The Self Care Series: Caitlin Leffel Ostroy

I've been curious for a long time about the diverse ways that people take good care of themselves. As I finish my twenties, I feel like my huge project of developing an adult self-care practice is coming to a close. I'm thinking a lot about how I take care of my body and my mind, and how I want that to look in the next decade. It's scary and exciting!

In the coming months, some of my amazing friends have agreed to talk in this space about their own self-care routines. I'm so lucky to have them as my teachers in this.

We'll start with my friend Caitlin Leffel Ostroy, who lives in NYC with her husband, Alex. Caitlin is an editor at Rizzoli, a wonderful essayist and a very enthusiastic eater. I once spent a blissful, snowy afternoon in Chicago with Caitlin at Rick Bayless' Xoco, eating ALL THE VEGETARIAN THINGS and swapping recipes for soup. I'm really excited to share Caitlin's self-care philosophy with you because she's remarkably thoughtful and determined. An avid runner, Caitlin decided after the NYC Marathon was cancelled in the wake of Hurricane Sandy that she wanted to RUN IT ANYWAY. Just because. So she did. Here's Caitlin!

On the meaning of self-care

I’ve lived in New York City for most of my life, and there’s such a culture of competitive denial, at least in the milieu I live in: can you live on less, can you sleep fewer hours, can you give more of yourself to work. I’ve definitely gone in the opposite direction in my adult life. I consider it my responsibility and privilege as a grown-up to invest in caring for myself.

My husband and I are both freelancers, and that means we are responsible for purchasing our health insurance, and since we buy our own, the plans we are eligible for are very expensive and not very extensive. As a result of this, I’m cautious about what I do to and put into my body. Knowing that we will be hit with a bill for hundreds of dollars every time we step foot in a doctor’s office or try to fill a perscription has been a very strong incentive for us to take good care of ourselves. It’s also encouraged me to be open therapies and practices, such as shiatsu massage and more recently, acupuncture, which are either alternatives to western medicine, or preventatives for it. At the root, my focus on self-care is about keeping myself healthy and energized in the absence of a safety net like employer-sponsored health care.

On grooming

I’m very focused on skincare. My hair is a battleground, and I never learned to put on makeup, but skincare is my thing. My mother died right when I was coming out of adolescence, so I’ve held on to the few “adult” lessons I have from her. One of the things she told me was to take care of my skin when I was young. (The other one was not to tweeze my eyebrows too thin!) I use a cleanser and a moisturizer in the morning, then the same cleanser with a serum at night. I have a number of skin allergies (metal, salt, chemicals), so I have a pleasant excuse to explore organic and higher-end skincare lines.  One I like a lot is REN; they use very high quality ingredients in their products, but they are also very effective, which I feel like some of the more “natural” lines are not. For my birthday last year, I asked for an eye cream from Eve Lom, which is too expensive for me to buy on my own, but man, it was like putting caviar under my eyes.

Honestly, I don’t feel that I’m attached at all any longer to the idea of “improving” my looks. I’m 32, and somewhere along the way, I just fell into completely accepting the way I look. My practices of self-care are more about exploring ways that I can feel stronger, happier, and more at peace with the world. All of that said, I’d still love it if I woke up one day with nice straight hair.

On physicality and exercise

I was terrible at sports and gym class when I was a kid. Then, I went to college, and I found the gym and a world of physical activity beyond competitive teams sports. I began running five years ago—a type of exercise I’d avoided in the past because I thought I was “bad” at it—and realized that there’s this whole other dimension to exercise as an adult that has nothing to do with comparing yourself to other performers in your peer group. Because I’m a writer and editor, I find the purity of an exercise like running a welcome and necessary balance to the fraught interior world inside my head.

On emotional health

I practice Jivamukti yoga, which is a very spiritual practice, and also one that emphasizes looking inward. We meditate and practice breathing exercises, and think about life from the micro to the macro. One of the things that we do at Jivamukti that I love—though I understand it’s not for everyone—is that we talk a lot about mortality and death. I’ve found it incredibly calming to have a place that brings mortality to the forefront, and I like working on understanding myself as a transient being.

I’ve been working on mindfulness this year—which to me means a practice of being present in my waking interactions. It’s been a big challenge because I’m somewhat dreamy anyway (my husband says I’m the least observant person he’s ever met), and frankly, it’s been a little horrifying to realize how often my head is a million miles away from what my self is doing. I try to prevent myself from multi-tasking, and engage in fewer pleasant distractions (like listening to my podcasts while I walk).

When I think about it, all of my self-care habits are taken to some degree with the underlying goal of making me feel calm, so that I can make good choices, and experience life in the present. 


On spirituality

I think part of any self-care regimen that has a spiritual component is mindful of how the practice of it can help the practitioner help others. That said, there’s kind of an inherent self-centeredness in all of this that can shut out, to some degree, the outside the practice or the ritual. I didn’t start any of these things—skincare, running, yoga, diet, practices of mindfulness—with the goal of “acting” a different way. But I’ve noticed some subtle changes in my behavior: I consider my spoken words more, and answer questions more slowly in conversation. I can more easily define what I want and what I need. Going forward, I’d like to use these skills to make clearer, more mindful choices in every area of my life.

On eating

I’m not the biggest Michael Pollan fan, but I picked up Food Rules in the bookstore when it came out and opened to a page with this on it: Don’t eat anything with more than five ingredients in it. This made instant sense to me, and that one line has dictated my diet since then. I don’t take it literally, as in, I won’t eat a homemade dish with more than five ingredients in it, but in the sense that I’m sure it was meant to be taken in: pay attention to what you’re putting inside you, especially if it’s in a package, and make sure you know what those things are.

I also just started going to acupuncture, and my therapist recommended that I eat fish twice a week. I’ve been a vegetarian (ovo-lacto) since I was ten, so this is going to be an interesting experiment. So far, I’m liking shellfish and anything white that just tastes like olive oil, garlic, or whatever it’s cooked in. Can’t do the tuna, the salmon, or anything truly fishy. Other than that, I try to eat when and only when I’m hungry, and to eat whatever my body tells me it wants.

On supportive community

I have a wonderful husband, a great family, rich circles of friends—no shortage of people who care about me, and in some cases, care for me as well. That said, I’m in a better position than anyone in the planet to understand what makes me tick, and tick well. Engaging in practices that help my mind work in a better, calmer way, or moving my body in a way that supports, in contrast, the rest of my work is something only I can do, and for me, I like making those choices privately.

What other activities are crucial to your self-care?

Reading. Being involved in another narrative (whether fiction, nonfiction, historical, lyrical), in addition to being a great pleasure, helps my brain rest and my whole self recharge. It’s like changing to a different frequency and has an effect similar, in some ways, to meditation.

I believe that adults need to be their caregivers, and that however one defines that, caring for oneself has the same benefits are caring for another: it’s giving a certain amount of love, attention, or devotion to needs that enriches, improves, protects, and makes better. I could certainly get along with the things I mentioned above, but I think I would feel less like myself, so I guess the purpose for me in some ways is to stay “close” to my self and to prevent me from covering the core of my person with too many outside influences.

Thanks so much, Caitlin! 

1 comment:

  1. Anna,

    I love this series. It's interesting to read about what people do to take really good care of themselves. Caitlin's story is inspirational, and she sounds like a cool person.