During the 1980s, as she battled a second (and eventually deadly) diagnosis of cancer, Audre Lorde proclaimed that taking care of her own wellbeing was “an act of political warfare”. In the following decades the concept of ‘self care’ was to rise and fall, and rise again, as a vogueish practice within activist communities. More recently, it began its ascent to popularity once more alongside the adoption of social media.
But the question needs to be asked: do the current incarnation of #SelfCare selfies and holistic hashtagging relate at all to what Lorde was talking about? Is this the radical self care I’ve come to believe in, which defiantly rises in the face of an oppressive society and proclaims that our mental health as members of an overtly exhausting system does matter? Or, as I suspect, have we lost our path somewhere along the way and replaced the ‘political’ with the ‘individual’, the ‘radical’ with the ‘spectacle’?
As I sit here researching for my article on a bleary afternoon in January, I have open a number of internet tabs; a guide to self care published by The Atlantic , an Elite Daily article entitled ‘ 10 Gifts For Self Care To Treat Yourself With After A Rough Year ’, and a few Etsy shops proferring goods such as self-care journals for 2018 and temporary tattoos to emblazon my body with phrases like ‘treat yourself’ and ‘you are cute’. I’m also absent mindedly scrolling through the hashtag #SelfCare on Instagram, where I’m treated to picture-perfect snapshots of luxurious baths, earthy facemasks, green smoothies and exotic adventures abroad to ‘find’ one’s self. Scattered amongst these images are some of my very own golden oldies.
It strikes me that self care is at risk of becoming such a carefully crafted and meticulously curated lifestyle choice that it resigns itself to meaninglessness; another trend co-opted by market forces and propagated by impossibly beautiful, rich white women clad in yoga pants and sporting mandala tattoos. Worse still, the latest self care dernier cri runs the risk of being damaging; to us, and to those around us who need it the most.
Like so many others in my social sphere, I am able to completely isolate myself from my community whilst maintaining an image of meticulous and righteous emotional cleansing. As long as I am performing the external act of ‘enlightened activist’ on my social media, no one need know that I’m sat at home eating yet another frozen ready meal in front of the TV, biding my time until I inevitably doze off at about 9:30pm. Glamorous, I know.
But I have it easy compared to those lumbered with the labour behind the self care industry. Those who are at the sharp end of a movement which purports to liberate, but which in fact reproduces the worst aspects of capitalist status quo. From hospitality to housekeeping, food service to sex work; women, people of colour, immigrants, and those living below the poverty line are inordinately responsible for our collective wellbeing.
This is something we carefully ignore; in seeing self care as an intrinsically individual act we overlook its political, social and economic dimensions and the ways in which we benefit from the current inequalities and imbalances. To be blunt, we rest our own liberation on the backs of society’s most subjugated. No filter can make that a good look.
I know, I’m ranting again – and I swear to you I’m not telling you to throw away all that we’ve come to learn about self care in the past few years. I truly believe that, in a world that is constantly trying to undermine and deny your self-worth, choosing to focus on yourself really is a brave and radical act.
Yet there has to be more to it, and we must reconsider what it is to self care; for some of us that will mean acknowledging our socio-economic privileges and being more mindful of who works so that we might rest, and who loses out so that we might gain. For others, it will mean reclaiming our right to love ourselves despite being told we have no standing to do so. We must work to create open communities of care which upend hierarchies and sabotage the status quo, even if we as individuals currently benefit from the system as it stands.
I can promise you one thing though; the path to collective, radical self care will not be emblazoned with a corporate logo.
[This article was originally published in DIVA’s March 2018 issue. Read my latest column in DIVA, on sale now at divadigital.co.uk]