Opinion: Beneath the Face Mask, Self-Care has Public, Political Power

Graphic by Natalie Bauer

A bubble bath, a vanilla-lavender candle, and a face mask. Or perhaps a yoga class followed by a trip to the nearest Starbucks (what is pumpkin-spice but the purest form of nourishment to the soul?) Ah, yes. Self-care.

Notably, self-care dates back to roots more deeply connected to the worlds of healthcare and activism than the corporate world of bath bombs and other consumeristic products.

In the first half of the 20th century, “self-care” was a doctor’s prescription for practicing healthy habits. As the century progressed, the term evolved beyond the patient-specific framework as academics pushed the importance of self-care for workers in high-trauma fields.

By 1988, self-care became a powerful political tool. In her book “A Burst of Light,” feminist author Audre Lorde writes, “caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation and that is an act of political warfare.”

Now in 2018, self-care emerges from its complex history and enters somewhat of an identity crisis. Two variant forms of self-care seem to exist today: one employed by community activists as an offset to emotional burnout and one marketed by corporations as purchasable personal wellness.

The former focuses on personal healing as a vehicle for deconstructing oppression, a personal means to a public end. The latter commodifies personal health for corporate gain, a concept in which both consumer and seller are indifferent to public benefit.

I don’t intend to invalidate forms of self-care involving money; if yoga, face masks, and lattes make you feel good and benefit your mental health, I’m all for it.

Solely promoting expensive forms of self-care, though, can be damaging to those who are financially unable to participate in these activities, as many folks may feel like self-care is not for them.

When “self-care” and “treating yourself” become synonymous with rich, able-bodied, white women spending money, we make it even more difficult for many people to find space to prioritize their wellness.

Furthermore, tying self-care to capitalism overemphasizes the personal benefits of self-care. Individual wellness is indeed important for oneself, but healing oneself and healing one’s community are not mutually exclusive. In fact, practicing self-care can allow one to care for one’s community more productively.

Many people face struggles they cannot solve alone; making self-care solely about oneself propagates the oppressive structures causing these complex struggles, forcing people to bear the burden of fixing structural societal issues as though they are personal issues.

Marisa Meltzer of The New York Times quotes Yashna Padamsee of the National Domestic Workers Alliance: “There is a distinction between self-care and treating yourself. … What is the purpose of your self-care? Is it to do this for all of our lives, not just yours?”

This doesn’t mean that financial stability and distance from oppression should restrict someone from participating in self-care. As feminist writer Sara Ahmed points out, “privilege does not mean we are invulnerable: things happen, shit happens. Privilege can however reduce the costs of vulnerability, so if things break down, if you break down, you are more likely to be looked after.”

But if you live in a society built upon upholding your very existence, you don’t have to fight for self-preservation: society has already endorsed your preservation.

For people whose lives are threatened daily, self-care is a radical form of resistance: radical self-care is a reclaiming of one’s own life, a way to take the power away from those threatening another’s wellness and to regain control of one’s wellness. This is the self-care Lorde, the feminist writer, spoke of 30 years ago.

Since Nov. 8, 2016, the individual-centric form of self-care has permeated every social media platform. Within the weeks following the 2016 presidential election, articles urged dismayed progressives to turn off the news, take time from social media, and even hit the bars with their girlfriends.

The day after the election, Refinery29 published the top post-election stress-relief products, each accompanied by a three-sentence pitch and hyperlink for easy purchasing.

While such suggestions undoubtedly benefited many readers, an underlying theme arose: post-election “self-care” disproportionately centered around oneself and the measures one could take to individually recover from the election. Self-care became the end instead of the means.

Just over 8 million posts on Instagram include “#selfcare” in their captions. After scrolling through photos with the self-care hashtag for a few minutes, some repetition occurs; candles, yoga poses, skincare products, and white women are aplenty.

Everyone needs their own methods of personal recuperation from life’s stressors. In this way, self-care is absolutely a personal practice. But self-care as a whole needs to become more inclusive.

If we divorce self-care as a concept from the self-care industry, people who believed they could not participate in self-care (based on the way it has been marketed) can begin to participate.

The same goes for realizing self-care’s public potential. By considering how taking care of ourselves can energize us to take care of our community, we can begin to dismantle oppression that may be restricting others from participating in self-care.

I urge you to take that bubble bath and light your flower-scented candle if that’s your chosen method of self-care. But, when the bathtub is drained and the candle has been burned, consider designating a portion of your regained energy toward making space for more people to practice self-care.

Lily Borak PZ ’21 is a neuroscience major from Newton, MA. She loves telling everyone Boston sports teams are the best despite never really watching Boston sports.

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