO!” at me when I’d try to make her work out, because she didn’t have enough energy. Her boredom levels skyrocketed; her anger levels grew. At one point, I marched my Sim over to her desk, where she’d faithfully studied every night; instead of reading, she put her head in her lap and cried. She was unable to do anything: She was underfed, overworked, lonely, angry, and depressed.

At the time, I told the story to friends in a tone of amusement. For unlike my Sim, I did see my friends; I wasn’t lonely, I had a boyfriend; I wasn’t underfed—the problem, in fact, was quite the opposite. Forget that I saw my friends less than once a month because I was always too exhausted to put forth the effort of friendship. Forget that I was overeating because I had no other ways of relieving stress. As for the boyfriend who kept me un-lonely, his Sim committed arson, thus ending the game when the entire family went down in a blaze of glory. 
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My life—both the simulated one and my real one—is far better now. But when I looked at my list from my flippant take on last week’s “What’s In Your Bag?” post, I remembered the uneasy mix of hilarity and alarm I felt when I saw my Sim sit down and weep. For even as ridiculous as it is that I drove my simulated self to tears—or that I’ve carried around a half-eaten box of raisins since February—I knew it spoke to the lack of genuine self-care in my life.

I wrote about what was in my bag because there was a part of me that was rolling my eyes at the picture-perfect purse interiors displayed on other posts for the meme. My instinct is to look at those lists of beautifully photographed goods with everything just-so and say to myself, Well, bully for you, then. I picture women who carry hand crème and designer lipsticks displayed alongside keys to their BMWs as being from some other planet of perfect-looking people where nobody has any pores. Me, of course, I’m a “real woman.” I pilfer paper towels from the office kitchen instead of carrying special wipes made for special people. I stash dirty granola bar wrappers and unwanted flyers in my bag because I’m too good of a citizen to litter and in too much of a damn hurry to wait for a trash can. I carry around makeup from 2007, because who am I to think I’m so privileged as to deserve new cosmetics when these work perfectly fine?

It is not me being “real”; it is me short-changing myself on self-care. I used to think that self-care was anything that was utterly nonproductive. Cleaning my purse doesn’t feel like self-care; it feels like work. Zoning out on the couch with a box of graham crackers and watching five consecutive episodes of Dexter, however, was “self-care” because it was my fucking time, goddammit, and I’m not going to pick up the phone and I’m not going to answer your e-mail and I’m not going to exercise or even do a fucking Sun Salutation because I am far too busy caring for myself, do you understand?

You will not be surprised to learn that this form of self-care rarely results in me actually feeling cared for. My version of “self-care” has long been to wait until I am at the very end of my gas tank, and then to do the only thing I have energy left to do—which is pretty much nothing. But it gives me enough of a break to get back on track, until I’m running on empty again, and again, and again. And again.

When I looked at the contents of my bag, as amused as I was by reporting my state of disarray, I also saw how little care I’d been allowing myself on a day-to-day basis. The wet-naps I’d carried around for more than five years? I was saving them for when I “really” needed them, as though they were some rare, precious jewel—paper towels would do for me. The pilfered notebook is too big, weighing down the purse and robbing me of the pleasure of the small, sleek, palm-sized notebooks I prefer. The caffeine pills spoke to my belief that stepping out of the office for five minutes to get a fresh cup of coffee wasn’t worth it.

I don’t think that consumption is the route to self-care—I don’t need to replace anything in my bag with some new, fancy, expensive item (I’ll let the Chanel sunglasses stand on their own, thanks). It’s more that nearly everything in my bag is broken, dirty, or a shabby fill-in for something that is hardly a break-the-bank proposition in the first place. I’m treating self-care as something that needs to be a splurge—the sunglasses! a day at Spa Castle!—instead of something that can be small, daily, and constant. And while I don’t believe that a woman’s state of mind can be deduced from the state of her bag, neither do I think that carrying around a unit in which nearly everything is in a state of disrepair can help me out of whatever state of disrepair I might be in.

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This is not a treatise. I'm not a self-care blogger, or even a self-acceptance blogger. Much of the time I think the way to accept yourself is to stop thinking about it so damn much. But last week "what's in your bag?" made me realize I wasn't thinking about enough. I'm skeptical of "I deserve"s: I deserve a massage, I deserve a day off, I deserve a vacation. We all deserve massages and days off and vacations, but only the privileged among us get to ever have those. It can feel like a short road from I deserve to I am entitled, and it's a road I'm afraid to even look at. 

Not looking, though, means that I don't see that there are other roads stemming from I deserve. Roads like: You will do everything in your life better if you are not running on empty. Roads like: Bingeing on self-care is what makes you privileged, not small acts of self-care that are basic and low-cost, and unless you learn those small acts you'll be doomed to only exercise the very self-care privilege you say you're against. Roads like: Unless you do a reasonable amount of self-care, you will not be able to do your work in the world.  

And, at the side of one of those roads, I found something unexpected. I've mentioned before how I see my beauty work as utilitarian, not as a place of joy. It's more complex than that, of course, but at its root beauty work is not a source of joy for me. But it is one area that I've always kept up: No matter how hectic my morning, without fail I find time to "put on my face." And, bacteria-caked concealer aside (Beke Beau, I'm tossing it, I swear!), my makeup is one area of my bag in which everything is in reasonable shape. I may begrudge my beauty work, but at its heart it is self-care. It is small, daily, and constant. I didn't expect to find a model of self-care in an area of my life that's full of contradictions and complexities—but perhaps I "deserve" that small bit of salvation in my quest for an end to disrepair.