Reflections and Responses–Self-Care

The buzzword in both academic and professional life is self-care. Never before has the term been popularized, used and overused as it is done today through social media and even through academia. It has created a climate where paying attention to ourselves, our mental and emotional state is considered to be the first step in being able to serve others and create a better world. As a natural fall-out, self-care has become a business.

Self-care did not originate as a mass movement–one to which everyone subscribed. It began as a medical concept that was directed primarily at the elderly and those suffering from mental illnesses. Medical advice usually encouraged people to exercise, maintain a healthy diet, and practice self-treatment. Academics who adopted this term were particularly concerned for individuals who worked in stressful professions like doctors, nurses, trauma therapists, and social workers. It was not until much later in the 60s and 70s with the growth of women’s and civil rights movements that self-care became a political act. The concept of self-care came to be understood as one of resistance where women, and especially women of color, spoke about the lack of justice in having control over one’s body and life. Around the same time emerged the movement to understand self-care as part of holistic wellness, something western medicine did not consider. The wellness movement shifted the goals of self-care from political to a more business-oriented one because there were now holistic health service providers. The political dimension of self-care–focused on survival in hostile environments–waned and then regained ground as violence, hate, and discrimination increased in the world. Aisha Harris traces the origins of self-care and where it is today in her article in Slate

As we detail below, there are so many different ways to understand self-care. Here are a few definitions that we thought captured the essence of what should be self-care and why it is so important.  

  • Self-care is about being kind to yourself as you would be to others
  • Self-care is important in order to maintain a healthy relationship with yourself
  • Self-care is a very active and powerful choice to engage in the activities that are required to gain or maintain an optimal level of overall health. And in this case, overall health includes not just the physical, but the psychological, emotional, social, and spiritual components of an individual’s well-being (Source: Money Crashers)

Here are some of the benefits you might get from self-care:

  • Greater productivity and motivation
  • Enhanced self-esteem
  • Better health
  • Positivity
  • Higher engagement levels
  • More ability to handle stress

If interested, you might review this or this article.

Irrespective of the origins and the merits of self-care, the idea of self-care as wellness, something that everyone should desire and something that everyone absolutely needs for mental and emotional health has gained ground through social media and through businesses that provide different services on “how-to-self-care.” Some of the more popular practices are those of yoga, mindfulness, meditation, exercise (mostly individualistic), having more of a work-life balance, and more sleep. 

Self-care has turned into an industry of self-improvement, says Charlotte Lieberman. This industry, she says, is closely tied to technology leading to a shift from the focus on self to a focus on data about self. As a result, the obsession about self-care or self-improvement can demand as much time as one’s career. Seeking self-care is now a job–one that competes with the original job people are trying to escape from. Further, technology facilitates the need to publicly document the results of these self-care practices, leading to negative self-worth and self-image, which defeats the very purpose of starting these practices. This trend of documenting self-care on social media, argue some, leads to a sense of deprivation in those who are unable to engage in similar practices–for example, taking a vacation or buying expensive products for improved wellness. Larocca, makes this point effectively in her article, The Wellness Epidemic, saying that the kind of self-care/ wellness practices available only to the rich are grotesque given the fact that basic health care is being denied to so many in the United States. 

To further the business angle, one must look at how many businesses invest in providing wellness and self-care practices for their employees. Yoga, meditation, and mindfulness classes before and after work, gym memberships and special classes for balancing work and life. It is clear that the belief is that investing in employee wellness will bring back returns. See this, and this, and this.

However, many authors have commented that even though self-care sounds self-indulgent, it is absolutely required for physical, mental, and emotional health. Read this and this.

Emily Abbate disagrees with the approach that makes self-care an expensive venture to engage in. While arguing for the need for self-care, she asks that people pay attention to why they want to engage in self-care and what they hope to achieve. Knowing one’s needs and goals is a sure way to ensure that self-care culture does not go too far. Jessie Blasser goes further to say self-care has become a way to demonstrate privilege and is not about staying healthy. 

In spite of everything said above, one cannot and should not undermine the importance of self-care in a political sense. Audre Lorde embodied this in her statement “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” Women, people of color, the queer community, and other marginalized groups and peoples have all used self-care to claim control over their own bodies and exercise their right to exist in the world. In the vein of Audre Lorde’s argument for self-preservation and that it is always a political act, these communities take the time to care for themselves in order for them to gain the strength and be energized to re-engage. Their self-care is not one of retreat from the realities or withdrawing from what causes pain, but of taking time to gather oneself to remain committed to the cause. Those who criticize self-care are often the ones who only resort to criticism for marginalized communities who take the time for themselves to just survive, says Laurie Penny. She further argues that self-care must be about community engagement, about showing love for others (speaking up for others, standing up for them) and about tackling the problem of structural violence, not the problems within ourselves. Here is an another author, Jordan Kisner, who agrees with Penny and cautions against self-care becoming a part of American individualism culture. 

To conclude, the concept of self-care has evolved over a period of time. Some of its more recent iterations have taken us in directions that end up adding more stress than relieving them. However, its importance, especially to marginalized communities, cannot be denied. 

We would love to hear your thoughts on self-care. Please participate in this poll and we will have the results for you in the next issue.