Why self care is necessary in the Oxford bubble

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Over the Easter vacation, I found myself immensely struggling with the amount of work I needed to do on top of organising my year abroad and remembering that I had a life outside of these two things. My reaction to this kind of circumstance swings between day-long procrastination and very focused work, and it was on one of the days belonging to the former that I found myself sneaking into a Facebook group named “CUSU WomCam self-care tips”. The community was very different from anything I had seen before – hugely supportive, with an emphasis on the shared understanding of the Cambridge workload and lifestyle, and posts which would count up to a hundred helpful comments. It suddenly struck me as extremely strange that no one here should have thought of something along these lines, given how similar the environment of Oxford is to that of Cambridge. After a lot of thought about whether this could be something useful and how I could go about it, thinking of somewhere that I could address a large group of women, I posted on Cuntry Living.

A lot of the topics brought up on the group are often very interesting, but CL is known for an atmosphere which has sadly become intimidating for a lot of people. I wanted a group that could divert itself from this kind of atmosphere, something of a loving space where no one would be scared to post and everyone would be happy to contribute – a group that above all would not be leaning towards a certain end of the political spectrum, nor would it be excluding those who are not quite sure what they think of feminism.

The first person to contact me about the group and whether we could form it along the lines of Cambridge’s group was Rowan, a second-year at Wadham – within five minutes, she had created a group and made us both admins of it, and women were joining by the minute. We soon introduced an anonymous system, so that those wanting to talk about mental health and seeking for advice could do without a necessary exposure, providing a list of women who were willing to take in anonymous posts.  My initial aim was to have somewhere that mental health could be spoken about openly, and each of us could have worries spoken about openly, but I soon saw the space turn into one which didn’t just allow the latter, but became a space of support towards others. People were not only being open about their own struggles, but they were using them to give others advice.

As someone who really is mainly a witness on most Facebook groups rather than an active voice, I never thought I would be the one to start a group which would rack up members close to 1.000 in the space of a month, nor that I would be having such a positive reaction from this benefitting from it.  The consequences of the group’s birth were extraordinary – and now, I want to get to the bottom of why it had such a big impact on Oxford’s female student population.

There is no doubt that  self-confidence issues ultimately stem from  societal expectations, but in an environment such as Oxford, university doesn’t just bring a departure which is very much opposite to a sheltered home life, but along with it also comes a different pace of life, where breaks become almost shameful. It’s not just about work, though –  not being able to be as socially successful as we would want to be derives from that sense of competition that we’re encouraged to feel amongst ourselves as human beings overall – we need to be more successful, fitter, more good looking. Oxford has swarms of all-rounders, and it can be difficult to try and adhere to this kind of model.  It becomes hard not to be guilty because of waking up too late, starting work too late, taking too long to prepare a meal instead of working or being out,  and self-hatred and punishment are inextricably linked to these unattainable expectations that we set ourselves.

Posts have varied from discussing deeply rooted issues such as the trauma that can come from having gone through child abuse or abortion, to asking how to make bedrooms look prettier, as well as how to deal with homesickness on a year abroad and the stress of forgetting a carnation on the day of a final exam. Posts come from women who are thankful that our support has helped them take a shower having spent a week indoors unable to leave their room, or in thanking everyone for having replied to their post about academic probation, or who cannot leave the house to pick up a medical prescription – something that will be promptly taken on by a member of the group. The group  deals with that universal sense of guilt that comes from being told implicitly that taking care of ourselves is vain, superficial, frivolous – the emphasis is, above all, on being women and on the struggles that this can bring. Political debates and discussions don’t take place – for the distinction between political ideals isn’t something that the group was originally made for. It’s about understanding what it means to take care of ourselves in both a world and a university that doesn’t place much emphasis on it, rather than being wary of each others’ different ideals.

The atmosphere is one of solidarity – and it seems that the need to create this space and the benefits so many have reaped from it. One member posted thanking the members for having helped her through the first stages of anorexia recovery with the words “Oxford Women Self Care seems to define us by our belonging to Oxford. I really think Oxford should be defined by the amazing, inspiring, and infinitely kind women that it belongs to”. There has been mentioning from one of the members’ of the idea of a men’s self care group that had been mentioned to her by a friend, something I think would be wonderful – for men are so often neglected in specific mental health areas (eating disorders spring to mind) and deal with very strict societal expectations in a way of their own.

It saddens me that we have had to create this kind of environment ourselves because we feel that we aren’t allowed or deserving of taking care of ourselves, and that we need to make this into an ingrained routine, training ourselves to be in love with who we are. It remains undeniable that this kind of attitude we need to have towards ourselves, one of self-respect and self-love, is something that we aren’t taught. We’re taught to deal with problems, to grow thick skin, to bottle most things up- and with OWSC, even if in a small way, I want to change that.

Carolina Bax is a second year at St Hilda’s College, and the co-founder of Oxford Women Self Care.