Self Care or Societal Care?

Design by Shannon Boland 

It’s hard to walk through Target without being bombarded with “namaste” t-shirts, Dead Sea salt face masks, and “gratitude” journals. These products that cater to yogis and self-proclaimed hippies promise a happier and more fulfilling life. Self care is conflated with “me time” and is meant to nourish the body and soul through activities like bubble baths and manicures. It is also advertised as a prescription to treat mental health problems. This interest in self care is not new, but since the last presidential election, Americans have Googled the term “self care” twice as often as in previous years.

Self care is a healing method from trauma that is recommended by doctors and the internet alike. For many, the results of the 2016 election brought on anxiety and depression. Many people’s solution was to invest in beauty products and focus on their mind and body.

In fact, the market for natural and organic personal care products reached $5.6 billion in 2016, an increase of 9.2 percent since the previous year. Products in this industry are advertised by a promise that consumers “deserve this” or should “treat themselves.” This exemplifies the fact that companies are convincing survivors of trauma to consume products to deal with their mental health. But self care did not start this way.

Before the 1960s and 70s, self care was a term primarily used for the elderly and mentally ill. Doctors taught them daily habits related to diet and exercise so they could learn to take care of themselves. Shortly after, academics began to search for ways that these principles of self care could help health care professionals like EMTs or therapists who experience intense job-related stress.

During the Civil Rights Movement, self care transformed into political action. African Americans understood that their poor health was a direct result of their poverty, and government programs were not effectively combating these issues. By focusing on self care, they reclaimed bodily autonomy that had been usurped by a racist government. The Black Panthers also encouraged self care as a form of political resistance. They created a “socialist survival program” that recommended local clinics for Black people to learn about health that affected their particular communities.

Similarly, the women’s liberation movement made self care a part of their platform and promoted it as a tool for women to fight a patriarchal government that did not prioritize their bodies. For example, the Roe v. Wade decision affirmed a woman’s right to abortion and inspired local women’s rights activists to open free health clinics related to reproductive and women’s health.

In the late 1980s, self care took on the form most of us know today: consumer trends and products. When the wealthy began to practice “wellness activities” like jazzercise with Richard Simmons and painting with Bob Ross, popular culture latched on and a new market opened. Of course, this reorientation of self care towards exercise and relaxation excludes working class people. Self care is a responsibility of healthy individuals who want to take of themselves, therefore ostracizing people who spend all their time working. In this way, taking care of oneself, even though consumerist, has become a privilege.

Following this consumerist model from the 80s, events like 9/11 and the 2016 election have politicized self care again — calling for individuals to focus on their wellness after triggering events. After 9/11, L’Oreal lipstick sales increased by 5.6 percent and spurred the study of the “lipstick effect” which has found that women buy more beauty products after stressful events. Articles like Bustle’s “19 Items To Buy For Your Mental Health, Because Self-Care Isn’t Always Free,” exemplify how self care is advertised as a treatment which can be bought with a $35 meditation cushion.

So why is it that self care is so easily co-opted by capitalists? First of all, Euro-American culture focuses on the individual. This can be traced back to the enlightenment which posited that individuals can only know truth through their own perceptions. Now, self care is another way to practice “me time,” a common routine of Euro-American culture. In fact, versions of “me time” already existed in these Euro-American cultures through various beautification rituals in spas and nail salons. Prior to the popularization of the phrase “self care” in the 80s, “me time” had already become consumerist. In essence, self care is just another form of this capitalist “me time” which merely rebrands individualistic indulgence through window displays featuring fuzzy blankets and slippers.

Similarly, self care is spoken about as a strictly individual activity. People, usually women, are told to take baths with lavender salts, light an aromatherapy candle, and enjoy this time to themselves. Like many women-oriented activities, self care has become associated with pampering oneself and looking beautiful. Since self care is sold as a sort of personal journey, there is no room to invite others. Compared to the community health clinics created by the women’s liberation movement, community welfare has now been pushed aside to promote self care. Ultimately, this reinforces the liberal notion of independence from others and paves the way for self care to be co-opted by capitalists.

There are several problems with viewing self care in this way. By suggesting that mental health problems can be solved solely by relaxing ignores other ways to handle these issues. For example, cognitive behavioral therapy can provide long-term relief for anxiety disorders. Self care can treat symptoms of anxiety, but will not help a survivor of trauma overcome the larger condition. Furthermore, anxiety is not the only mental health issue and modern self care cannot account for issues like eating disorders or obsessive compulsive disorder.

More broadly, participating in relaxing and fun self care activities is not actually taking care of yourself. These activities often mask a deeper issue or distract some people from truly dealing with their trauma. Self care is seen as a way to cope with one’s own feelings rather than a way to deal with the world around them. Articles like Huffington Posts’ “How 7 Super Successful Women Leaders Find the Time to Take Care of Their Health,” tell readers to sleep more and work out in order to overcome stress but do not address the fundamental reasons as to why workers aren’t getting enough sleep in the first place. Heightened economic pressure and the weakening of union jobs leads many individuals to becoming overworked and physically ill.

The real issue is not that individuals don’t take care of themselves, but that society does not take care of individuals. The heightened interest in self care is simply a result of this fact.

Even after acknowledging larger structural issues, there is still room for self care, but it must become less consumerist to have better results. There ought be an understanding that self care can be practiced as a community. Thinking outside of the liberal model, people can come together and support one another in healing.

The modern concept of self care encourages people not to burden one another, individualizing the process. By destigmatizing this idea of “burdening,” communities can confront the ableist rhetoric that makes it impossible for people with differently-abled bodies and brains to participate. Self care can still be an individual activity, but only if it includes larger lifestyle changes like diet and exercise rather than band aid solutions like fuzzy socks and face masks.

The best solution is to focus on fighting societal issues like toxic work culture or patriarchal structures that make women want to be more beautiful no matter the cost. One professor believes that “resistance is our healing.” Activism and social justice not only combat these fundamental problems, but allows individuals to take direct control of their lives and trauma. Community work like the West Virginia teacher’s strike and community action plans against ICE raids have become necessary to heal communities and individuals. Soaking in a bath full of flower petals can only be so empowering, but acts of defiance can heal entire societies.

There are limits to all versions of self care. Most working people cannot afford to take time off of work to protest, let alone quit a job that is mentally taxing but pays the bills. Furthermore, being reminded to take one’s meds is only useful to people who can afford health care to begin with. In these instances, it is still important to redefine self care and utilize community rather than to purchase yoga mats and candles from Target.

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