I was three months postpartum, and I had yet to leave the house in anything but leggings, my husband’s giant t-shirt, and a greasy topknot. My body had changed beyond what I could recognize. None of my clothes fit, and I didn’t want to face the potentially grim reality of shopping for new ones. Showering seemed like a distant dream, since my new baby constantly wanted to be held. And if by “makeup” you mean “the extraneous bodily fluids with which my body was constantly covered,” then yes, I definitely wore makeup. My self-esteem was at an all-time low, and my anxiety was at an all-time high.

Just a year before this plummet in confidence, my self-care routine looked drastically different — perhaps because I had more time, but also because I recognized the value of the work I was doing, and I naturally wanted to dress the part. So I showered and got dressed for work every day. I did my hair and makeup not to impress my husband or co-workers, but as a visible reminder that the work I did was meaningful, a tangible way to respect my body and the work it did to serve me and my family. When I felt put together and prepared for whatever the day would bring, I sent myself — and others around me — a message: I am valuable, and I will treat myself accordingly.

After having a baby, my body felt like someone else’s property. Instead of client meetings and intellectually stimulating conversations, my job duties were reduced to baby talk, breastfeeding, and researching how the hell to get my infant to sleep. My baby was my new boss, and he surely didn’t mind my day-old hair and crusty outfit, did he? I only see it in retrospect, but at that point in my life, I wholly forgot about myself and my needs because my life became about meeting someone else’s. No wonder I was anxious.

Still, my therapist recommended I just get dressed for the day every morning, even if I had nowhere to go. Other moms told me how great they felt when they finally mustered up the courage to buy new, curve-friendly jeans instead of living in pajamas. So I did it. And the more regular my routine became, the more confident I was to be a mom that day. I found that we are far more likely to respect ourselves and the work we do when we dress for the part.

But dressing for the part isn’t a tool limited to postpartum moms. I encounter the same internal battle each day as a work-from-home freelancer. I’ve found that the times I don’t get dressed — even if I don’t brush my teeth — I am far less productive, and frankly, less happy. Is there a scientific basis for this?

The short answer: Yes. According to Mental Health America, because we are holistic beings connected in mind, body, and spirit, hygiene is crucial for overall health. Not only does taking care of yourself and your surroundings reduce the risk for illness, but it drastically improves self-image. This is the basis for the popular concept known as self-care.

Keep in mind that when it comes to self-care and mental health, it’s more about habits than a polished exterior. Developing a routine based on self-respect — whether that’s simply getting dressed, picking up your home, or putting on makeup and doing your hair — promotes a mindset that you are valuable and worth investing in, which can profoundly affect mood and mental health. It all comes down to treating yourself well so you can do the work you are called to do. I’ve found that when I’m equipped to accomplish things I care about, like taking my kids somewhere fun or writing an essay on a topic I’m interested in, I am far less likely to fall back into a slump.

A woman relaxes outdoors against a picnic basket with an open book and a glass of wine

If nothing else, putting on makeup is a basic act of self-compassion, a lesson we teach ourselves about who we are. A recent Vogue article highlighted the power of a beauty routine — even a simple one — to keep anxiety and depression at bay.

“That which everybody else took for granted — routine — became an alien concept to me as my focus simply became managing life on a day-to-day basis,” writes Simran Randhawa. “A lack of routine — and energy — meant that I found it hard to commit to anything, resulting in frequent, intense downward spirals. My beauty routine was and is my act of compassion to myself when other areas of my life are beyond my control.”

Like Randahawa explains, when we give compassion and care to ourselves through even the simplest of self-care rituals, we actually do our jobs better and care for others more effectively.

Though putting on makeup and picking out an outfit I like when there are more practical needs to tend to — namely, my kids and my freelance work — may seem self-focused and even self-indulgent, taking care of myself first, even in small ways, empowers me as I go about the rest of my day, and my life as a whole. As the poet Audre Lorde once said, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation and that is an act of political warfare.”

What do you do each day to care for yourself? Let us know @BritandCo.

(Photos via Brit + Co + Getty)