Self-care has become something of a fashionable topic recently; I see posts and tweets about the importance of self-care on academic twitter weekly, if not daily. A quote from Audre Lorde’s Burst of Light (1988) is often punted around; “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
It is a beautiful quote. Burst of Light is a beautiful book, an important one. Sara Ahmed’s blog post on Selfcare as Warfare is one you should read before going any further, because she makes clear how self-care is an important political project, particularly for women of colour. I am not disagreeing with that. Self-care is important. Self-care is an important political act. But at the same time, self-care is being used as a panacea. Feeling a bit down this January? Self-care! Got a cold? Self-care! Working 80+ hours a week? Self-care! Precarious employment? Self-care! And in all of these situations, self-care remains important. Self-care enables us – or at least that is the intent – to get back up and carry on, to reestablish our buffers against neoliberalism, racism, sexism, ableism, our own weaknesses and losses. To fight back and say that we are important.
However, in reminding us to care for ourselves – to put on our own oxygen mask before helping others – the critical details are lost.
Self-care, like all care, is work. Sometimes it is hard work, costly emotional labour. It might not seem particularly like work, especially from the outside – because self-care quite often takes the form of not doing more “proper” forms of work, or at least that is the perception of what it should be. Sometimes self-care really does take the form of sitting on the sofa with a cup of tea and a romance novel (or your mental screensaver of choice). But focusing on self-care as obvious relaxation ignores other ways self-care can occur; it might involve cooking from scratch (consuming time, energy, and money), walking (requiring energy, time, and access to pleasant outdoor spaces), or hundreds of other activities positioned as beneficial to our health, all of which require us to have the time and energy to carry them out, and the relative privilege to access them.
Frequently, self-care is positioned as a break from routine. If your days are sedentary and indoors, then self-care should be active and outdoors – but this ignores the nuances of access to physical space, to the energy to go out and use that space in socially appropriate ways. And for your self-care to be recognised as such – rather than condemned as laziness or inadequacy – it should be recognisable as self-care to others. Sometimes this involves signposting, the literal telling of an audience; “I am going to take a walk in the park, this is my morning self-care!” Sometimes it is more subtle – taking a picture of the view and sharing it online, or performing your self-care in the trappings of serious leisure, wearing trainers or walking shoes.
This is not to say we should stop doing such things; it remains important to talk about self-care because in doing so, we draw attention to the need for self-care itself. We just need to be a little more critically understanding in what we count as self-care, in including those acts of care that are not clearly acts of leisure or relaxation – acts that are more obviously self-care work. A morning spent checking all the bills have been paid, and balancing your budget for the coming months is not particularly relaxing – but it is important self-care, especially for those of us who work in precarious or underpaid employment, or who rely on state benefits. A trip to the chemist to fill a prescription is self-care, as is doing the grocery shopping or putting the bins out. If self-care is survival, then we must include care work as a part of it – because those invisible acts enable us to survive.
In the same way, it is important to remember that there is privilege in self-care, even though the necessity of self-care work is forced upon us by a lack of privilege. The forms of acceptable self-care, the ones easily recognised as self-care, need privilege not just to take place (due to their need for resources and performance of conspicuous leisure/relaxation), but also to be recognised as self-care. Sitting on the sofa, watching tv, needs to be contrasted with “proper” work – it must be performed by someone who is able-bodied/minded, properly employed, and “healthy”. Self-care might be performed by all, but is only recognised as such when certain people perform it. In talking of self-care, and performing conspicuous self-care, we must be aware that we are privileged, not just in having leisure time and money, but also to have our self-care recognised as leisure, not laziness.
In some ways, performing conspicuous self-care has become a part of the project of the self, a part of the discourses of risk and health. We have become required to include self-care – particularly the care of our mental health, but also our physical health and fitness – as a part of mitigating the risk of illness through performing acts of healthfulness. We must demonstrate our not because we lack privilege and are debilitated by socioeconomic processes – but to demonstrate that we are not the rejected Other; to demonstrate that we are able-bodied/minded, employed, and capable of taking care of ourself in the appropriate way (and flexible enough to do so in terms of what is emphasised at the time, whether it is colouring in for mindfulness or running for charity). Self-care is a way of demonstrating ourselves as “proper” humans, capable of conspicuously resisting debilitation. It is not so much a political act of resistance, as an act of demonstrating our humanness.
Discourses of self-care are double-edged. Resistance to power, but also a part of demonstrating our powerful position. Thus, in talking about self-care, while we might care for ourselves, we might be positioning ourselves as properly worthy of that care – and ignoring the self-care of others.