Self-care was supposed to be about rebelling against oppressive systems. Instead, we’re buying face masks from them and feeling anxious about it.
Growing up, there were two phrases I heard used against women, usually together, always in hushed tones of judgement and disappointment. “She’s let herself go,” was first, often immediately followed by, “She’s not taking care of herself.”
Invariably, these comments were used about women who were no longer adhering to traditional standards of beauty and behaviour; women who had previously stayed tidily within the boundaries of what was seen as desirable, but had now become unruly.
For a girl who already liked unruliness, I always thought the phrase “she’s not taking care of herself” was odd. It indicated that the only way a woman could care about herself was to care very deeply about what other people thought about her and to spend a lot of time and effort conforming to their expectations.
For women, "taking care of yourself" wasn’t about embracing your self-worth. Taking care of yourself was about constantly auditioning for other people, who would decide if you had earned your place in the world.
Origins of self-care
Audre Lorde wasn’t having it. In her book A Burst Of Light, Lorde writes about surviving cancer despite a medical industry that systematically devalues Black women. “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence,” Lorde wrote, “it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
This idea was embraced by many Black, disabled and queer activists. For communities consistently told that their lives do not matter, believing that you, and people like you, deserve to feel mentally and physically healthy itself a political act. But it is also part of a process that serves a larger goal: only by taking care of yourself will you have the strength to keep fighting for other rights.
"Self-care was also embraced by feminists, who recognised the societal pressure placed on women to care about everyone but themselves."
Civil Rights Activist Angela Davis also embraced the idea of self-care as a pathway to resistance, recognising that marginalised communities need to take care of themselves in order to fight back against oppressive systems.
“Self-care has to be incorporated into all our efforts,” said Davis. “It’s as important to take care of yourself – and to do this within a collective context. So yes, this means exercising the body. Yes, this means finding a place for spiritual expression. This holistic approach to organising is. I think, what will eventually move us along the trajectory that will move us to some victories.”
Self-care was also embraced by feminists, who recognised the societal pressure placed on women to care about everyone but themselves. Women were expected to dedicate their lives to caring for their families and communities, constantly performing unpaid literal and emotional labour. By taking on these burdens, women thus freed up men’s time and energy so that they could to earn money, assume power and get busy making laws to control our bodies.
Embracing self-care thus became a political act, allowing women to move away from what they were “supposed” to do, and instead make decisions that served their interests. For women, practicing self-care meant advocating for their rights and choices; it was the first step towards bodily autonomy and gender equality.
But in recent years, the idea of “self-care” has taken on a new, yet very regressive, resonance. Thanks to advertisers, influencers and social media platforms hijacking the very idea of self-care in order to sell products, self-care has become the opposite of a political warfare. It has returned to an idea of individual conformity, curation and consumerism.
Self-care has officially been de-radicalised and has become a beauty and lifestyle aesthetic instead.
"Self-care mightn’t be glamorous. It mightn’t make you look good, or even make you feel good, immediately."
Search “#selfcare” on Instagram and 19 million posts come up. Scroll through and you’ll see countless photos of women showcasing their bath-bombs, face masks, skin products, hair products, spa treatments, expensive gym gear, idyllic vacations or flat-lays of elaborate, perfectly presented, low-calorie meals. Many of these Instagram self-care posts have two important things in common: they turn the idea of self-care into an enviable, consciously styled, traditionally feminine, beautiful performance; and they require money and products to emulate.
Does that combination sound familiar? Because it sounds like old-fashioned, deeply gendered, Mad Men-style advertising to me. And we’ve somehow been duped into doing it ourselves, and claiming it’s good for us.
And like all good advertising, this rebrand of self-care traps us in a loop of stress, distraction, consumerism, and becoming dependent on external validation.
Women are constantly told, implicitly and explicitly, that our worth is tied up in our appearance, and our appearance is never good enough. Beauty standards themselves are based on misogynistic, racist, classist, fatphobic, ableist ideas. But instead of encouraging us to dismantle and abandon the unattainable beauty standards that devalue us all – a political act that would actually constitute self-care for many people - companies are now instead marketing beauty products as self-care. And the feedback loop begins.
“Feel bad that you aren’t pretty enough! Buy this thing to make you pretty! Being pretty will make you feel better! Take a pretty photo of the thing! Post it to Instagram! Feel bad about not getting enough Likes! Make yourself feel better by buying another thing! Post it to Instagram! Make your friends envious so they’ll buy the thing! Don’t you feel better already??”
Capitalism and its supporting players – the beauty industry, advertisers, social media platforms - are causing us all intense amounts of stress, all while telling us they’re the solution. They’re replaced ‘Care For Yourself’ with ‘Treat Yourself’ – and we’ve fallen for it, hook, line and sinker. Self-care was supposed to be about rebelling against oppressive systems. Instead, we’re buying all types of products from them.
The greatest trick capitalism ever pulled was convincing the world that #selfcare is about care, and not control.
What does self-care look like?
Of course, using a facemask is fine. Treating yourself is fine. But in respect to the radical legacy to self-care, and to ourselves, it’s time to start evaluating what we label as self-care, and if it’s really serving us and benefitting our physical and emotional health in the long-run.
"If the anxiety and pressure to post about it and get Likes outweighs the benefits, it’s not self-care."
If it focuses solely on making you look better and not making you feel better, it’s not self-care. If the anxiety and pressure to post about it and get Likes outweighs the benefits, it’s not self-care. If it’s dependent on other people’s approval, it’s not self-care.
If it’s dependent on other people feeling inferior to you, it’s not self-care. If a company is benefitting from it more than you are, it’s not self-care. If it’s limiting you to oppressive ideas of what you should do, not empowering ideas of what you could do, it’s not self-care.
Self-care mightn’t be glamorous. It mightn’t make you look good, or even make you feel good, immediately. It might be difficult, or challenging. It might involve undertaking a form of therapy, or working on body acceptance, or removing yourself from toxic dynamics. It might involve limiting your time on social media, or finding a doctor who respects you, or forging community with people who understand you. It might mean asking for help, refusing to provide energy-consuming emotional labour. It might mean getting more sleep, exercising, showering, not living solely to work.
It might just giving yourself permission to stop caring about what people think, to stop trying to live up to oppressive standards, to stop adhering to what you’re “supposed” to do. It might mean channelling some of that energy into more empowering activities.
Sometimes, self-care might mean letting yourself go.