The politics of self-care

Last week was tough on the mental health front, so I decided to combine two of my friends’ advice (“go for an aimless walk” and “read on something not related to your research”) and went on aimless Internet browsing instead. I used to do this a lot when I fell sick and had a day off from work, when the Internet seemed as a refuge from the real world. Now, the real world is an escape from the Internet.

There’s this wonderful article on the self-care by Sharanya Sekaram. It explains that the concept of self-care has a longer history before being hijacked by capitalism, more than what’s represented by photos of laughing skinny women on luxurious spa days whilst sipping kale smoothies, indexed with pithy hashtags such as #SelfCare on social media.

It’s political, and this is because:

Self-care is linked to pleasure, and for marginalised people such as queer people, women, those from oppressed racial groups – whose bodies, lives and pleasure have been denied to them, the act of reclaiming and doing what gives them pleasure is deeply political. It is sometimes about reclaiming what has been denied to you, it is about demanding your right to enjoy and indulge. It is about you taking what others are freely given.

This is what makes the concept of looking after your self actually political and often more radical than we are led to believe.

Audre Lorde in the 1980’s wrote “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” Often in a neo-liberal context the only value we have is that of the labour we are able to produce – and wanting to indulge in pleasure is seen as a weakness. This becomes a political tool when we understand that the right to take, embrace and indulge in pleasure, to be human and have others recognize our humanity, is about moving past the oppression that does not allow for us to do so.

But how is it also feminist?

Being able to practice self-care means having the autonomy to make your own decisions. It means moving away from what you are ‘supposed’ to do to what we need to do and how we make this decision for ourselves. This is a deeply feminist idea – rooted in the ideas of autonomy and choice. For women especially, pigeonholed by patriarchy into the roles of nurturers and caretakers, the practice becomes a political and feminist act. In a time when we are expected to care for others ahead of ourselves, and when our bodies and decision-making power is not our own, women making those decisions with their full autonomy is what feminism demands we should be doing. From pro-choice movements that fight for a woman’s rights over her body to the legalization of sex work – the core idea lies in making choices where we decide for ourselves. We fight for it since asking to put ourselves, especially our health, first is seen as weak. Asking for time off after childbirth, suffering from pain during menstruation are all seen as signs of weakness – our wellness and health is politicised and used against us.

As we have now understood that the idea is self-care is deeply complex and should not be reduced to just purchases, we must now also acknowledge that we have the privileges of self-care from many aspects, something that not everyone has (and this is something that I have been thinking a lot too these days).

As I began thinking about this idea of putting myself first, of asking and taking what I needed, I also felt the guilt of privilege weigh me down. I am deeply aware that I can demand for time off for example because in a very basic fiscal sense I can afford it. I can afford to take a break from work because in comparison to other communities I engage with, that break makes a marginal difference to my life.

While the writer does not quite have an answer yet, (so do I), this is what she recognised.

Personal care is not just about the individual – it is also about the community and the collective. It is also about finding out how we integrate this into our leadership, our organisational values, and our movements so that it is a part of who we are and how we live.

As current, future, or potential leaders, this reflection is crucial – how do we practice our leadership and build our organizations to have this at the core, as a principle rather than a solution when a crisis point is reached? How do we identify the systems that are causing us fatigue, oppression, and pain as the cause rather than simply treat the symptoms?

A couple of other reads related to the politics of self-care popped up amidst my aimless browsing too, so here are some of them:

  • Sadie Trombetta wrote on understanding the radical history of self-care in order to practice it successfully. “Today’s idea of self-care was born out of this radical concept from the civil rights era. In our current culture, women are expected to care for others — their families, their friends, and their — before they are allowed to care for themselves. That, combined with the stress of sexual discrimination, rampant misogyny, and racism for women of color, is why studies show that women have higher levels of stress than men.”
  • Jordan Kisner became an anthropologist-voyeur of some sort on the displays of #selfcare, after the lexicon rose as a collective social practice in 2016.
  • Laurie Penny wrote on how self-care is part of an ideology to train us to be more “psychologically resistant”, focused on individual fulfillment rather than addressing today’s economic outlook & a broader political situation that neglect our wellbeing.
  • Chloe King advised us to think critically on “positive thinking”, because in some cases it can be unhelpful and patronising to those struggling in many aspects of life.

If your own cup is not filled, how can you share your drink with others? Take care.

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