Self-care is more than just face masks and bubble baths. It’s a revolution – or so its devotees will tell you. It’s a lifestyle, a movement, a form of liberation. Activists are quick to point out the practice’s “radical” history, referencing Audre Lorde’s oft-cited dictum: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” One can imagine how self-preservation might amount to a political act in the face of real atrocities–genocide, war, mass killings, and so on. But as with most forms of wokeness, the amount of oppression a person faces tends to be inversely correlated with the amount they complain about their perceived oppression.
You won’t hear about self-care from Syrian refugees or North Korean defectors, but celebrities, artists, and even politicians are eager to share their tips. Meghan Markle and Prince Harry moved to Canada, inspiring legions of young women who had yet to muster the courage to depart from their childhood palaces. Kim Kardashian gets nightly facials, Sam Smith recommends firm brow botanical cream, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez overcame her self-care-induced guilt to spend a week in upstate New York before joining Congress.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with taking a break, but it takes no small amount of narcissism to turn an ordinary vacation into a performance of political resistance. Activists especially have perfected the art of delivering melodramatic explanations of their dire need for self-care. A 2017 Teen Vogue article nicely typifies these tendencies, providing accounts of cathartic Facebook posts, “Happiness Engineers” employed to send out recipe lists, and relaxing yoga classes. Identity-specific pursuits are also recommended. One interviewee who leads a group “feminist first responders” notes that “it’s really stress-relieving to do things that show trans joy.”
More famous changemakers publicize their self-care rituals, too. Ijeoma Oluo, author of Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America, reports “spending a lot of time in trauma” and emphasizes the importance of self-care for “Black women and Black femmes,” who “are conditioned to think that our role is only one of sacrifice in society.” Oluo reportedly received a $70,000 advance on her first book. One can only imagine her suffering. Not to be outdone, David J. Johns, executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition, was featured in an article titled, “The Civil Rights Advocate Who Doesn’t Have the Time or Patience for Self Care Right Now,” explains that he “loathe[s] the term self care,” as it “make[s] those of us who do not have…privilege feel bad for struggling to survive.” He then recounts his daily routine, including a cardio workout, interviews with reporters and Fortune 500 company representatives, and an Instagram Live talk called, “What’s your sexual appetite?” Struggling, indeed.
For woke advocates, self-care is an opportunity to nurse the wounds inflicted by an irreparably unjust world. The perpetually creeping definition of harm has come to encompass any experience that invokes even the slightest discomfort, leading many to believe that everyday life is so traumatic that without the medicinal power of the product du jour, we face immediate psychological collapse. Over the past few years, mainstream media outlets have reported on the utility of self-care in coping with Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing, every instance of racism since 1619, the 2020 election, working as a black journalist, and – ironically – reading the news.
Such articles tend to offer an uninspiring combination of obvious suggestions (“drink enough water”), hyperbolic affirmations, and extensive shopping lists. With the right sales pitch, any product can fall into the category of self-care, particularly when prefaced by a litany of excuses that consumers can use to justify their purchase. Our determination to escape the injurious nature of capitalism doesn’t stop us from supporting a $450 billion industry.
“Self-care isn’t selfish,” they invariably insist, but it certainly is self-centered. Its promoters regularly make the mistake of conflating wellness with comfort in ways that seem unlikely to benefit anyone’s psychological well-being. Instagram provides a steady supply of this. “your mental health > everything else” one post proclaims, while another insists that “if it’s bad for your mental health it’s not worth it.” A third post explains that readers might need to take a mental health day if they feel impatient or have trouble focusing. If everyone followed this advice, we wouldn’t work a day in our lives.
While self-care aficionados are eager to speak up about destigmatizing mental illness and “normalizing” mental health, their advice tends to contradict the basic tenets of psychotherapy. A healthy diet and exercise, limiting social media use, cultivating strong relationships, and keeping irrational thoughts in check–these are the practices most likely to guarantee wellness, but self-care culture encourages just the opposite. It teaches us to honor the “validity” of every emotion, to prioritize ourselves above everything, to revel in affirmations of our spectacular uniqueness and drown our discomfort in pastels and platitudes. We learn that trauma can be sustained from routine interactions, that an insensitive joke or a glance at a newspaper may jeopardize our well-being, and that we are surrounded by systems and structures that exist to destroy us. And most of all, we learn that self-care is of such critical, vital importance that we must continue planning spa days and sticking positive messages to our bathroom mirror because otherwise, the systemic racism, ubiquitous bigotry, and innumerable injustices of the world will surely grind us down.
Thus, as the supply of self-care resources increases, so too does the demand. The more attention we pay to our well-being, the more sensitive we are to potential sources of harm. With each positive affirmation that we post on Tumblr, our risk of physical and mental distress heightens. And the more we convince ourselves that we are perfect just the way we are, the more we resist change.
At its heart, self-care may be challenging, but it’s not complicated. We eat balanced diets, get enough sleep, exercise regularly, avail ourselves of modern medicine, and find meaning and purpose in our lives. There is no shortcut to happiness or guaranteed route to satisfaction. If we logged off of Instagram, canceled our spa days, and turned our focus to kindness and human connection, our communities would be far better off – as would we.