Category Archives: writing

The Politics of Performing Self-Care

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.

Debility and disability, or, let’s crip disability (rather than queer it)

It’s been a few days but it’s taken me a while to get my thoughts together (and deal with a few other bits that needed doing). Last week I was able – after a few abortive attempts – to see one of Jasbir Puar’s public lectures, titled Debilities: Sensing Bodies and Worlds.

The debilities Puar refers to are, and she did stress this, not the same as disability, but rather an overlapping category, where debility is based on a lack of affective capacity, or a a state where an individual is – and this is, unfortunately, rather hard to explain without a lot of specialist language – limited in what they can do by the conditions and demands placed on them by social, cultural, and capitalist structures (whether explicit or not); on the surface, it sounds a lot like disability. Debility is rooted in situations where human frailties are pitted against wider systems, and in terms of thinking about the damages done to people through systems of labour, heteronormativity, and so on, it’s pretty useful. I’m not entirely convinced it’s useful when it comes to thinking about disability as a distinct category (which, if I understood her correctly, Puar did not want to do, talking about the priviledging of disability as an identity category), because, while trying to deconstruct the line between disabled and able-bodied and able-minded, McRuer’s concept of compulsory able-bodiedness works a little better (although I side with Alison Kafer, who points out it is both compulsory able-bodiednes and able-mindedness, because disability isn’t just about physical impairment).

I think part of it is that Puar’s debility-centred approach is rooted in disability as an individually-experienced aspect of life – which is undoubtedly influenced by the role of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) – and a sociocultural understanding of disability that is focused on the individual, rather than that more commonly found in the UK, where the Social Model is more prevalent (where disability is something done to people on a social level, and then experienced by individuals with various impairments). On the surface, a debility approach is more in line with the Social Model – it is about how social structures affect people, and I think they could work quite well together – Kafer’s Feminist, Queer, Crip illustrated an approach that uses both (although she doesn’t use the term debility). However – and this was my main problem – Puar seemed almost to use the two interchangeably, or to discuss debility as though the bodies who experience it are all equal – when I would argue that debility is experienced by disabled people as additional, and exacerbated by disability/impairment.And, as mentioned above, Puar talked about the privileging of disability as a category – and I’m not entirely sure if she intended it as how I understood it, but I understood it as, in labelling some individuals as disabled, their various frailties and situational debilities were taken more seriously. For me, this is a problematic way of looking at it – it denies that a collective sense of identity for disabled people (a collective self-identifying identity) can be a useful way of challenging the selfsame capitalist structures Puar identified as problematic.

In effect, because debility is situational, and varies over time, it is not always a way of being in the same way disability is – in that debility is not also an identity (or perhaps experiential filter would be a better term, in it is a way of being in the world that colours how both the world and the self is experienced and imagined). Debility does not account for impairment, and it is not enough to account for disability – for myself, while I may not feel or be debilitated by a particular situation, I still experience that sitation as a disabled person. Focusing on situational debility, and excluding disability/impairment denies my experience and identity as a disabled person.

I don’t think Puar is trying to make them equal, or to replace disability with debility, but I think there is a danger that the body becomes ignored in a focus on debility, especially where queer deconstructivist approaches tend to hold sway. However, I think – and this is influenced by a point another audience member raised right at the end – the movement of queer theory, as a product of the neoliberal academy, into disability, is perhaps appropriating and doing violence to the histories behind the terms and identities. In that, I think I like the use of crip studies, or crip disability studies, rather than queer disability studies – crip is a seperate school of critical thought, and while it draws heavily on queer theory, it places disability and crip at the centre, rather than queer. If nothing else, there is more room for the body in crip thought – more room to acknowledge that there is an embodied experience of being crip, one that moves beyond identity into the frailties of the body – and those frailties are central to how we are in the world.

Language and Choices

In a brief twitter conversation with the people over at PhD(isabled), I found myself re-reading the Society for Disability Studies’ Guide to Accessible Presentations. The guide mentions using Simple English, or moving towards Simple English. I’ve come across Basic English while teaching EAL (English as an Additional Language), and while I can see the appeal, I find the rules actually restrict language, particularly when it comes to communication between mother-tongue English speakers and English learners, due to the ommission of words that would be included in everyday conversation.

Simple English, or Simplified English, while new to me, seems to be a more comprehensive version, which has a less strict approach to Basic English, increasing the vocabulary list from 850 words, to around 2000. This collection of words is one I recognise again – the General Service List, which is a collection of the most frequently used words in English. There are a number of secondary lists, including one for Academic English – the Academic Word List. This list is used when IELTS is taught – and while lots of them are recognisable as non-academic words, there are also words like “paradigm”, “context”, “ethnic”, and “implications”; these are the sort of words I wouldn’t teach in a General English class until students were already at an advanced level, but would be needed by students who were trying to read an introductory social science textbook.

I have to admit, the idea of writing in Simplified English is both appealing and awful. I do like a run-on sentence, but at the same time, I’m aware that I’m equally irritated by books and articles that I read which seem to be purposefully hard to read – and certainly would be impossible for my IELTS students, or anyone who hasn’t previously been introduced to concepts those texts discuss. I’ve not really thought of myself as a theorist – which is probably to do with having started in tertiary education as a scientist, rather than a sociologist; theory is something I read and try to apply to the world, not wrestle with myself. A lot of the theory I read is the most difficult to understand, and this is why I find Simplified English appealing; I wonder if it would be possible to write theory using a more limited vocabulary – and taking the time to explain topics and concepts as you go.

Another reason this appeals is that I will be using a lot of theory in my research – theories of embodiment, of gender, sexuality, language, power, disability, illness, and pain, and probably half a dozen more I’ll come across in six months’ time and decide are absolutely crucial for me to include. But at the same time, I want disabled people to benefit from my work, and this means my work needs to reach them – and therefore be readable and understandable by people who have no training in sociology or related disciplines.

I don’t know if it will be possible. I don’t know if it will be too wordy – if I’ll end up using complex words as a shorthand for concepts that might take a while to explain, or if it’ll end up less comprehensible because I keep stopping to explain what it is I’m going on about. But, at the same time, I think it’s a concept I’m going to play with.