Our Body Politic

How Black Women are Leading the Soft Life Movement

Episode Summary

On this episode of Our Body Politic, guest host Mara S. Campo looks at the idea of the “soft life” as a form of self care for Black women. Mara speaks with Dr. Judith Joseph, a board certified psychiatrist, and Chair of Women in Medicine Collaborative at Columbia University’s Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons about the concept. Mara also talks with the founder of Saddie Baddies, Priscilla O. Agyeman about using her skills to teach women how they can embrace a soft life. We round out the show with Zee Clarke, author of Black People Breathe who offers practical methods to embrace rest.

Episode Transcription

Mara S. Campo [00:00:04] Hey, folks, we're so glad you're listening to Our Body Politic. If you haven't yet, remember to follow this podcast on your podcatcher of choice like Apple or Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts. And if you have time, please leave us a review. It helps other listeners find us and we read them for your feedback. Here's what one of you had to say. So smart, clear, crisp, tackling big topics and helping build my understanding. And just a little bit fun too. Thank you so much for the review. We're glad you enjoy the show. You can also reach out to us on Instagram and X @OurBodyPolitic, where you can sign up for our newsletter. Just click on the link in the bio. We're here for you, with you and because of you. So keep letting us know what's on your mind. Thanks for listening.

This is Our Body Politic. I'm Mara S Campo, anchor and managing editor at Revolt Black News sitting in for Farai Chideya. We've talked before on the show about how important it is to reflect and to rest. Well now we're digging into a new way that people are taking care of themselves. And that's by embracing the Soft Life. #SoftLife is a recent social media trend with origins in Nigeria that is resonating big time with Black women in the United States. It's not about living a life of luxury with nannies, a nice whip and millions in the bank, though there is nothing wrong with that. The true focus of the Soft Life movement focuses on Black women prioritizing their wellness, their happiness, and a desire to stop feeding into the trope of the strong Black woman. Joining me now is Dr. Judith Joseph, a board certified psychiatrist and chair of Women in Medicine Collaborative at Columbia University's Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons. Doctor Judith, thank you so much for being here today. 

Dr. Judith Joseph [00:01:56] Thank you for having me. 

Mara S. Campo [00:01:58] So let's start with the strong Black woman trope. We found a recent study in the Journal of Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities that describes it this way, quote, the strong Black woman archetype. Subway describes a cultural pattern where Black women are expected to and present as physically and mentally strong, regardless of past and ongoing stressors. The SBWA has served the historical purpose of aiding survival for Black women throughout years of racial and gender oppression. However, the practice has also been associated with adverse mental health and with behaviors such as self silencing that could impede therapeutic process. So let's start with where the stereotype comes from. Where did this come from? 

Dr. Judith Joseph [00:02:44] Really, this stereotype came out of survival, mode. You know, women of color, specifically Black women, have had a history of discrimination and oppression and a way to rise above it when you're not getting a lot of external support, is to not feel and push through the pain to make your progress. And so it came out of necessity, and a lot of people are realizing now that they don't have to be in survival mode. They can take the time to take care of themselves, to feel the feels so that they can really heal. And I think that's where the Soft Life really was born from. 

Mara S. Campo [00:03:20] What I think is interesting in this description is that it gives it a purpose. It says that there are circumstances where the stereotype has helped us. You know, it says that it has served the purpose of aiding survival. And I never really thought about it that way. So how does this stereotype help us and how does it hurt us? 

Dr. Judith Joseph [00:03:41] Acknowledging intergenerational trauma and acknowledging what we've been through and our ancestors have been through is important, and we want to honor them. At the same time, we want to honor ourselves so these two things can be true. You can't have this honoring your ancestry and also honoring yourself by taking care of yourself. However, what gets lost for a lot of people is that they honor the ancestry and continue to push through the pain and continue to behave as if they're in survival mode based on what they were taught from their parents, their grandparents, and they don't take the time to really process any of this. And then we're left feeling depleted, burnt out and exhausted. And that's what I'm really studying in. My work with high functioning depression is how did these cultural kind of histories take a role in the way that this presents today and in women and basically in a lot of different demographics? 

Mara S. Campo [00:04:36] Well, let's get into the high functioning depression. You were recently awarded a U.S. Congress proclamation for advocacy on social media. Congratulations. And your TikTok has over 12 million likes. I'm definitely one of the people who is hitting that mark for liking those videos. So let's listen to one of those TikToks right now where you are playing an immigrant woman and her mother. 

Dr. Judith Joseph TIK TOK [00:04:56] Your sister said that you left a job. What am I going to tell the family? I have two graduate degrees and a successful career, but the job is killing me and contributing to my high functioning depression. Depression? What do you have to be sad about? Ever since all your come to this country, all you do is complain. It's so hard to be the model immigrant. I have to outperform everyone. I can't ever make mistakes and I never think about my own happiness. Well, I don't care what you end up doing, as long as you know you have to keep sending money back home for the family. 

Mara S. Campo [00:05:29] Now you focus a lot on high functioning depression in your social media, and you also are working on a book about high functioning depression. What's the relationship between the strong Black woman trope and high functioning depression? 

Dr. Judith Joseph [00:05:42] Because a lot of ancestors, specifically Black ancestors, had to overcome so many obstacles. You know, there was racism at work. Opportunities were scarce, finances were scarce. There was health care disparities. You had all these things against you. You had to just put on this tough demeanor. And and this was your way of protecting your children. You didn't want them going out into this world that was rejecting of them and also targeting them and had them not feel prepared. And as a result of this, a lot of our parents or grandparents really weren't in touch with, you know, the emotions and the pain, and it was their way of basically having a defense mechanism to deal with these negative emotions and these negative obstacles. However, in doing so, we don't have this culture where we teach our kids to be emotionally attuned, to pay attention to their feelings, to know and name when they're having feelings of exhaustion, burnout, sadness, depression. And because of that, we have carried on this culture of just working, you know, being burnt out, pushing through, pushing through, not feeling. And then we feel depleted. High functioning depression is a result of cultural conditions. Of all the things that we've gone through as a country, have we even fully processed the pandemic? I don't think so. There's no memorial where we talk about honoring those who are who have passed or anything like that. We're just trying to push through pain without really feeling and processing, and that's leaving a lot of people feeling empty. So they're they've just really fully abandoned this capitalist lifestyle. They've abandoned the hustle culture. And some people are calling that the Soft Life where they're just putting themselves first and not working as hard. They're not paying so much attention, the materialistic thing that they're just trying to heal and feel. But, you know, there are different ranges of the Soft Life. Some people see it as completely materialistic. Other people see it as putting their self-care first. 

Mara S. Campo [00:07:40] So we have really seen this explode on social media. The Soft Life hashtag has more than 1.2 billion views on TikTok alone. Why do you think this idea of letting down your guard, being a little softer, letting other people take care of you as opposed to you taking care of everyone else, indulging as a way of life, not as something that you only do on special occasions. Why do you think this whole concept has connected with so many Black women? 

Dr. Judith Joseph [00:08:07] I think it stems from collective trauma. Black people have not only gone through the pandemic like everyone else has. But then there was Black Lives Matter. That was the uprising at the Congress. There's, you know, one thing after the next. It's it's just like we don't get a chance to recover. It's like an ocean of traumas. A wave hits you, you know, you can't catch your breath. Another wave hits you, another wave. And then after a while, you just like, you know what? I'm done. And I think that people have just embraced. Okay. I'm not going to hustle and push through this. I'm going to just acknowledge my pain. Acknowledge the fact that I need to heal, and I'm going to take a step back and put my healing first. And I think some people have called that healing the Soft Life. Other people have called it self-care. There are extremes that people have just completely left the workforce and said, I'm just going to, you know, focus on doing something creative or focus on my family. But I think it's really people standing up for what matters to them the most. It brings their life meaning and taking a break, which, you know, before was seen as giving up, but it's not reviewed that way anymore. 

Mara S. Campo [00:09:16] So in what ways is the Soft Life good for us? 

Dr. Judith Joseph [00:09:20] It's all about balance. If you are not able to live a life of luxury, then living a Soft Life that someone else lives where they're spending a ton of money on, massages or materialistic things, that's going to bankrupt you, right? So that's not living a full and complete life, because you're going to end up more stressed than you were when you left your workplace. For others, it's really being attuned to how they feel. So for some people, from what I was saying, they practice mindfulness. So one of the girls I follow, she wakes up every morning and she holds her a cup of coffee and she feels it, and she describes what it feels like in her hand. It feels like drinking it. So she's taking time to just acknowledge the little points of joy in her life that bring her happiness. And so those small steps of self-care and self-love are, you know, being compassionate towards yourself. And for some, that's living the Soft Life. For others, it's acknowledging that they have depression, that they have anxiety, that they have these emotional needs and psychological needs that maybe, you know, their parents, some of the grandparents didn't acknowledge because of cultural reasons or taboos, but they're actually putting their mental health first, and they're going to therapy and they're cutting out toxic people and toxic habits. So everyone has a different notion as to what a Soft Life looks like. But it's all about finding that balance that works for you. That's within your budget. 

Mara S. Campo [00:10:46] Well, I love that you mentioned within your budget because the way it's often depicted is financial luxury. It is the massages. Even therapy is incredibly expensive for a lot of people. It's not covered by insurance or taking trips and going to the beach. And, you know, having a nanny and having more help at home. How much of this, is a class…how much does class play into this art? I have to imagine there are a lot of people who are saying, well, yeah, no kidding. I would love to be able to live that kind of life. But unfortunately, you know, bills have to get paid and I don't have the luxury of living a Soft Life. 

Dr. Judith Joseph [00:11:21] At the end of the day, not everyone can afford this. You know, the materialistic, Soft Life. Not everyone can, you know, take a break from work. Because when you when you take a break, you're losing money, so someone's got to pay for it. I've seen stories where some, some young women are very comfortable with having older man pay for things and, you know, being the lead in the man be the head of the family for others. That's just not not something that they see themselves as. They don't want to be in that typical role where there's a patriarch. So I think that something's got to give. There's going to be a sacrifice if you're going to live the Soft Life. It's about what that sacrifice looks like to you. Are you sacrificing your autonomy for the sake of having a man lead your household? Are you sacrificing some of the materialistic things that you previously valued, like going on expensive trips so that you have peace of mind and not working in a toxic workplace? Are you sacrificing buying shoes so that you can go to therapy? You know, it's it's all about a sacrifice. And unfortunately, when you see the Soft Life TikToks and the reels, they're not talking about what they sacrificed for that Soft Life. So they probably should present more of a balance because it's not doable for everyone. Everyone has to sacrifice something for the Soft Life. In my research, what I see is that a lot of the older generations don't want to feel because they're afraid that they'll break. And I think we have to challenge that notion. And we know that, you know, feeling and identifying emotions is very powerful. When we don't know how we feel, we act in ways that don't appear very logical. We may make decisions that we don't understand. We may act out in rage, we may act out in irritability. Right. That's where these harmful tropes come from. The angry Black woman. Well, the angry Black woman is probably really anxious and stressed, right? And if we can name the feeling, if we can name what we're experiencing, that's the first step. We're less anxious, we're less worried about the unknown, and we could actually do something about it. So I think that's the first step. Identify how you feel, naming it. And then you could do something about it. And that's hard for many people because they really worry that if they name it, they'll break down. 

Mara S. Campo [00:13:31] Well, it's funny when the moment you said that people worry if they feel the feelings they're going to break. It's like heat just came from my chest all the way up through my face to the top of my head. That if I allow myself to feel all of the things that are involved with being a Black woman in America, I think I will break. I'll be on the floor in a puddle. So how do you do that? 

Dr. Judith Joseph [00:13:56] You. I mean, it's about the definition of break, right? You fear that, okay, if I acknowledge it, then I won't be able to go on. But it's the opposite. And we know from years and years and years of treating patients that if they can feel and process the emotional weight of these feelings of this trauma, then they can actually start to heal. Because when you don't process it, it manifests in different ways. You may start having high blood pressure. You may start having your hair fall out. It may start having lines and wrinkles on your face. Right? You may start having pain in your body. Something's got to give. There's a famous, book called The Body Keeps the Score. The body does keep the score, so something's going to give. So feeling and processing will actually save us because it's very therapeutic in itself. 

Mara S. Campo [00:14:45] When you think about the journey from the strong Black woman to the Soft Life Black woman, the dainty princess. How revolutionary is this concept in the context of Black women in America? 

Dr. Judith Joseph [00:14:58] It's very extreme. I'll give it that, because the two are at the very opposite ends of the spectrum. And I think that for some people, especially people who have who come from cultures where there's so much trauma, the knee jerk is to go to the extreme, to really go to the opposite of what you're supposed to be, to make a statement because you're just so sick and tired of the status quo. And I think that those extremes are sometimes very necessary to wake us all up. Like, why is it that we're going so opposite of what we're taught, so opposite of what, you know, generations before us, really modeled for us? I think it's a wake up call to say that, listen, we are complex. We are diverse. We're not all the same. These tropes are harmful to us. Black women are complex and complicated and varied, just like every other woman on the planet. So we we need to have that extreme so that we know that many other versions of us live in between that range, because we are very different and we all have different stories. 

Mara S. Campo [00:15:59] Well, how do you get the strong Black woman and the dainty princess to coexist in the same woman? How do we do that? 

Dr. Judith Joseph [00:16:06] Two things can be true, right? And I think that that's something that's hard for many of us to digest because we have all or nothing thinking. But being strong and taking care of yourself can happen at the same time. In fact, one would argue that taking care of yourself and put yourself first is necessary for you to be strong for others. And I think that challenging this idea of this woman who has to keep doing for everyone and pouring from an empty cup is really important, because it allows space for everyone else who's living on that spectrum. 

Mara S. Campo [00:16:42] Doctor Judith Joseph, board certified psychiatrist and chair of Women in Medicine Collaborative at Columbia University's Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons. Thank you so much for being with us today. 

Dr. Judith Joseph [00:16:53] Thank you for having me. 

Mara S. Campo [00:16:58] If you've ever found yourself scrolling on TikTok, you might have seen me helping you create the perfect Black girl hairstyle. This ponytail went viral. Here's the secret to nailing it. And if your TikTok is anything like mine. You may have also seen Black women who have opted into the Soft Life. But how do you live softly outside the perfect boundaries of social media? To understand more, we speak with Priscilla O. Agyeman, a Black woman currently living us off life. Let's listen to some of her words from a TikTok she posted. 

Priscilla O. Agyeman [00:17:30] I want people to talk about mental health the same way they would discuss their first date with friends, or while getting her nails done, or while getting a haircut. I want to make mental health palatable. 

Mara S. Campo [00:17:41] Priscilla is founder of the mental health platform Sadie Barry's and host of The Soft Life, a mental health podcast dedicated to creating a safe, open and, yes, soft space for Black women and women of color. Priscilla, welcome to Our Body Politic. We are so excited to have you. 

Priscilla O. Agyeman [00:18:00] Thank you ma'am. So happy to be here. 

Mara S. Campo [00:18:03] So the concept of the Soft Life came from the Nigerian social media influencer community. But now it has exploded all over social media, especially among Black women in the United States. And it takes on slightly different meanings with different people. What does the Soft Life mean to you? 

Priscilla O. Agyeman [00:18:20] I love this question. For me specifically, when I think about the Soft Life, I think about a lifestyle and a life that embraces compassion within the self, that embraces ease when applicable. So the Soft Life to me is being self-aware of your needs and meeting those needs wherever you're at. 

Mara S. Campo [00:18:42] So what does that look like for you day to day? 

Priscilla O. Agyeman [00:18:45] Day to day, no two days look the same for me. I am someone that is running a business full time, but I also have a 9 to 5. So one area in my life that I really had to overcome was not looking at my days as just numbers on a clock, but looking at how I could really embrace every opportunity of the day. And if I don't get everything done on my to do list, that's okay, because softness allows me to bring in that compassion for myself and still try my best to have my needs met. So what I love to do is create a morning menu and a night menu. And these are really simple rituals and routines that help to keep me grounded and allowing myself to be flexible throughout the day. So that's what really invites that softness. Instead of forcing myself to follow this super rigid schedule that is not in alignment with what I need for the day and what my responsibilities or expectations are of the day. Embracing softness allows me to center care as part of my day instead of centering… okay, I have all of this work to do. How am I going to get it done? Taking a moment and realizing what is important in the moment and pursuing that. 

Mara S. Campo [00:20:04] How do you put your personalized morning and night menus together? 

Priscilla O. Agyeman [00:20:10] Ooh, so we have a whole episode on this on The Soft Life Podcast. Yes, we love morning and night menus. So this is actually floating around on TikTok a lot and on other social media platforms. But it is a simple routine that is set up for you to thrive throughout your day. I created four aspects of self-care that I strive to hit at least every single day, or three out of the four. And those four aspects are nourishment, connection, movement, and stillness. So out of those four pillars of self-care, when you design your morning menu, your morning menu is essentially a list of about five things that you know that you need throughout your day. So maybe you don't need to do a meditation. Maybe you actually just need to do some weight lifting and get that energy out. Or it could be maybe ordering takeout for that night if you're really swamped and you're like, I cannot even touch a pot right now, I need to rest. Choosing softness would be, okay, let's choose the path of least resistance. And that is still incorporating that self-care, but allowing yourself to have a little bit more grace and not be perfect. 

Mara S. Campo [00:21:29] Why do you think this concept is connecting with so many Black women, and why now? What's unique about the time we're in now, where so many Black women feel the need to shed that strong Black woman stereotype and want to be cared for a little bit more than caring for others all the time. 

Priscilla O. Agyeman [00:21:47] Oh yes, I love this question. You know, one of my favorite quotes is actually by Audre Lorde. And she wrote, caring for myself is not self-indulgence. It is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare. And that quote to me embodies softness, because with taking care of yourself in a society that really wants to keep this mold and the stereotype of being the strong Black woman and saying, actually, I'm going to take care of myself first before I'm pouring into cups. That is powerful. That is something that my ancestors did not have an opportunity to have. So with it resonating with Black women specifically all over the diaspora, I think it's really hitting home because a lot of us are waking up for the first time and realizing, wait, I get to choose myself. I get to say no. I get to say yes. I get to say maybe. I'm allowing ourselves to explore the possibilities, those options that do meet our needs and allow us to feel cared for, especially when we're oftentimes the one doing a lot of the bulk of the caretaking in our lives. 

Mara S. Campo [00:23:00] Now, your podcast, The Soft Life, is part of the Platform saddie baddies, which you created in 2019. Tell me about saddie baddies and what was your journey to The Soft Life podcast? 

Priscilla O. Agyeman [00:23:12] Yes. So we really started off as a space online that really wanted to create conversations with the intention of removing the stigma surrounding mental health, and that's still is our ethos. We really didn't think about how we were going to evolve until about 2 or 3 years into it. We realized Instagram is not going to be the end all, be all of this community. This space is too sacred. It's too beautiful, it's too fluid, it's too global to only exist on Instagram. So what we realized is that people wanted to have more in-depth conversations. And we realized this when we had our first in-person event. And the conversations that were happening during that event, and the ones that followed, solidified the need for us to have a podcast and have a platform that was longform, that allowed us to bring on guests, that allowed us to have more in-depth conversations without limiting ourselves to just one social media app. And now we are podcasters that really love to share these conversations. We've had some amazing guests on the show that have a range of insight, from directors to entrepreneurs to business owners, creatives, everyone and everything in between. And it's been such a beautiful journey. An extension of saddie baddies, creating The Soft Life Podcast. 

Mara S. Campo [00:24:45] Now you are the daughter of immigrants, and the Soft Life ethos seems to me to be pretty counter to the, you know, hustle and accomplish more than you know because of all the opportunity that's here. There's very much a hustle culture that's built into immigrant communities in many immigrant communities. How has your exploration of the Soft Life been received by your parents and your family? Do they get it, or do they think that it's a little indulgent? 

Priscilla O. Agyeman [00:25:15] Yeah. So immediately what comes to mind is the fact that my mom listens to literally every single episode, so much so that she'll give me notes like, I think you should talk about this more. Or, you know, you've spent a lot of time on this topic, and I think it's beautiful because she herself has taken away so much from the podcast, and she understands what softness is. Through listening to the episode, she's like, I understand what you're doing. I understand what softness is and the Soft Life. And I too want to live my version of the Soft Life at almost 60 years old, in being born in Ghana and having a completely different upbringing, she understands that at the core, it's about having compassion for yourself and allowing that compassion and that grace to extend into your relationships. And so it's been very well-received. My dad also loves it. My whole family is really supportive, and they know that it's more than a fad or it's more than this trend. It's really a lifestyle that I've been practicing for years now and really want to inspire other people to take a look at the areas in their life where they could use more softness and they could use more grace, whether it's for themselves or for the people around them. 

Mara S. Campo [00:26:34] How have you seen this impact your life? If you compare your life before the Soft Life and after, how has it affected you? 

Priscilla O. Agyeman [00:26:44] It has transformed my life so much. I really grew up being extremely hard on myself, so much so that I would have panic attacks, anxiety attacks. And then blame myself for having those anxiety attacks and panic attacks. I struggled a lot with depression in college and afterwards. And it really took a lot for me to take a step back and not beat myself up for struggling when I really needed help. And so now, at the age of almost 31 years old, fast forward about ten years. I realize how much more in flow I am with my life. Instead of trying to control every single aspect and trying to essentially pull apart and criticize and beat myself up. Essentially I allow myself to make mistakes. I allow myself to have bad days, and inviting softness into my life has allowed me to have compassion for other people as well. 

Mara S. Campo [00:27:53] Now you focus very much on the spiritual and the care elements of the Soft Life. But for a lot of people, there's a consumerism aspect to it. You know, living the Soft Life means the champagne and the lunches and the trips, the vacations. Where does all of that fit in? I mean, is there a place in the Soft Life for really enjoying the finer things? And is there the risk then, of it just becoming a material consumerist…basically another form of retail therapy. 

Priscilla O. Agyeman [00:28:22] I definitely think that the Soft Life has been co-opted by capitalism. I'm not going to lie, it's been definitely co-opted and maybe even underscored in a lot of ways. So I think that exists. I definitely see it, I recognize it, but I do think that Black women deserve beautiful things, period, without any other explanation. I think it's actually really strange that Black women are one of the few communities or groups of people that have to explain why they deserve nice things, and it's bizarre because I don't really notice that in other backgrounds. And it actually speaks to the amount of lack that we've had as Black women. So I don't think that Black women have to over explain or even have to say why they deserve to go on a vacation, or why they deserve to spend money on something that they've been planning and saving for for maybe years and finally get to enjoy. And even if that's not the case, I do believe that Black women are so deserving of all the good things. I mean, I can't even get started on on the amount of influence we have on the culture, on the amount of influence we have in our communities and our workspaces, how we hold so much up on our shoulders like, yeah, you do deserve that bag. I'm sorry, I think you do. But I honestly just want to encourage, you know, more Black women to explore what softness means to them. My definition might resonate differently, but I think softness is such an adaptable and malleable word that it can mean whatever you want it to mean and to be open minded. And if you feel like you have to consume a lot of things to have softness, then I think it's, you know, just worth mentioning that you don't. And it really comes from a place of wanting to love yourself and be gentle with yourself. 

Mara S. Campo [00:30:28] Well, Black women definitely do deserve all the things, and thank you for the work that you're doing in spreading that message. Priscilla, thank you for your time. 

Priscilla O. Agyeman [00:30:36] Thank you so much for having me. 


Mara S. Campo [00:30:56] Welcome back to Our Body Politic. I'm Mara S. Campo sitting in for Farai Chideya. On our show we've been exploring the pleasures and possibilities of Black women choosing to live and lead softer lives. Joining me now is someone who exemplifies this in her career as a wellness practitioner and coach. Zee Clarke is a fortune 500 executive coach, breathwork expert, and author of Black People Breathe: A Mindfulness Guide to Racial Healing. Zee, welcome to the show, It's a pleasure to have you. 

Zee Clarke [00:31:28] Thank you. I'm so happy to be here. 

Mara S. Campo [00:31:30] So you have a very unique journey. You went from leading teams at fortune 500 companies and big, you know, the Black women in corporate America to now teaching breathwork and mindfulness to people of color. How did you get there? 

Zee Clarke [00:31:43] You know, it's all started with burnout, actually, because I was working so hard, you know, as a lot of folks know, if you've been the only Black person and especially Black woman in the office that comes with a lot of microaggressions, people will say things to me like, hey, are you the new diversity hire? Or they would make comments questioning my competence. And so I constantly felt like I had to prove that I deserved to be there, which meant that I worked nights, I worked weekends, and that ultimately led to a negative impact on my health, my mental health. I was having constant anxiety. I wasn't sleeping, but then that impacts my physical health. And so then I started to have all these health problems, weakened immune system. And my doctors were like, something's got to change with your stress levels. And so because of that, I took them seriously. I quit my job. I went to India. I joke that I did the Black girl version of eat, pray, love cause I was meditating. I was doing yoga and learning a number of tools that were so powerful for me, and I realized they were so powerful for racial healing, which is why that's what I do today, is I help other Black folks and other people of color heal from the challenges that we face. 

Mara S. Campo [00:32:57] And you focus a lot on breathwork. Why the focus on the breath? It seems like such a small thing, but you say it's a really significant thing. 

Zee Clarke [00:33:06] This was the most game changing tool that I learned during my travels and all of my research. What I love about breathwork is that you can do it anytime, anywhere, and it can help you in the moment when hard things are happening. When a colleague at work says something really offensive and inside. You know, I grew up in Washington, D.C. my gut instinct is to cut somebody out when they, you know, I mean, and and, you know, and that has a negative impact on your relationships at work. And so the breath is the pause between stimulus and response so that you can get it together and figure out, well, what would my best self, what would my highest self do? And I believe the breath is medicine. So just like you take Advil when you have a headache, just like you take antihistamines when you have allergies, there's a specific breathing practice that you can do based on how you're feeling, whether it's triggered, anxious, frustrated, etc.. 

Mara S. Campo [00:34:01] Does it help with kind of centering and clearing and being clear on what you want to communicate? 

Zee Clarke [00:34:07] Yes, completely. When you're triggered, your sympathetic nervous system kicks in. That's your fight or flight response system, your stress response. When that happens, there are physical things that happen. Your heart rate might go up, you might start sweating, your breath gets more shallow, but also you're not thinking straight, right? And so you might respond from an emotionally triggered place. That means some people might yell. Some people might use a tone that's cutting. Some people might use words that the other person might take offense from. Right. And so the breath, especially in the moment, can help you to clear your thoughts so that you can say what it is you really want to say, that can get your point across, and also get the impact and the outcome that you want. 

Mara S. Campo [00:34:54] You know, it's been said that anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die. And the reality is, is that these stress responses, everything that you've just described are so bad for our own health, because stress responses are a big factor in major diseases that Black women over index for things like stroke, like heart disease, obesity. How have you found that this is better for the mind, body and soul? That these responses are not just about how we present to the world and our relationships with other people, but also about protecting ourselves? 

Zee Clarke [00:35:27] So research shows that breathwork and mindfulness counters those things, lowers your blood pressure, etc. and so from a physical standpoint, it's very helpful. But also there's this soul component. And I want to share with you that through these practices I've been able to feel whole inside because you see we can't control what other people do. We can't control how other people act. But with these practices, we can control how. How we feel inside. And that's the true power. 

Mara S. Campo [00:35:59] And you also say that this is a way to connect more with our ancestors. And, you know, I started thinking about my ancestors so much more since my mother passed, because the ancestors to me used to just be this nebulous group of ghosts. Right? Yeah. Now I actually know one, and I'm very close to one. And so she has kind of been my bridge to the ancestors. And so I reach out to them quite often. How do you see mindfulness connecting us to our ancestors? 

Zee Clarke [00:36:26] Oh, I love this question so much, because ancestors have been a huge part of my life over the last several years, so this is my own experience. But when we get calm, when we get quiet right, we open up the channels to receive the messages, support and guidance from our ancestors. The practices that I share in my book, Black People Breathe, are mostly coping mechanisms to deal with all the stuff that happens, as well as self-care, right? How do we create a practice of self-care? But there's another type of breathing practice called Tropic Breathwork, which I was trained in. I was trained as something called Neuro Dynamic Breathwork, which is an offshoot of that, but it's a way to get to a psychedelic state without any sort of drugs. And so through this, and I offer something called roots, which is this guided musical journey coupled with a specific type of breathing practice to get you to that psychedelic state, opens up the channels. I met my great grandmother through this. I have met so many specific answers I didn't even know about through this. So it's about getting quiet. It's about opening the channels and how can we connect with them to get even more guidance. 

Mara S. Campo [00:37:39] What inspired you to write Black People Breathe, and what can women of color especially find in the book? 

Zee Clarke [00:37:47] Honestly, I was so not okay in my journey, right? I haven't gone into all of the details of all the things that happened to me in corporate America and outside of corporate America, like being harassed by the police, getting teargassed by the police, like all these things happened to me in my life and I was in pain inside. And then when I found these tools, mindfulness practices and especially the breathing practices, I was like, wow, this changed my life. It allowed me to have the inner peace I'd never experienced before, and I really wanted other people who were suffering the way I was to experience it. So Black people breathe. Every chapter is something that happens to Black people. There's a chapter called Shopping While Black. There's a chapter called R-e-s-p-e-c-t at work. There's a chapter called The Only and What That's like, and I tell stories of my own life and people that I know. And at the end of every chapter, I share specific mindfulness and breathing practices that you can use if and when these things happen to you. There's also a chapter on self-care. You know, my journey to self-care was a hard one because I grew up. I mean, I'm a lot of us can relate to this, especially when you're the woman in the household. You're the one that does all the work. I felt like suffering was the status quo. So this last chapter, A journey to Self-love, is about how can we prioritize our own well-being? How can we refill our cup when it's constantly being drained by others? 

Mara S. Campo [00:39:18] So then, when it comes to the actual day to day of this, what does it look like in your life? How do you incorporate all of these things into your daily life? 

Zee Clarke [00:39:28] Yes, well, I am a strong believer in intentional morning and evening routines, as well as making sure I take breaks in the middle of the day. And so just starting from when I wake up in the morning, I am a strong promoter of what I call the daily check in. As soon as I wake up, I don't do anything. I haven't even sat up from bed and I say, good morning Z, how are you? I use my name because there's a feeling of being cared for, right? And then how are you? Well, this is part of mindfulness. Mindfulness is paying attention in the present moment with curiosity and without judgment. That means that my answer might be I'm tired. And if that's the case, then maybe today I remove some of the extra things that were on my to do list that weren't urgent. But if I'm like, I'm just excited, like I'm ready, then maybe I do. I did do some extra things today, so daily check in. I also have some quiet time in the morning where I do some breathing practices. Box breathing is a very effective thing to do in the morning. Box breathing. As you inhale for a count of four, you hold your breath for account to four, you exhale for account to four, and you hold for four. And this breathing practice is so powerful to just get you grounded. And even in the middle of the day, this breathing practice is really helpful for focus and concentration. So anyway, I meditate in the morning. I do some breathing practice in the morning I drink water in the morning. First thing I put my body is. My phone is not my alarm clock anymore. Okay? Because then you get caught up in the scrolling and the stop, and then, you know, things like in the evening, I that's when I usually exercise. I don't have time in the morning, but exercise, a gratitude list, going to bed at the same time, like stopping the screen time at a certain time in the evening so that my sleep is really good. So yeah, a lot of things on just like daily routines, but then also setting boundaries. That has been a journey of being like, all right, after this time, I'm just not working. If somebody needs something from me, my phone's on Do Not Disturb. So yeah, those are a few things. 

Mara S. Campo [00:41:33] Sometimes the whole self-care routine itself can feel overwhelming and anxiety producing. Because I wake up and I think I have to journal, I have to pray, I have to stretch, I gotta do my lemon water. I mean, there's so many things that I want to do in the morning to start the day off right, and then the same at night. It's like, I want to do some spiritual reading. I want to pray. I want to do some breathwork. I'm going to take an Epsom salt bath. So that checklist in and of itself can sometimes feel overwhelming. What do you recommend for getting started in a way that feels really good and really restorative and not overwhelming? And will get people started on this journey? 

Zee Clarke [00:42:12] Yes. Well, I would say instead of having a long checklist, just take one thing in the morning and one thing in the evening that you're going to do, start small and choose something that you know is easy for you to do because it's all about the habit. Choose one thing to do in the morning, one thing to do in the evening that is actually doable, that fits with your life and all the other people around, right? Because sometimes it's not just you, right? You might have a partner, you might have children. And there's all these other factors. One mantra that I share in my book, Black People Breathe, that has been so powerful for me when I struggle with this. And it is this today I choose me, today I choose me. And so this idea of today I choose me. Well, then it's not a chore to do the one thing in the morning and the one thing in an evening. It's actually a delight. It's a treat. It's me treating myself. 

Mara S. Campo [00:43:08] What do you make of this Soft Life movement that a lot of Black women are making an intentional choice to reject the strong Black woman label, to acknowledge our own softness and desire to be cared for, whether it's care for ourselves or seek care from others, and to just try to tap into that side, as opposed to being exclusively a support for everyone else and never getting it for ourselves. 

Zee Clarke [00:43:34] I can't tell you how happy I am that this is becoming more of a trend that people, especially Black women, are paying attention to ourselves for the first time. You know, I don't know about you, but here's a question that I asked a lot of people. Did you ever see your mother rest? Did you see your mother rest? 

Mara S. Campo [00:43:55] What's so powerful? Almost never. And when I did, it almost look like depression is a strong word, but it was like the collapsing into bed lights off, covers over my head. I can't do anything else today. 

Zee Clarke [00:44:09] Yeah, and that's the model. That's the model that most of us have seen. That's the model that our mothers saw. And if you trace it back to slavery, that was what was expected of Black women. And so this this is freedom, this Soft Life movement for us. This is liberation. So Trisha Hersey of the Nap Ministry, the rest is reparations. When I heard that… rest is reparations. 

Mara S. Campo [00:44:38] That is a word because it gives us permission to take what we are entitled to. 

Zee Clarke [00:44:46] Exactly. 

Mara S. Campo [00:44:47] Wow. Now, that is powerful. Rest. Wow. So in terms of specific things, you've given us a few. But if we could just kind of tick off maybe a few of your favorites. What are some affirmations or mantras that you love? 

Zee Clarke [00:45:02] Well, look, today I choose me is one that I just live by. But actually I don't believe in prescribing affirmations to people. I believe that we all have different affirmations that we need. And so what I want to share with you is how you can create your own. Affirmations should be present tense. If affirmations are future tense, they don't work. That statement already has doubt in it, right? So in addition to present tense, affirmations for the most part should say your name and not, so your name and then also the frequency of it, because this is about reprogramming our brain, neuroplasticity. And so I invite folks to really think about what is it that you need an affirmation about. What do you have self-doubt about? Choose a specific thing and then use your name like Zee is, and then whatever that thing might be. You know, an example? I play violin and I have doubts about my ability to improv, even though I've been doing it now for like 15 years. And so mine is Zee is amazing at violin improv. So it's my name, it's present tense, and it's about a specific thing that I know that I need a little umph about. 

Mara S. Campo [00:46:20] And what are some of the other parts of your toolkit? What's inside your mindfulness toolkit? 

Zee Clarke [00:46:26] Yes, well, breathwork is a huge part of it. You know, as I said earlier, there are specific breathing practices based on how you're feeling. And they only take a couple minutes. And what they do is they stimulate your parasympathetic nervous system, your ability to be calm. So, for example, anxiety, you know, when your thoughts start spiraling and you're like, what if this happens? What if this happens? And so much so that you can't go to sleep, right. Has that happen to you? 

Mara S. Campo [00:46:53] It's like catastrophe fantasies. I'm like, why am I fantasizing about the worst possible thing that could happen to me in my family? What purpose does this serve? 

Zee Clarke [00:47:05] ExAC… exactly. And yet, you know that. But you can't get your brain to stop. And this is where the breath can come in. So the breathing practice I suggest for that is four, seven, eight breathing. Are you interested in maybe trying it with me right now? 

Mara S. Campo [00:47:19] Absolutely. 

Zee Clarke [00:47:21] Okay. Okay. So the way it works is you inhale for a count of four, you hold your breath. For a count of seven, you exhale for eight, all breathing in and out through the nose. You ready? 

Mara S. Campo [00:47:32] All right. I'm with you. You’ll count though, right. 

Zee Clarke [00:47:34] I will, I will. All right. Sit up straight. Shoulders back and downs. You can get your full lung capacity breathing in and out through the nose. And let's go inhale for four, three, two, one. Hold for 7 6 5 4 3 2 1. Exhale for 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1. Again inhale for 4 3 2 1. Hold for 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 and 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 and relax and breathe normally. The research for this one shows if you do this for two minutes, it will stimulate your parasympathetic nervous system. I find that if I do just four rounds of this, it's amazing. And when you're lying in bed, because that's for me, when those thoughts start coming and I can't get them to shut up. You can do this while lying in bed. If you wake up in the middle of the night with all those thoughts, or you're trying to fall asleep, you can just do that while lying down and usually you'll fall asleep in the middle of doing it. So super powerful practice. 

Mara S. Campo [00:48:47] That's great advice. Anything that'll help me quiet my mind at night to go to sleep is excellent. I'll use it quite a bit. And so what would you say to Black women who now would like to get started on this journey? 

Zee Clarke [00:49:01] Well, one thing is, mindfulness is so important about just paying attention to how you're feeling at every moment. Like, we get so caught up in the day and the to do list and all of that. And so I advise to just every once in a while check out and be like, how am I doing? And then there is a practice I share in my book called I feel Restored When right, I feel restored when, and I invite everybody to make a list of all of the things that help you to feel restored. Maybe it's going for a walk. Maybe it's, hugging my child. You know what? If I'm taking a long bath, make a long list so that when you're having a moment and we've all had those moments, look at that list and see. Use your intuition to see what calls you. And then do that because some of these things don't take a long time. And yet they could be a huge game changer. So I'd say make sure you check in with yourself. How am I feeling? Make sure you have that list. I feel restored when make sure you think about your morning and evening routines and say, well, if I were to be intentional, what might I change? And just pick one thing, two things and just start small. But it's all about prioritizing us. Carve out time for yourself. It can be as simple as five minutes in the morning, but those five minutes can be a game changer if you're at work. Take breaks. I teach workshops in companies around self-care and about stress management. And, you know, one of the things I share is stretching breaks, which literally you can do at your desk. You can roll your neck around a couple times, you can do some shoulder rolls, right? You can do a little side stretch, you know what I'm saying? And these don't take a long time, especially if you're in meetings and like, let's say it ends early. You got three minutes. You could try to check your email and try to start something that you don't have enough time to actually. Do. Or you could do some box breathing or you could just stretch a little bit. And so it's these micro moments of self-care that you can integrate throughout your day and still get all the things done. And also there are things on your list that you can probably cross off. There is, something called the Eisenhower Matrix where it's like, how urgent is this? How important is it? Right. And so if you think about a two by two matrix and the things that are not urgent and not important, well, you know what, those need to be deleted from the list. We do not always have to do everything. Do what's most important to the people that matter the most. Right. Cut all the other stuff. 

Mara S. Campo [00:51:42] And it sounds like what's key here is making sure that you are on the list of people that you are taking care of. 

Zee Clarke [00:51:47] Exactly, exactly. 

Mara S. Campo [00:51:49] So you do corporate workshops as well. What do those involve?

Zee Clarke [00:51:54] Yeah. So I have a program called Black at Work, and these are powerful interactive workshops focused on the issues that we face in the workplace. So how do you breathe through microaggressions? How do you build up the courage to get promoted, to ask for a promotion when you know the glass ceiling exists? How do you deal with stereotypes? How do you manage the need to outperform? When we all know we got to work twice as hard to get half as far? So the Black at Work series is a series of powerful workshops for Black folks in the workplace, and they can be tailored for other marginalized communities, whether that's women, Latinx, etc. I also have a new program I'm launching in January, which is called Breath Work at Work. And that's for your entire workforce, because everybody gets stressed and burnout is real. I think something like 77% of folks experience burnout at work. And so workshops like Stress Management 101, Channeling Focus and Productivity. How do you manage fatigue? How do you prioritize self-care when your to do list is so long and your company is like go, go, go, go, go. And so these workshops are really amazing for employee retention, employee wellbeing, and honestly helping everybody be productive so that you know, when we are less stress or better at our jobs. 

Mara S. Campo [00:53:17] Do you feel like companies are realizing that happy employees make for better business? 

Zee Clarke [00:53:24] I do think that companies are realizing that. I think it's slow though. Right? So some companies are more advanced than others, right? I teach at Google on a regular basis, and Google has done an amazing job of integrating a lot of these sorts of support, because they know that I think other companies are a little bit further behind, but they do know that, if people quit because the culture sucks and because they're exhausted and stressed out, then they don't have a workforce. But it is. Progress is happening in that regard. And and that's why companies are bringing in, you know, I work at Google and Visa and HSBC and Deloitte and all sorts of places because companies are realizing that their people are their biggest asset. 

Mara S. Campo [00:54:07] And I love the full circleness of that, that you were in corporate America in a way that was burning you out, and now you're back in corporate America in a way that is restoring others. That's a really beautiful journey. 

Zee Clarke [00:54:20] And it feels like I'm living my purpose. So if before I was taking jobs because society said that this title was successful and this is the income that I need now, I'm doing what I know that I was meant to be here to do. And so I love what I do every day. 

Mara S. Campo [00:54:38] That is so powerful, living in your purpose. God bless you. I think that's what we're all seeking. Zee, thank you so much. You've given me so many useful tips and also reminded me to put myself at the top of that list. 

Zee Clarke [00:54:51] Mmm, I love it, I love it. 

Mara S. Campo [00:54:53] Zee Clarke, fortune 500 executive coach, breathwork expert, and author of Black People Breathe: A Mindfulness Guide to Radical Healing. Thank you so much for being here today. 

Zee Clarke [00:55:02] Thank you. It was a pleasure. 

Mara S. Campo [00:55:05] Thanks for listening to Our Body Politic. We're on the air each week, and everywhere you listen to podcasts. 

We'd also like to invite you to sign up for our newsletter where we share additional insights and resources for the OBP Community. Check us out on instagram @OurBodyPolitic and click the link in our bio.

Our Body Politic is produced by Diaspora Farms and Rococo Punch. I’m today’s host Mara S. Campo. Farai Chideya, Nina Spensley and Shanta Covington are executive producers.

Emily J. Daly is our senior producer. Bridget McAllister is our booking producer. Andrea Asuaje, Ann Marie Awad, Natyna Bean, Morgan Givens, Emily Ho and Monica Morales-Garcia are our producers. Amelia Schonbek is our fact checker. Our Associate Producer is David Escobar. Our technical director is Mike Garth.

This program is produced with support from the Surdna Foundation, Ford Foundation, Katie McGrath and JJ Abrams Family Foundation, Craig Newmark Philanthropies, Meadow Fund, Democracy Fund, Heising-Simons Foundation, Schusterman Family Philanthropies, Open Society Foundations, The Henry L. Luce Foundation, Compton Foundation, Harnisch Foundation, Pop Culture Collaborative, and from generous contributions from listeners like you.