Somewhere in the last decade, “self-care” became the go-to source of relief for, just, living in the world. Even though wellness has been a dominant social and cultural trend for a decade, the central wellness practice of self-care remains a woo-woo-y abstraction, and is often misunderstood as indulgence, a trillion-cut diamond cresting Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
Even as self-care makes its way into the contemporary, collective consciousness – the jump-off of self-care-as-trend coincided with the limbic overwhelm of 2016 U.S. election (I mean, obviously) and then kept going – the notion is assumed to be a mani-pedi-paradigm of self-indulgence that silly-dummy babies post about on social media. Self-care makes for an easy opportunity to dismiss the interests and concerns of women, especially young women, even when that means ignoring the reality of what it is to be a young woman in the world.
Self-care is, more accurately, about the body and the brain, and managing the psychic ravages of stress, illness, pain, trauma, precarity, poverty and abuse. It is the soft power of the body and of the self; it is prioritizing healing and honouring experience, and the maybe alien experiences of ease and rest, making space and making time, creating comfort and pleasure, a kind of comprehensive acknowledgment of the realities of both “life” and the nervous system.
So, instead of other wellness ideas, trends or not, that encourage women to be better caretakers under patriarchy, or better producers or consumers under capitalism, the self-care movement is about realizing the pleasures and possibilities of our somatic, emotional and psychic selves. Self-care is just as relevant to men as it is to women, but as long as care is feminized, self-care won’t be received as a revolution.
As more people discover self-care, its utility extrapolates and exerts itself in a way that complicates its definition, blowing past the early, essential contributions of women of colour, its origins as a radical act in response to systemic oppression and neglect, and its practice as a mandate in medical, recovery and caring professions and communities. There are no legitimate criticisms of self-care, in the same way there are no legitimate criticisms of feminism: What these terms actually mean, what they originally intended, is only equilibrium.
Actual self-care is still the best thing anyone can do for themselves. But, when it’s lifted from its original form, and Facetuned into a sweet, soothing fantasy, there are inevitable problems.
There’s the heavily corporatized, performative, Instagrammy angle, an inevitability of any sociocultural trend with earning potential.
There’s also the idea that self-care is distanced from unwieldy and global issues, that as a practice it privileges the self at the expense of the collective. Then there is the way in which it shifts more responsibility for well-being and health care from governments to the individual, as well as the crossover between self-care and the wilder, shadier reaches of the wellness industry, which has created a market for untested, unproved and sometimes unsafe practices and products.
But the primary criticism of the self-care trend, a criticism that populates social media, trend stories and dinner-party conversation, is that self-care is the province of the narcissistic, stupid and delusional, of the same kinds of people who are sure that the universe is responsible for the machinations of their daily lives. So: women. This kind of critique, which is as inevitable as the wellness trend’s commercialization, is inherently and hilariously sexist.
Young and youngish women are simultaneously problematized and overprotected, critiqued and appraised and demanded of and dismissed; misogynistic takes on the concerns of feminist values and priorities are to be expected.
Demonstrably, young women aren’t believed, or believed in, or even really listened to, until the things that they do, say and like become interesting enough to everyone else that they take it for themselves. The street style of young women becomes couture; their idioms become everyone else’s idioms, just a few internet-eras later; their worst experiences become a cultural movement based on women retraumatizing themselves, for free and in public, which generates a hashtag and a backlash. And what women of colour, queer women and other marginalized women endure, and are simply expected to endure, is much worse.
As a comparison, while self-care is misunderstood as something selfish and indulgent, the correlative trend of “lifehacking,” or using productivity and efficiency hacks to track and improve personal performance, which is usually characterized as a masculine pursuit – data-driven, popularized by Silicon Valley CEOs and bro-figures, characterized by dominion over and control of the body – is not. The comparison is even more striking when you consider that it’s women, not men, who are routinely ignored or undermined by their doctors and the medical establishment, and that women more often come to wellness and self-care because they need and want control of their body more desperately than a guy counting his macros.
The idea of women centring their own bodies, lives and experiences is maybe correctly recognized for the subtle threat it actually is. While some of the actions and habits attributed to self-care are ostensibly more for some external gaze than self-anything – starting with the spectre of the spa day – self-care can lead to modalities such as massage and acupuncture, and then to therapy and activism, and then, maybe, to a new, collective paradigm in which the principles of self-care are extrapolated outward. Maybe, eventually, the ideas and interests that young women bring to everyone else will be recognized, respected, sought out.
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