Self-care has become a buzzword – or buzz concept – that dominates discourses of wellness, welfare and “living right”. It evokes images of clean white women doing yoga, or rigorous skin care routines, or blending up healthy smoothies in a Nutribullet.
These conceptions of self-care can be damaging on several counts. They reinforce a blueprint of wellbeing that suggests self-care is only for the able-bodied (and, more often than not, women). Like most successful cultural tropes, it has also been co-opted into consumerism – self-care becomes something you can do if you can afford it, either in money or time. It’s increasingly a habit to be sold.
We have moved a long way from what Audre Lorde meant by self-care in 1988. Specifically addressing Black women, she referred to it not as self-indulgence but as a necessary act of self-preservation. Rather than pursuing narrow patterns of consumption which are becoming ever more exclusive, we need to move towards broader understandings of self-care.
There are endless articles online recommending “top tips for radical self-care”, all aimed at helping people become calmer, happier and more mindful. Some are just a bit mad – one such article suggests tactics like “containing your stress” (I cannot think of anything that would stress me out more). Others recommend “taking a walk in nature” or “having a duvet day”. It is undoubtedly useful to sometimes consider self-care as not doing things. I found personally that in activist scenes for example - when involvement in a campaign could be totalising - deciding to step back from responsibility every now and then was the best act of self-care.
However, these modes of self-help scream privilege of certain lifestyles or timetables that many can’t afford. These “tips” are also frequently inaccessible for many people with disabilities – they can promote a pretty ableist discourse around wellness that “others” those who can’t achieve the perfect regimen of morning cardio, strict diet and hours of meditation.
Self-care should no longer be considered as a single Instagrammable act to be injected into your daily routine. It should rather be processual, a way of thinking flexibly about yourself that provides nurture so you can give your best energies to other battles. Some days this may mean putting on a facemask – if that’s your thing – but equally it may be as simple as managing to get out of bed. How I do self-care changes day to day, sometimes it just means taking whatever activity I’m doing outside, or finding time out of my day to catch up with family to ground myself, but we should appreciate these “smaller” forms of self-preservation. My university had an amazing self-care tips Facebook group that facilitated discussions on these “smaller” acts and was truly valuable because of its breadth and inclusivity – we need more of its kind.
We also need to talk about and include self-identifying men in our conversations of self-care. Beyond the LGBT+ community, it seems like the self-care discourse is focused on the well-being of women only. (Of course, this is in part because women are already more likely to be caregivers and less likely to put themselves first, but this doesn’t preclude the improvement of everyone’s mental health). In fact, many mainstream discussions about self-care seem to emphasise rather than challenge gender stereotypes – self-care is imbricated with ideals of pampering and beauty – rarely do unconventional self-care activities such as laser-tag trump “a clean skin routine”. It is only by pluralising our understanding of ways that people nurtures themselves and recharge that we can broaden the self-care discourse and make it accessible to all.
The ubiquitous self-help guides and articles on self-care reinforce its hegemonic conception, a blueprint that if only we repeat enough, we will become better human beings. We need to recognise that there are no rigid or uniform ways of doing self-care – working out what works for you is a matter of trial and error. If we’re going to be inclusive with the way we talk about self-care, we need to move away from the clean white women doing yoga. We need to test out and share our own processes of self-preservation, no matter how big or small.