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Rethinking Self Care

Opinion | April 30, 2018

“In the event of a decompression, an oxygen mask will automatically appear in front of you. Secure your own mask first before helping others.” This standard in-flight safety spiel has become a maxim for the self-care movement, filled with a variety of “self-care 101” guides, interactive checklists, and cosmetics advertisements disguised as articles for essential self-care products. The term rose in popularity in the past two years, particularly the week after the 2016 election when Americans Googled the term almost twice as often as they ever had. In 2018, self-care has become the latest wellness trend, with 72 percent of millennial women reporting it as a New Year’s resolution. As a result, it’s become associated with luxurious lifestyle brands—the marketing analytics firm IRI declared self-care a “$400 billion industry” in 2017. But before self-care became co-opted by mainstream affluent culture, it was a regular practice for those with chronic illnesses, those who lack access to regular health care, and for those whose bodies were marginalized by the medical community, including—but not limited to—queer people, people of color, and undocumented individuals. It wasn’t a collection of Instagram-worthy bath salts, but a mental reminder to take your daily medication, that you deserve to take care of your fundamental health. Subsequently, self-care has been repurposed as a privileged indulgent trend, and the importance of true self-care in marginalized groups has been silenced.

At the fundamental level, self-care is about taking care of one’s basic health. Those with chronic illnesses and long-term conditions, such as diabetes, arthritis, chronic pain, and depression, need to practice self-care in order to manage their illnesses on a daily basis. This includes practices such as exercising regularly, taking medication, sleeping consistently, maintaining strong social bonds, and practicing positive thinking. While self-care is emphasized in those who may require extensive skills and resources to maintain their regular health, all individuals can and should practice self-care. Dr. Mascher, psychology professor and practicing psychologist, describes self-care as “a re-prioritization of wellbeing and can be any healthy, positive change that benefits mind, body, and spirit.” Mental health professionals use the term self-care as an important method for managing psychological health. The National Alliance on Mental Illness and Mental Health America both provide resources, translating this profound idea into concrete advice in practicing good hygiene, communicating with friends, meditating mindfully, and eating nutritious foods.

Tufts campus groups including Active Minds and Ears for Peers also advocate for self-care, especially during finals week when stress levels are high. These resources become increasingly important as health care coverage becomes uncertain for individuals. “Fueled by rising health care costs and economic uncertainty, Americans are taking health and wellness into their own hands,” Robert J. Sanders, executive vice president and Health Care Practice leader for IRI said. This pushes people’s first point of medical advice away from hard-to-reach medical professionals and toward the more accessible source of the Internet, which can either provide well-informed reliable resources or social media ads that commercialize health.

On the political front, self-care became an emblem for health inequality. It was about marginalized individuals taking charge of their own health when society was telling them their health didn’t matter as much, or that their bodies were inherently diseased. Audre Lorde, a black feminist poet who was a prominent activist in the civil rights movement, famously states in A Burst of Light, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” Similarly, Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, an assistant professor at the New School explains that self-care was “a claiming [of] autonomy over the body as a political act against institutional, technocratic, very racist, and sexist medicine.” During the 1970s and 80s, overlooked patient populations decided to take it upon themselves to take care of themselves. “’Self care’ is a phrase that grew out of a recognition that many folks have neglected wellbeing, have been neglected by systems / others, and have internalized a neglect of themselves,” Mascher says. In particular, such internalization has led to the belief that these communities do not deserve quality care from other or themselves. After the Trump election and the subsequent events that have followed since, more traditionally privileged communities have begun to feel threatened in a way similar to how these marginalized communities have felt for decades. Along with this rise in awareness of self-care came a wave of backlash. In an interview with the Chicago Reader, Jamie Kalven, writer and human rights activist, claimed “that people will…become demoralized and retreat into denial, that they will seek refuge amid the pleasures and fulfillment of private life.” The worry falls particularly on those who are privileged enough to have the ability to sector off themselves into a self-care bubble and neglect their civic responsibilities for activism. And this introduces the question of self-indulgence and self-care. When does self-care become selfish and when is it justified? Is it selfish to spend your money on a nourishing meal when you could use it to donate to the ACLU and just have ramen for dinner? Mascher says that “[s]elf care is not optional and is never selfish; rather, it is a courageous and revolutionary act of love and compassion,” and pop culture seems to agree.

The popularization of self-care in the mainstream has escalated from Solange Knowles’ song “(Borderline) An Ode to Self Care” to Tina Fey’s joking concept of sheet-caking, and industries took notice. Instagram became a perfect vehicle for #selfcare posts featuring green smoothies, healing crystals, and expensive skincare. Lifestyle blogs, like Goop, created a wellness detox guide that helps you “load up on self-care sessions” with over 50 products, ranging from an $8 floss to a $4,000 sauna. While not all media outlets are as expensive as Goop, headlines touting the “essential items under $10 you need for self-care” are littered across the Internet. Here is where the line between self-care and self-centered becomes blurred, especially when most products are focused on external aesthetics. The majority of these products and articles are also blatantly marketed toward women with hefty disposable incomes, featuring gendered stereotypes of indulgence like pink cupcakes and French manicures. This alienates other groups, who may believe that perhaps self-care is not for them, when in fact it is necessary for all individuals. For instance, Eliza Belle, a psychologist who focuses on men’s health, told MEL Magazine that men “often end up opting for unhealthy stress relievers like watching ESPN all day because of the guilt associated with self-care for men.” Chronically ill populations that need extensive medical self-care have no use for these products, and those who lack quality health care see self-care as deserving basic medical treatment. As a result, these products seem like a privileged luxury in comparison, so how can we think they’re not selfish but self-care? Mascher assures us, however, that “we need to be gentle with ourselves as learners; this means not being overly concerned about doing self-care a ‘right’ way.”

The bombardment of self-care on social media, the expensive avenues to reach self-actualization, and the gendered wellness trend featured in every women’s magazine have made us forget that self-care is a necessary activity to practice for all individuals, even if they don’t do it the way it’s been advertised. A term that helped to show that these individuals lacked the same ease of staying healthy has been co-opted by the privileged to better themselves and leave marginalized groups in the dust. In the face of all these complexities, Mascher leaves us this advice: “When we are making daily decisions about self-care (e.g., staying in at night rather than socializing; consuming a particular product), it is to ask, ‘Am I avoiding something out of fear and anxiety—am I making myself smaller in some way? Or is this choice a demonstration of love?’”