Tag Archives: self-care

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.

Adventures in self-care, or, meet the glass boxes full of water

One of the things I’ve noticed while attempting to balance the phd and working is that sometimes I need a break. Not a long one – hell, not even a whole weekend, but instead just a little time off to do something unrelated – it’s a little bit of self-care and, yes, self-indulgence. Treat yo’self on a budget, or drawing inspiration from Audre Lorde’s words – “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” (A Burst of Light, 1988); either way, I need to take a bit of time to do what I want to do. I know all too well that I’m stretched thin, and as I decided to celebrate re-enrolling for my second year by addressing my sort-of gant chart of what I’m going to achieve over the next two years of my life, and then promptly having a minor breakdown, I decided to take part of this weekend to do anything except work.

Mostly. I mean, I spent part of yesterday afternoon feeling guilty about not doing work and then transcribing interviews – after the required amount of procrastinating). And I’ve just spent the last hour finding and printing various activities for my current EAL class. But mostly, I’ve done a bit of laundry, walked the dogs, cooked, and fannied about with the glass boxes of water I’ve decided to scatter around the house.

I have three tanks. The biggest and newest (thanks to my father, who is incredibly generous when it comes to birthday presents) is the home of Wilberforce Filbert Stinkpot Soup, aka murderturtle. I’ve been waiting for the moment to tranfer his nibs into his new tank, after planting it up a few weeks ago – I wanted to give the plants time to establish themselves before letting Wilberforce loose on them, because the first thing he does when faced with any new object is try to kill it.

a large glass fish tank half-full of water and submerged plants

a small grey-green common musk turtle swims among submerged plants

He went into his new tank on Friday night, and I think he’s ok with it. He’s dug up half a dozen plants, killed all but the largest of the snails (which is too big for him to chew on), and glared at me through the glass. As his default expression is one of utter rage, it’s a little hard to tell if he’s happy.

This leaves two other tanks, which live in the study – much smaller ones. The smallest I bought because I wanted to grow the sort of plants that Wilberforce dug up or tore to pieces, and give the snails somewhere to breed in safety – I breed ramshorn snails specifically to feed to Wilberforce. Today, I pulled up the vast majority of the Lilaeopsis and the dwarf hairgrass, in the hope that this will give the Hemianthus callitrichoides a bit more room to spread. HC is a lovely little plant, but it is much slower to spread than the other two, and while it was getting there, it was taking forever. I also took some cuttings off theĀ Bacopa, and theĀ Hygrophilia. Yes, I am aware that I sound like my mother now – it turns out I’ve not got black thumbs, but that I require my plants to be submerged.

a small fishtank on a windowsill, with slightly cloudy water and a few sparse plants and a model TARDIS

It looks a bit cloudy and bare, because pulling up the plants disturbed the gravel and the dirt (it’s a gravel-capped soil substrate, rather than a fancy plant substrate). I’ve not got a filter running in there at the moment, because Wilberforce’s tank is using two (he’s a dirty little turtle), and there’s no animals besides a few snails. It’ll settle down, then when I’ve got a new filter for it, and it’s started to look less bedraggled, I’m planning on putting some shrimp in there, or a betta.

In the third tank, which was Wilberforce’s starter tank until a few days ago, now live a few guppies and some neon tetras. I cleaned the gravel a little, and pulled out most of the larger pebbles to put in the big tank (Wilberforce is not allowed standard-sized fishtank gravel in case he eats it, which he’s likely to do as I’ve found him chewing on bigger rocks before). Then I planted up the lilaeopsis and hairgrass, as well as replanting the valisnera and standard hairgrass that had been in the tank already – along with some refugee Bacopa and Cabomba from Wilberforce’s predations.

small bow-fronted fishtank, with a little gravel and some small plants. A couple of fish are swimming near the top

close-up of some small neon tetra fish - and some plants

I don’t know how well the plants will do as there’s no dirt in there – just the gravel from Wilberforce, which is admittedly pretty grubby. I’ll shove some root tabs in there, or if it all looks awful, break it down and start again with a dirt layer. The fish seem happy enough – they weren’t best impressed with the water changes or the planting, but they’ve been noodling around the tank and eating since then. I’ll see how the water looks in a couple of days, when it’s had the chance to settle.

So that’s what I’ve been doing. This evening, I’m putting an i-cord edging on a cardigan, watching the X-files, and trying not to think about how bloody early I have to get up tomorrow.