In Offense to Self-Care

In Offense to Self-Care

 

The internet has been the ground-zero of every recent social movement. Many of these movements had massive impacts on our collective culture, shifting the paradigm. The self-care movement began in the mid-2010s on the blogging platform Tumblr. Posts romanticizing mental illness and encouraging self-loathing were commonplace. Inevitably, posts about self-care and positivity emerged in response—eventually becoming a phenomenon of its own.

People under thirty are forced to work longer hours for less pay than their parents and grandparents.1,2 Depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses sky-rocketed. People born after 1990 watched many of their friends succumb to untreated mental illnesses. The self-care movement’s emergence was a response to many young people gaining awareness of how unsustainable their lives were. Its biggest accomplishment was illustrating the importance of simple actions. Getting enough sleep and drinking enough water are overlooked methods of supporting our well-being—so mundane that we often took them for granted. Grueling schedules force people to ignore their most basic needs. 

Prior to the 2010s, the modern notions of self-care emerged out of Black radical tradition. The Black Panthers had a deep understanding of the ways in which systems of oppression negatively impacted the health and well-being of marginalized people. Self-care did the work our societal systems do not. Self-care requires investing time and energy into the mind, body, and soul. Black activists carried this philosophy as time moved forward. Audre Lorde famously said, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”3 She was right. When the system doesn’t want you to live—much less thrive—caring for yourself is an act of rebellion and defiance.

But where is the movement today?

Self-care is now a multi-billion dollar industry. Target, Amazon, and the entire cosmetic industry—among infinite multinational corporations—have used the idea of self-care to advertise products. Like most things related to self-help and personal betterment, it is very easy to attach a price tag to items never intended to get you there. People have written self-help books and run self-help seminars around the world: This one book will help you lose thirty pounds. Buy now! or Never be broke again; attend this seminar to learn how to be a CEO. Lies and false hope are worth billions. Out of desperation and the desire to be happy, we fork our money over and buy our ticket to the land of dreams that will never come true. Buying a product that promises to do the work for you is much easier than doing the work yourself. It’s even easier to convince yourself that it will work.

Around 2016, the self-care tag on Tumblr started looking less like Ten breathing exercises to cope with anxiety and more like Do face masks, shave your legs, and light a candle to feel more relaxed. Face masks aren’t a coping method, hairless legs don’t take care of your physical health, and lighting candles is not a behavior that will change your life. These activities are not something that will improve your mood every time. There may come a day where you light that candle and feel nothing but cold and dreadful emptiness inside. The light in the jar will flicker, but the light inside you will dim.

The self-care movement’s biggest failing was not clearly defining the difference between self-care and self-maintenance. Self-maintenance can be quite glamorous and extravagant depending upon your tastes. Self-care is different. It’s not about spending money on aesthetic needs. Self-care is tending to your fundamental needs. It’s eating vegetables, drinking water, or taking deep breaths when you’re overwhelmed. It’s dedicating yourself to your community and maintaining the connections that make you a better person.

The day “self-care” was printed on a T-shirt was the day its essence died, ashes in an urn atop some CEO’s mahogany mantle. Capitalist societies prefer to medicate the problem instead of curing it. Buying products gives us the illusion of self-care, making it easier to ignore underlying issues. Feeling better is easier than being better.

Meaningful action and self-interrogation are requirements of self-care; there is no self-care without an understanding of the self, one’s desires, and one’s needs. Capitalism strips us of our humanity and turns us into tireless machines, pushing us to our limits. True self-care is subversive—a reminder that we are humans in need and worthy of care.

Online movements encourage comparison. Posts with the most engagement are placed at the top of explore pages. Useful tips and advice are drowned out by pastel-filtered photos of tan legs and glistening products. Pictures that aestheticized self-care gained more traction than information contributing to true self-care. Algorithms across multiple social media platforms prioritize photo and video content over written content. Faces get more views than paragraphs. And of those faces, only the ones that fit neatly into the beauty standard receive attention leaving anything else to be buried beneath the hashtag.

Thus, I also blame social media influencers. Vulnerability—or perceived vulnerability—is an internet commodity. Self-care evolved into beautifully shot montages of wealthy women using expensive products. Vlogs showing the daily lives of YouTubers receive millions of views, particularly from impressionable teens. Influencers titled their expensive maintenance routines as “self-care,” both as a means of normalizing their wealth, recasting their consumerism as virtuous, and sufficiently meeting their sponsor’s partnership requirements. Self-care became an aesthetic. Now, in 2022, branded posts with luxurious leggings, fancy fitness clubs, over-priced smoothies, and expensive hair and skin treatments make up the majority of so-called self-care. The face of self-care was a young, wealthy white woman hiding her wealth behind #mentalhealthawareness and #positivityinspo.

Rebranding self-care to focus on extravagance and luxury excludes those who need the movement most—lower-income Black and brown people buckling under the weight of capitalism, unable to tend to their needs as often as necessary. There is no space for them to share their struggles and triumphs with self-care. They can’t keep up with buying expensive journals and pens, luxurious skincare products, and pricey health drinks. I certainly felt that way. Self-care felt so elusive to me. The harder it was to achieve, the more I felt like I depended on it. I spent the latter half of high school and the initial half of college attempting to alchemize serums and green juice into inner peace. Every spare dollar I earned was swiftly deposited into the bank of self-care. Over and over, I fell for the hollow promise of bought goods, yet I never got any closer. The summer before my sophomore year of college, I watched myself remove my under-eye patches waiting for the relief to hit. Instead, I threw away $15 and sobbed as nothing had actually changed.

The self-care movement has been so severely corrupted from its original intentions, so where do we go from here? I don’t think that we can rescue the movement from the clutches of capitalism and social media as it is. However, there is still a deep history of self-care to be re-discovered. What would it mean to return to self-care as a Black radical tradition and remove it from the lens of social media? What would it mean to seek self-care out in our physical, present communities rather than online spaces?

I think it could mean a lot.

It took a lot to finally pry myself from the belief that painted nails and smooth skin would deliver me from depression. It took a lot more to force myself to realize the behavioral patterns I’d created for myself. I had to understand that while some tips are potentially helpful, social media ultimately has no place in my self-care. How helpful is it to see wealthy people categorize flaunting their wealth as self-care? I had to stop seeing self-care as what I should consume and begin seeing it as something that I do.

I want to return to the Black radical roots of the self-care movement. The current political climate requires constant hyper-engagement in the world’s turmoil. But it is hard to subject tangible forms of change if I am not adequately caring for my mind and body. Being a broke college student means that mental health care is largely inaccessible to me. However, I realized that the internet is not my only source for coping mechanisms. I needed to return to the work of Black radical feminists who have lived through similar—if not, worse—conditions. Writers like Audre Lorde, Patricia Collins, and others have written extensively about caring for yourself as a Black woman in America. I am able to find tools without sorting through the toxic advice that plagues internet forums. These writers helped me see myself as more than a failing part within the system of capitalism. I was not a piece that needed to be fixed with mere breathing techniques, toxic positivity, and desensitizing myself to my pain. They forced me to recognize myself as a person—a human being—who was splintering under the immense pressure. My difficulties were not a random occurrence. Rather, they were the only outcome that could be expected from all the issues people like myself have to bear.

So much of my participation in the self-care movement has been passive. I used the popular, aestheticized version as an excuse to avoid the very real work I needed to be doing. Action is necessary for creating any form of change. I have to dig deeper and disrupt the patterns that have been ingrained within me. As a Black queer woman, I am constantly reminded that society does not want me here. My self-care must be in defiance of that. My self-care must be rooted in a determination to live beyond the margins that threaten to bind me. Above all, true self-care is meant to exist outside of capitalism and it should remain so. There is salvation in reclaiming my personhood and reinstating my value outside of capitalism’s parameters. Liberation cannot solely be won through personal actions, but I can still seek freedom within myself no matter how small the amount.

  1. Tami Luhby, “Many millennials are worse off than their parents — a first in American history” (CNN, 11 January 2020).
  2. Kathleen Elkins, “How much millennials earn, compared to what their parents made at the same age” (CNBC 12 September 2019).
  3. Audre Lorde, “A Burst of Light: Living with Cancer,” A Burst of Light and Other Essays (Firebrand Books, 1988), 130.
 
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