Self-care is one of the most inescapable buzzwords on the internet. In the last couple of years we’ve had almost every product available recreating itself in the name of wellness from jade eggs to CBD everything to mindfulness colouring. But what is self-care other than just looking after yourself? Why is it so expensive? And where did it come from?
The origins of practices which involve actively taking care of yourself are medical, as doctors sought ways to support individuals with chronic or degenerative disabilities, and those in high-stress jobs such as the armed services and trauma therapy (Harris, 2017). However, it was Audre Lorde and the Civil Rights Movement who brought self-care into the public consciousness, as Lorde famously wrote:
“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
In this context, self-care is political, an action which defies the structures and individuals who actively seek the undermine the very existence of people of colour. Before self-care became the trend it is today, it was “a claiming [of] autonomy over the body as a political act against institutional, technocratic, very racist, and sexist medicine.” (Harris, 2017). And with almost everything created by marginalised people, self-care was co-opted and depoliticised by white people for billions of dollars of profit. Self-care is no longer a rejection of a politics which seeks to destroy the will and lives of people who aren’t white, straight and cis, but rather is a method used by the elite to shame those people who can’t afford to same quality of health as them. Because, if you didn’t tweet or instagram about your face mask, did you even self-care?
Not only is self-care a concept stolen from black activists, but it is also not as effective as billionaires would like you to think. Inevitably, a therapy dog is not going to cure your anxiety, and turning off your notifications isn’t going to stop the world from spinning. In fact, some activists have shown concern that global political events could demoralise people to the extent that they will ‘seek refuge amid the pleasures and fulfilment of private life’ (Kalven, 2016). In an effort to self-care, we risk losing sight of the problems which were undermining our mental and physical health in the first place. It is important to acknowledge that self-care is not an end in itself, but rather, is an action which enables individuals to continue on with the work they are doing.
Self-care is not inherently bad, though it is often performative, and an avenue towards inaction. We need to acknowledge its political origins in the Civil Rights Movement and Black feminism, and use self-care as it was meant to be used, as an act of political warfare. A sound piece of advice from Gracey Obuchowicz suggests that ‘Self-care alone is not enough. You need to have self-awareness too. Self-care plus self-awareness equals self-love.’ (Silva, 2017).
“The Millennial Obsession with Self-Care” by Christianna Silva (2017) in NPR
“A History of Self-Care” by Aisha Harris (2017) in Slate
“James Kalven: The Man with a Lantern” by Michael Miner (2016) in Chicago Reader
“A Litany for Survival: The Life and Work of Audre Lorde” by Ada Gay Griffin & Michelle Parkerson (1996) in Bomb Magazine