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Opinion: The ‘soft girl era’ is sweeping social media, but the idea of a soft life for Black women isn’t new

Illustration of meditation.
(Ross May / Los Angeles Times; Getty Images)
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In the last several years there has been a growing conversation among Black women about what it means to live outside of the struggle of survival. A widespread intention to reclaim and recommit to what social media has coined as a “soft life.”

My relationship to softness, ease and pleasure has been complicated, which isn’t unheard of for a Black woman in America. Words like “ease” don’t always relate to the reality of how Black women get to exist in this country.

The enslaved Black women of my ancestry, who worked the plantation fields of the American South, weren’t afforded the chance to be familiar with softness. The domestic workers in the homes of white families might not have had the space to explore the concept of pleasure.

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Black women in corporate America today, who are expected not only to do their jobs, but also to act as in-house diversity and inclusion professionals, rarely expect to live in ease. And tenderness didn’t seem accessible to the raised fists and passionate demands for justice from the Black women marching in America’s streets against racism and police brutality.

I’m proud of the enormous strides our society has made toward accepting these styles, which have been targets of laws and job discrimination. And I’m proud of my own natural Black hair.

Feb. 27, 2023

The narrow and sometimes capitalistic interpretation of the “soft life” era on social media doesn’t account for the significance behind this revived idea. I say revived because this conversation is not new. This intention to cultivate spaces of softness, rest and healing — for Black women in particular — is not simply a millennial hashtag or fodder for online content.

In her 1851 speech “Ain’t I A Woman,” activist Sojourner Truth questions her own access to care and softness, saying: “That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman?”

In the 1970 anthology “The Black Woman,” filmmaker, activist and author Toni Cade Bambara is quoted as saying: “Revolution begins in the self and with the self.” A concept that insists that caring for yourself is perhaps one of the most significant ways you can contribute to collective well-being. In her book “Sisters of the Yam,” the late feminist author bell hooks describes her own attempt to gather women to address what she called a “deep, often unnamed psychic wounding that takes place in the lives of Black folks in this society.”

This conversation spans generations of thought leaders who either hint at or loudly insist that we claim gentler ways for Black women to move through the world.

Online, the soft life concept of today operates on a spectrum. On one end, it’s portrayed as a life that leans into luxury, glorifying things like expensive body oils, lavish vacations and high-end bags. I don’t necessarily relate to this side of the spectrum. While adding a bit of lavishness into one’s lifestyle isn’t all that constitutes a soft life, it doesn’t hurt to reimagine our relationship to money and what we understand as “for us” in this world.

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By not having children, I gave myself the space to consider what I prefer to do as opposed to the “shoulds” set before me by the church, gender roles and society.

June 18, 2022

On the other end of the online spectrum is an approach to a delicate work-life balance and saying “no” to things that don’t bring us joy or fulfillment. And it is this side that I relate to most. More than the material opportunities to find ease, the soft life era relates to our efforts to set healthy boundaries, our ability to be introspective, our openness to ask for help and the prioritizing of our physical and mental well-being.

I’m hopeful that the soft life era will open up pathways for Black women to explore the practices and spaces that invite relief and remind us that we were not born to just survive. The concept is an invitation to envision what living well looks like for our community, moving away from our generational inclination to focus on self-sacrifice and instead really consider what a softer standard could look like.

In embracing a softer life, I’m making decisions based on what’s best for me instead of through the virtue of martyrdom. It means finding what I see as the tiny joys in living. Things like valuing the rhythm of folding my towels, taking a moment to be mesmerized by the sunrise, slowly enjoying the process of making a cup of coffee rather than rushing toward a busy day.

My soft life commitment includes educating myself on financial literacy and intentionally building toward wealth to avoid living paycheck to paycheck, as so many of my ancestors have had to do. It also includes having a renewed relationship with food, land and nature through things such as growing my own tomatoes, hiking with friends and bird watching in the springtime as an act of joy.

Living more consciously has allowed me to regain control of my finances as well as my sanity.

July 10, 2022

A recent piece titled “Muholi V,” by South African artist and visual activist Zanele Muholi, speaks directly to this reimagining of rest. The work is a moving, larger-than-life bronze sculpture of a Black figure sleeping peacefully. As the child of a domestic worker during South African apartheid, Muholi has created a work that’s a stunning display of “art as resistance.” A visual call for resting Black bodies to be seen and celebrated just as much as those that are constantly producing for the systems and institutions we exist in.

For those who brush off the conversation around a soft life, who call it overindulgent — you’re right. Black women are moving toward a path of less resistance, a life not steeped in struggle. A soft life that ushers us gently toward our birthright to live well.

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Rachel Cargle is an author, activist and founder and president of the Loveland Group and the Loveland Foundation. Her book “A Renaissance of Our Own” will be released in May. @rachel.cargle

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