Taking care of yourself can be hard work. Perspectives that position self-care practices as vapid indulgence are only telling part of the story.
Self-care—most recently understood as #selfcare—is often thought of as an indulgent phenomenon where people, usually white women, deal with unpleasant daily realities by immersing themselves in comfortable and soothing activities such as binge-watching TV shows, face masques, and nail art. This form of self-care is often seen as narcissistic, basic, and entitled. The deeper story is much more complex.
[a five minute read]
The concept of self-care is nothing new, but the buzz swirling around lately often portrays self-care as an elite activity, a marketing ploy, a narcissistic performance, an ostrich-like retreat from real world problems, shallow comfort-seeking, and a millennial obsession.
Self-care (the ideology) has morphed into something different from self-care (the practice).
Part one (this piece), touches on the radical history of self-care and how this useful practice became co-opted.
In part two (next week), I’ll talk about what happens when we rely on individual self-care as a solution as opposed to communal and systemic solutions to problems that affect us all.
Queer/feminist/trans/people of color engaging in activism aimed at social change have been aware that they need to love and care for themselves and each other in order to survive. Audre Lorde, a Black lesbian writer, poet, activist, and teacher who also struggled with cancer, wrote:
“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
Audre Lorde, 1988
Within communities working towards social change, self-care is regarded as a political act, yet the current conversation about self-care seems to center more on comfort and avoidance of unpleasantness. There are a number of factors influencing this shift—political polarization and ever-increasing reliance on social media for connection are just a few.
Most everyday forms of self-care kind of suck, a friend recently reminded me. It involves remembering to get a mammogram and getting your teeth cleaned. It also includes mundane things, like making sure you have enough toilet paper and are working on establishing strong boundaries for yourself. These things might not look like self-care because they’re not soothing. They’re mundane, and (as already mentioned) some of them are either difficult or tedious or both.
As one blog post I recently read put it, many things currently hyped as self-care involve practices that calm us down (drinking tea, warm baths, Netflix binges) when, in fact, some forms of self-care may require the opposite. As they put it:
All of these activities are designed to engage the parasympathetic nervous system, which governs rest and recovery. But some forms of care require strenuous activity and adrenaline, the domain of the sympathetic nervous system. One way to prevent post-traumatic stress disorder, for example, is to allow the sympathetic nervous system enough freedom to release trauma from the body. When a person is having a panic attack, it rarely helps to try to make them calm down. The best way to handle a panic attack is to run.
When corporate sponsors are selling us the idea of self-care as soothing and calming practices and suggest items that are supposed to make us feel like some version of “our best selves,” what about those forms of self-care that are messy, dull, and strenuous?
Many people I know are actively dealing with major life crises in addition to the contemporary political malaise/freakout that’s been happening since November 8, 2016. For them, self-care is coping and trying to survive another day. For these people, self-care might mean trying to breathe and remain calm when someone’s tried to get you kicked out of a bathroom for merely existing. It could mean working on writing projects while waiting for immigration paperwork to finally come through. It could mean letting go of perfection when trying to single parent three children after your husband has committed suicide. It could mean getting a pet as a companion or rehoming a pet you can’t keep.
And yes, in there we might drink some tea, binge us some Netflix, get our yoga on, immerse ourselves in warm water, and maybe get our nails done or dye our hair a fun color. And we know that those things often help, but they’re not the only way to take care of ourselves. These are the pleasant self-care things we might do in addition to the not-so-pleasant things that also make up self-care practices.
Self-care has become co-opted.
Many forms of self-care are now considered frivolous and selfish. Although I haven’t yet explored the many hashtags associated with self-care on social media sites, the phenomenon has been described in many articles and think-pieces as a marketing strategy that uses Influencers to demonstrate how we’re supposed to be doing this self-care thing right. Self-care (the ideology) has become equated with happiness, beauty, and comfort (which helps to explain the hygge craze). But self-care, the often shitty practice of slogging through the day with a minimum of damage to ourselves and others, doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with that paradigm.
In a way, I see this disconnect related to the sentiment on a card I recently sent a few friends:
My friends and I interpret this reference to the wabi-sabi practice of mending broken items with gold as a metaphor for resilience. As we live our lives, we are constantly offered opportunities to build up reserves of strength and learn coping tools that contribute to more resilient selves. Where some might see the flash of the repair as merely adding beauty to take our eye away from the brokenness of the piece, for my friends it’s different. They use the fact that they are shattered to build something new.
Stay tuned for part two of this exploration of self-care, the ideology and practice.