Just like everyone else, I recognize the need to take an occasional moment focused only on my own well-being. That might mean cancelling plans so I can stay in bed and watch “The West Wing,” ducking out of an overwhelming family gathering for a deep breath or just making the time for a hearty breakfast before what promises to be a draining day. Yet it wasn’t until I came to Vassar that I had a name to ascribe to these acts, which I now understand to be manifestations of self-care. While the self-care movement in America has exploded in popularity since my first year at college, it wasn’t until recently that I learned of the complex legacy underlying the concept and how society has increasingly perverted (or, to put it more mildly, reinterpreted) its original meaning.
Almost every article I’ve read on the topic of self-care quotes the Black lesbian feminist Audre Lorde: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare” (Audre Lorde, “A Burst of Light: Essays,” 1988). With these words, Lorde invokes the audacity to rise up and fight that defined the concept of self-care in the 1960s and ’70s. In a culture bent on erasing the humanity and self-worth of people of color—and especially women of color—civil rights and women’s liberation leaders saw tending to one’s health and wellness as an antidote to the ways in which the white, patriarchal medical system had failed them. Moreover, activists argued, in order to dismantle hierarchies based on race, gender, class and sexual orientation, it was imperative that these groups hold the power to promote their own health (Slate, “A History of Self-Care, 04.05.2017).
In the 1980s, self-care slipped into the realm of the apolitical: It was subsumed by the trend of holistic wellness and the increasing commercialization and mainstreaming of lifestyles based on fitness and “positive health” rather than merely the absence of illness (Slate). To understand the significance of this cultural shift, it is important to realize that before the ’80s, now-ubiquitous concepts like the mind-body connection and preventative health were considered radical to the point of being cultish (Well+Good, “When Wellness Was Weird,” 07.14.2017). While such ideas gained traction in the ensuing decades, the idea of self-care as a response to politics resurged in the aftermath of the 2016 election—this time less as a tool of revolt and more as a mechanism for self-protection. The week after Trump’s victory over Clinton, the number of Americans Googling “self-care” reached a 10-year high (Google Trends), marking its induction into the leftist lexicon; as Slate culture writer Aisha Harris puts it, self-care was “the new chicken soup for the progressive soul” (Slate).
At its best, the self-care movement encourages paying heed to the vulnerability of others with needs and desires different from your own, writes Jordan Kisner (The New Yorker, “The Politics of Conspicuous Displays of Self-Care,” 03.14.2017). Certainly, in our political era, with the Trump administration targeting a myriad of marginalized populations, this awareness is crucial. Yet self-care has taken on a disturbing tone of self-aggrandizement, and the term is almost entirely drained of its historical and political power. Paradoxically, it was straight, white, affluent women who led the 2016 self-care charge (Slate), and Instagram is flooded with #selfcare posts that glorify individual indulgence rather than looking outward toward challenging systems of oppression or giving back to other people. “I can’t fill your cup if mine is empty,” or “Put your own oxygen mask on first,” go the mantras of the self-care movement, expressing the need to nurture one’s own mental and physical health in order to have the capacity to care for others. Cynical as it may sound, though, we humans are selfish creatures, and self-care can be a slippery slope into hedonism.
Self-care can easily become another status symbol: a spinach smoothie topped with artisanal granola or a Himalayan salt bath and a 24-karat gold face mask, to be flaunted beside our sparkling Swatches and iPhones.
Resisting the commodification of self-care is a tall order, especially now that self-improvement is a multi-billion-dollar industry (BrainBlogger, “The Self-Help Industry Helps Itself to Billions of Dollars,” 05.23.2014). According to a study on New Year’s resolutions, millennials drop twice as much money as baby boomers do on resolutions involving self-care, such as exercising more, eating healthier and losing weight (Field Agent, “Millennials, Boomers, & 2015 Resolutions: 5 Key Generational Differences,” 01.13.2015).
Moreover, many of the more than 1.4 million #selfcare Instagram posts are sponsored by beauty companies, fast-food chains and the like (The New Yorker). Yet self-care often entails mundane or even unpleasant tasks—cutting off a toxic friend or taking a second job so you can open a savings account, for example—that will positively affect your well-being in the long term, even if it does not fulfill your present cravings, posits writer Brianna Wiest (Thought Catalog, “This Is What ‘Self-Care’ REALLY Means, Because It’s Not All Salt Baths And Chocolate Cake,” 11.16.2017). Put this way, self-care is a marker of maturity, of the ability to postpone immediate pleasure in favor of making an investment in your future self. Not that the two are mutually exclusive. Sometimes a lunch spent with friends rather than working and topped off with a midday ice cream cone is precisely the ticket to continuing the day with renewed energy, rather than crashing by dinnertime and not being able to finish your work, let alone help anyone else with theirs.
Even a thoughtfully chosen act of self-care, however, is often inherently an act of privilege as well (The Guardian, “Generation treat yo’ self: the problem with ‘self-care,’” 01.12.2017). There is no denying that life in today’s tumultuous political and social climate can make one want to curl up and block out the world—especially given that news of the latest tragic act of violence or deplorable legislative decision is constantly at our fingertips (The Miscellany News, “Media consumption fraught in era of instant information,” 02.21.18). Still, especially for those of us fortunate enough to not have our identities constantly under explicit and/or implicit attack, ignoring reality is not a viable solution—and, more important, it is a selfish one. As writer and human rights activist Jamie Kalven puts it, “[It] is certainly tempting at a time like this: to live one’s life in the wholly private realm, enjoying the company of friends, good food and drink, the pleasures of literature and music, and so on.” Yet he cautions, “If we withdraw from public engagement now, we aid and abet that which we deplore” (Chicago Reader, “Jamie Kalven, the man with a lantern,” 12.07.2016).
Placing such a range of demands on the self-care practitioner might seem to defeat the very purpose of the act; one could argue that deciding which type of self-care to engage in and how to do so appropriately risks becoming a process so strenuous that it necessitates even more self-care. Yet we can practice more responsible self-care simply by bringing an increased mindfulness toward how it affects our future self and how it can nurture our fellow humans. Reframing everyday activities can help us pursue this goal: For example, volunteering at a non-profit might not fit the flashy, self-indulgent version of self-care presented on social media, but it can nevertheless feed one’s own need for meaningful engagement while also supporting others. According to French philosopher Michel Foucault, the ancient Greeks saw self-care as crucial to democracy because it helped form better and more honest citizens (The Guardian).
By remembering this, we might just rescue this generation’s expression of self-care from going down in history as another humiliating hallmark of the selfie generation.