When it comes to the idea of witchcraft as a means for getting what I want in life, I’ve always enjoyed the aesthetic and the set dressing, even if I don’t believe in any particular supernatural power I might be able to draw from. I love imagining myself as the kind of person who whips up magic elixirs and potions to solve a bunch of problems in my life as part of a slightly gothic coven with my female friends, but always been a little too preoccupied with my lack of belief in actual magic powers to give it much of a practical thought.
That was until I found the magical spell-casting tome that opened my skeptical heart up to playing around more with ideas about practical applications of witchcraft: Basic Witches.
Released back in 2017, Basic Witches: How to Summon Success, Banish Drama, and Raise Hell With Your Coven, written by Jaya Saxena and Jess Zimmerman, is on its surface a book about witchcraft accessible to skeptics, but at its core much more a book about female self-empowerment. The central idea of the book is that the concept of witchcraft has, at least historically, been largely used to keep powerful women held down, for fear that their power and success must be the product of some supernatural and inherently evil source. From women experimenting with herbs as medication, all the way through to women viewed as too well-educated, punishments for witchcraft were punishments against powerful women, and as such witchcraft has ended up carrying with it this powerful forbidden mystique.
Basic Witches suggests that, by allowing ourselves to engage with the set dressing of witchcraft, while basing the spells and potions within on practical real-world psychological techniques, we as women can not only feel powerful and strong, but also help ourselves to embrace what makes us feel good, and move on from the things holding us back. It’s witchcraft as rebellion, as a way to embrace being the kind of woman that society deems unacceptable, and finding strength in that identity. It’s witchcraft as a path toward feeling more confident, comfortable, and content with who we are, and the choices we are scared to make.
As a skeptic of actual magic, the idea of taking time for myself, engaging in the ritual steps that imbue an act with importance, and providing myself with some confidence and comfort when taking on tough challenges felt like an incredibly accessible and exciting path. While I didn’t find every single spell, potion, or ritual suggestion in the book to be helpful to me personally, I believe it’s all generally built upon sound psychological reasoning.
In terms of clothing, Basic Witches has several really interesting suggestions for how to select outfits that can enhance or lessen emotions connected to your mood on any given day. If you’re feeling anxious or afraid, they suggest wearing tight-fitting accessories. The gentle pressure can really help keep you present in your body, activate your parasympathetic nervous system, and help to keep you a little calmer. This concept mirrors ideas like weighted blankets as autism anxiety relief tools and can be a really good subtle way of keeping yourself a little more grounded on tough days. If you’re expecting an emotionally tough day, try wearing multiple layers for protection. It’s the same logic behind why many of us hug ourselves when emotionally nervous, it’s creating a physical barrier to provide emotional security. We already do it subconsciously as people, so why not make a choice to do it, tell yourself you’re safer because of the layers.
As a trans woman, one spell in the book that I really connected with, and found power from, was “A Spell to Reject Pressure to Be Feminine.” In order to receive medical help as a trans woman, and in many ways simply to be taken seriously as a woman, there’s often a real pressure societally for me to be an exaggerated, almost performative version of femininity. I knew trans women who got refused hormones because they never wore skirts or dresses to doctors' appointments, and regardless of how much this flies in the face of modern-day feminist ideals, there is an expectation that trans women need to pass some outward bar to be seen as female. Cis women can shave their hair short and get into truck repair, but if a trans woman does so, it’s weaponized against the validity of our identity.
As you can imagine, this left me with lots of baggage to unpack regarding my own relationship with my femininity, and unpacking which aspects were for me and which were for how others saw me.
The spell in Basic Witches for this is pretty simple in concept. You take a lipstick, a symbol associated with femininity, and use it to angrily scrawl the aspects of pressurized femininity that don’t make you happy onto some paper. You bury or compost it, allowing it to become beauty for the world, just not for you.
You then take another piece of paper, write down the aspects of traditional femininity which make you happy, and place it into the empty lipstick container, sleeping with it under your pillow for a few days.
It’s an exercise in self-reflection, distancing yourself from the things you want to let go, not associating them as bad for everyone, and keeping the things you like close to yourself. I found it a really healthy and cathartic experience, and one I would certainly recommend as worth taking the time to do.
I went through testosterone-based puberty in my teen years, with several effects I can’t do anything to change. My face is not the most feminine in the world, and as such for the past decade my long hair has acted as a shield. I allow it to cover a lot of my facial structure, and its length is long enough that more often than not it codes me correctly as female to strangers.
I’ve spent years thinking about other feminine haircuts I would love to try, but I always get scared, for fear losing any length at all will lead to me being incorrectly read as male. I lacked the confidence to go for that dream haircut, the pixie cut. Enter “A Spell for Haircut Confidence."
To simplify the spell, what I did was cut off a very small piece of hair from a hidden spot on my head, braid it while thinking about my worst-case scenarios for this haircut, and imagine those worst-case fears getting tangled up in the pattern of the braid. I then stroked the hair, thanked it for taking on board my worries for me, and placed it out in nature.
And you know what? It worked. I actually stopped and took the time to think about my worries and the solutions if things went wrong. I work from home, so the worst-case scenario is that I could grow my hair out again and it would not take too long to get back to where it is now.
I don’t know when I will have time yet, but I have it on my to-do list to get a brave new haircut this summer.
I’ve barely scratched the surface here, but the whole book is full of great ideas backed in psychology, like associating smells with emotions so that you can feel them at will, or physically letting go of things to help you emotionally let go of other things. It's a really interesting and empowering read and certainly made me a little less afraid to embrace my inner witch.