Boy oh boy, does capitalism like to ruin everything. From Kendall Jenner’s Pepsi ad to Taylor Swift’s LGBT money-maker, stacks of important movements are being sold to the masses as trendy products, packaged up neatly with a bow on top and diluted of their original, anti-capitalist nature. It feels like self-care is fast becoming one of these things.
The concept has roots in the black civil rights movement in America, and ongoing importance for marginalised communities as a way of taking back the power – as black feminist activist Audre Lorde said, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” In a world that still denies power and agency to minorities, that’s indeed a powerful stance.
Day to day now, though, it’s a buzzword used by most everyone to describe the acts we must perform in order to keep our minds and bodies in tip-top physical and emotional shape. Especially in the millennial age of over-stimulation and burnout, this is a critical consideration.
But now ads sprawl over our social media feeds, promoting spa days and massages and bath bombs and chocolate. “Treat yourself!” they shout. “You deserve it!”
While it’s true that we need to care for ourselves in ways both small and huge, it’s also crucial to think about what destructive systems we play into in the process.
The commodification of self-care is undoubtedly gendered, pandering to activities for women to ‘pamper’ ourselves, when these activities – fun as they may be – are, in the grand scheme of things, feeding into big corporate pockets, and providing a temporary feel-good solution for us.
What’s more, it’s important to recognise when self-care bleeds into selfishness or narcissism. As someone who has suffered from lifelong anxiety and depression, some days it’s incredibly hard to get out of bed, and a powerful act of self-care can be simply staying there, calling everything else off and allowing myself the time to heal. But when work is piling up next to me, and I have 15 missed calls from my dad, and my bed is covered in chip crumbs, and I’ve only worn elastic-waist pants for a week – it starts feeling less like self-care and more like avoidance. Withdrawing from society can temporarily feel relieving, but this individualised version of self-care, if not monitored, has the potential to fracture our relationships – with ourselves, our friends, our professional and social communities.
As Deirdre Fidge writes, self-care isn’t always meant to make us feel good: it can be about having tough conversations, or forcing ourselves out of our comfort zones. And sometimes, it’s not even about us at all – the concept of ‘community care’ is emerging, positing that it’s just as nourishing for the individual to perform acts of care and kindness to others.
It takes a village, as they say, and over-indulgence in individual self-care runs the risk of solipsism. By no means does this mean that individual self-care is inherently selfish, but as feminists, we need to interrogate what our actions mean, who they are for, and what part they might play in dismantling larger systems of oppression. We need to remember the roots of the concept, and ensure that we use self-care as both a personal balm and a method of larger political resistance, and arm ourselves with the skills to be able to tell when which version is appropriate or necessary.
So sure, treat yourself to that massage – you deserve it – but don’t stop there. When you’re feeling up to it, when you’ve got the spoons: give your friend a lift to the airport. Volunteer at your local op-shop, animal shelter or soup kitchen. Stand up for someone you see getting harassed online. Write a letter to your local MP on an issue you care about. Cook a meal for your sister who’s having a hard time. Donate to a charity. There are privileges necessary to be able to do these things, of course, but if you have it – use it.
There are so many things we can do to improve our collective mental health, and build feelings of solidarity and support in a system that is designed and determined to take that away from us. Self-care isn’t just about you: it’s about the world you exist in.
Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen is a Melbourne-based writer, bookseller and the Commissioning Editor for the Feminist Writers Festival.