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How ‘Self-Care’ Became Meaningless

The term currently covers everything from retail therapy to jerking off — how did such a straightforward idea get so confused and abused?

Amid the emotionally exhausting psychodrama that has been playing out in my home every day for the past three months — many may call it homeschooling; I like to think of it as hostage negotiation with markers — something jumped out at me last week. One of the assignments given to my son via his school’s remote-learning platform was to take some time out to practice self-care. This was a vital lesson, his teachers advised, on a par with Pythagoras theorem and correct use of the semicolon — and especially so at a time when the the world outside, full of COVID-19 and racial injustice and little else, might “leave you feeling hopeless, angry and overwhelmed.”

Now, don’t get me wrong — I believe this to be a worthwhile and timely inclusion in my kids’ curriculum, and kudos to his school for putting it on the timetable. But in practice it did expose a vast gulf between the teachers’ idea of what constitutes “self-care” and your average 11-year-old boy’s working definition of the concept (which, in his case, amounts to climbing into a sleeping bag, playing Zelda: Breath of the Wild for nine hours straight, then going to bed burping pizza, concussed by screen time and without brushing his teeth). It also brought home to me just how fully saturated culture has become with the notion that self-care is the answer to everything assailing our collective stability and mental wellbeing at the moment — even though culture can’t seem to make up its mind as to what self-care actually is.

One thing that can definitely be said about it is that, in its common usage, it’s evolved to be the laziest, haziest buzz-term ever, sprayed around mental-health discourse like luxury fragrance in a barnyard. No two cosmetics micro-influencers on Instagram can agree on what self-care means, for starters — and searching my recent inbox for the phrase I find that it turns up, on average, in at least two marketing mailshots a week: A mental-health-focused magazine I’ve written for in the past, for instance, is offering readers the chance to win a “self-care bundle worth up to £100”; another website is promoting its not-all-that-Swedish “guide to help you bring the best of Swedish self-care to the comfort of your own home”; yet another is presenting some affiliate deal on a “super duper self-care treat that will spoil your hair” along with something called a “Self-Care Hourglass,” which, as a reminder of your own mortality, is bound to enhance anyone’s “me time” with a sense of urgency and existential panic.

As we’re all too aware by now, the term is ubiquitous in the wellness industry as kind-hearted cover to hawk expensive lifestyle products. Here’s the queen of all that, Gwyneth Paltrow, recently explaining what self-care in lockdown means to her, to British Vogue: “Making time for self-care can feel gratuitous. It’s not. I try to carve out 20 minutes at the end of each day to draw a bath, put on a mask (I love our GOOPGLOW peel pads) and read, listen to a podcast or just text about Tiger King. Often with a heavy pour of Japanese whiskey.”   

Which, in one carefully manicured, audience-conscious quote, contains just about all the conflicting messages the trend is putting out there currently. Is it mental respite? Is it personal hygiene? Is it selling organic face-smear to the wellness elite? Is it cultural enrichment? Is it chasing validation on social media? Or is it plain ol’ getting shitfaced in the tub? 

If anything at all that you do on your own to make yourself feel good now counts as fist-in-the-air self-care, then surely nothing does.

In an effort to reset some boundaries, I asked Alice Boyes, author of The Anxiety Toolkit and The Healthy Mind Toolkit, for some baseline clarity on what we might legitimately rate as self-care. “Typically, self-care behavior is restorative and it increases your resilience. If it checks those boxes, then it’s self-care,” she says, sensibly, adding, “Behaviors that fit under the widely understood notion of caring for yourself fit, too — like going to the dentist is clearly self-care.” If you’re confused, she advises, “You can ask yourself the basic question: ‘Does this feel caring?’”

Which seems eminently clear-cut. So how did the term descend from a meaningful description of DIY therapy to a flabby free pass for self-indulgence? Boyes traces the slide back three or four years, when “self-care” began trending hard as a search term on Google, an uptick that coincided with a steady increase in people typing the word “anxiety” into search engines too. She points out that “increased searches for ‘anxiety’ started a few years before increased searches for ‘self-care.’ Both have exploded, though.”

Whatever might be driving these trends — horrorshow politics, economic hardship, always-on working hours, escalating social injustice, the constant face-slapping of social media, and, let’s face it, it’s all of these things — is it a little odd that turning inward should be everyone’s go-to response to collective anxiety? 

“Culturally in the U.S., we tend to look for individual solutions to problems rather than more systemic solutions,” Boyes suggests. “So, we’re inclined to look to individual self-care as a solution for problems stemming from income inequality etc.” She thinks the useful, constructive part of the concept was crowded out as mainstream interest grew because journalists, influencers, marketeers and others were fundamentally misreading what self-care was. “People like to be told ‘I deserve it,’” she says, “so I think it started innocently as this. Writers tried to convey to people: ‘You deserve time to yourself to go to yoga or take a bubble bath.’” For Boyes, another self-defeating aspect of the term’s runaway over-use “is that self-care has turned into pressure for a lot of folks, and yet another thing on their to-do list, that they feel guilty for not getting to.”

How Too Much Self-Care Made Itself Go Blind

As the logical conclusion for a trend so fixated on the individual, in the past few months mainstream media have finally come out with it, and declared masturbation to be the ultimate expression of self-care. Self-love has been earnestly recommended as part of a “self-care routine” even in Oprah’s wholesome O magazine (key shock finding: “Lots of women report really enjoying masturbating before bedtime”), and in a survey conducted in April by Glamour in the U.K., out of 92 percent of female respondents who said they regularly masturbate, 79 percent “see it as self-care.” And so the self-care revolution hits peak “you do you.”

Now, perhaps reclassifying solo sex as self-care isn’t exactly wrong. And perhaps the survey figures aren’t exactly surprising either — because, if someone was interrupting your private time to ask if what you were doing could be classed as self-care, why wouldn’t you just say, “Okay, whatever, sure.” But all of this does indicate that a once-potent concept in mental health and self-affirmation has suffered an absurd, almost comical dilution in recent times. And as a telling metaphor for where the original, stridently political idea of self-care has ended up, masturbation can’t be beat. As it were.

A good couple of generations ago the drive for “self-care” was much more of a rallying cry than a rummaging excuse — a social intervention that sprang from both the Civil Rights and feminist movements. The phrase’s former life, as a manifesto of resilience against oppressive forces, is most often attributed to the New York poet and activist Audre Lorde, who wrote in 1988 that “caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” 

It’s perhaps her construal of the self-care ethos — as a means of seizing control of your own body and mental life in a menacing world — that gave it its activist edge in today’s politics of gender, sexuality and race. But in the U.S., its radical roots also stretch back further, specifically to the community health-care centers of the Black Panther Party in the late 1960s and 1970s, which drew direct links between poor health, poverty and racial oppression and ran proactive self-care “survival programs” for African Americans being let down by a racist medical establishment. 

Prior to that, what was generally understood as self-care had an even narrower application. In the 1960s, regimented physical and psychological self-care routines were being recommended for those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder — often professionals whose jobs brought them into contact with people who were suffering: Paramedics, firefighters and social workers. 

Locating a common theme in all of these more other-directed, socially conscious manifestations, the Canadian TV host and director Nicole Stamp has written that before it was hijacked by the wellness industry, in the 1980s self-care was all about reducing the inequalities and distance between people. But in today’s consumer-led version, she writes, “retreating into isolating, pampered forms of self-care can increase this distance. This means that the best self-care might not really be focused on the ‘self’ at all, and it’s probably a far cry from finding the newest skin-care product.”

Or, as the Australian journalist Brigid Delaney recently put it at the turn of the decade: “If a phrase summed up the complicated flawed zeitgeist of the 2010s, it was self-care. The concept that originated in Black activist circles in the 1980s was later put through the grinder of late-stage capitalism and appropriated by white, corporate feminism and the industrial wellness complex.”

The fact is that the politicized version of self-care is fundamentally at odds with commercialized self-care — anyone skeptical about that need only familiarize themselves with the controversy that puffed up in foodie circles over “rage-baking” in February of this year. Back in 2015 a Black performance artist, Tangerine Jones, gained a following for her use of baking as “a political and artistic act” of self-care in response to racial injustice. When the trend caught on and a corporate publisher wanted in on it, the commission to author a recipe collection titled Rage Baking went to two white journalists, while Jones was neither approached nor credited in a book celebrating the movement she’s widely acknowledged as having started. 

In a post on Medium, she wrote, “It’s been really hard to see Rage Baking whitewashed with a tinge of diversity, co-opted, monetized and my impact erased and minimized under the veneer of feminism and uplifting women’s voices.” 

What Useful, Practical Self-Care Looks Like

“People think self-care means buying a $2,000 handbag because you had a bad day. That’s not self-care,” says Maria Baratta, a clinical social worker with a private practice in New York. “I mean, it can be, but it’s a real stretch of my definition of self-care.”

As current Chair of the Private Practice section of the National Association of Social Workers, Baratta flinches at the way the market has monetized people’s need for downtime and breathing space. “Under the guise of self-care there are products,” she laments, but “that’s not the point. You don’t need products to take care of yourself. Self-care isn’t a product. Self-care is an action.”

In her world of training social workers to be clinical practitioners, self-care has been an important policy “for the last 10 to 15 years,” recognized as a vital component for those who provide a broad range of therapeutic and practical support services in communities. In Baratta’s experience in guiding professionals in New York and across the East Coast, “the social-work higher-education schools make sure they build in the aspect of self-care in education.” She explains that “the helping professions will talk about ‘putting the oxygen on you first,’” referring to the masks familiar from airline safety procedures, because “if you’re not in good shape mentally, how are you going to help others?”

While Baratta admits that “it’s a runaway phenomenon now, because everything is under the umbrella of self-care,” she believes “clinicians do know the difference.” In her view, when your idea of self-care is a focus on what you want, as opposed to what you need, “that’s when you start going off-road.” 

In her practice, self-care is a constant refrain in advice to clients. “Many times I’ll work with people who are really good at taking care of their bodies,” she says. “They’ll go to the gym, they’ll work, they’ll eat healthily. But then in terms of taking care of their stress levels, they don’t even know how to do it.” Baratta, who has written a book on eating disorders, Skinny Revisited, insists this is rarely a matter of neglect; it’s more that “the notion never dawned on them that you actually need to manage yourself in more ways than one.”

According to Boyes, the key to administering appropriate self-care is knowing when you need it. “You need to notice in your body if your body is racing with anxiety, and use some strategies to physiologically calm down. Slow breathing is good for this. So is physical contact with others so you stimulate oxytocin (which right now is the people in your household).” In her own life, Boyes allows herself more leeway around “certain activities and situations that spike my anxiety — I give myself extra self-care when those are occurring. For instance, if I’m working with someone new it usually makes me quite anxious compared to if I’m working with familiar people.”

Work, says Baratta, is the area where many people become blind to their need for a mental and physical recess. “Sometimes people get in the habit of working, working, working. There’s that aim of success, the need to finish things.” In any kind of profession, though, she points out, “you never finish. You might have a moment where you dotted all the I’s, but within a short amount of time more things will pop up. The point of self-care is to take a break and to manage your time.” 

Ignoring this need risks burnout, even if your job is something you love doing. “It’s like eating the same thing that’s amazing all the time,” she says. “It becomes gross, and you get tired of it. It’s a matter of balance.”

This applies to self-care activities too, when they become overly regimented or a source of imbalance in their own right. “Stop putting pressure on yourself to stick to anything demanding consistently. It’s okay to pick up and drop self-care habits,” advises Boyes, outlining a strategy that might be particularly suited to those who are spending more time at home as a result of the pandemic. “I think 30-day projects trying out particular forms of self-care can work well,” she suggests. “For example, trying restorative yoga or meditation or healthy home cooking for 30 days. If you try a behavior every day for a reasonable period, you then have it in your repertoire and can go back to it when you need it.”

Finding Your Good Place

Balance, perhaps, is the thing that’s most gone AWOL from the popular definitions of self-care flooding Instagram and inboxes. Thanks to incessant marketing, we’ve become susceptible to the idea that only a total escape, or full sensory oblivion, is the effective answer to overwhelming anxiety in our personal lives, injustice in the streets or the stress of a zero-sum political climate.

None of this is to denigrate the genuinely constructive things that have risen on pop-culture’s self-care tide. An obvious example is the Netflix show Queer Eye, which remains an air-bubble of positivity in a Seventh Circle of spiralling woes, and a compelling demonstration of how hammering home self-care mantras and habits can lead to dramatically improved personal outcomes. But it should concern us perhaps that in 2020 we live in a world where you can play a Queer Eye drinking game in which you take a shot each time “self-care” gets a nod on the show, wake up on the sofa several hours later stinking of tequila and then in all seriousness call that your version of self-care.

Here’s Michel de Montaigne, 16th century French aristocrat, celebrated thinker and world’s first blogger, Renaissance-ly musing on the isolating dangers of too much self-care, back in 1580:

“Recently I retired to my estates, determined to devote myself as far as I could to spending what little life I have left quietly and privately; it seemed to me then that the greatest favour I could do for my mind was to leave it in total idleness, caring for itself, concerned only with itself, calmly thinking of itself…

“But I find that on the contrary it bolted off like a runaway horse, taking far more trouble over itself than it ever did over anyone else; it gives birth to so many chimeras and fantastic monstrosities, one after another, without order or fitness, that, so as to contemplate at my ease their oddness and their strangeness, I began to keep a record of them, hoping in time to make my mind ashamed of itself.”

Reaching back even further, Aristotle was arguably first to draw the line between the benefits of a healthy preen and the error of over-indulgence. In his 350 BC Nicomachean Ethics, he expounded his always-useful theory of the “golden mean” — finding the Goldilocks zone between two damaging extremes in any area of human behavior. When it comes to care of the self, he says, the best course to chart is the middle road between “self-indulgence” and abstinence. “With regard to the pleasures peculiar to individuals, many people go wrong and in many ways,” he writes. “The temperate man holds a mean [i.e., middle] position in respect of pleasures. He will be eager in a moderate and right spirit for all such things as are pleasant and at the same time conducive to health or to a sound bodily condition.”

He’s saying eat healthily, attend to your grooming and all the rest — but when it comes to more hedonistic or indulgent pursuits, he’s no prude, advising that it’s good for the soul to seek out “all other pleasures, so long as they are not prejudicial to [health] or inconsistent with noble conduct or extravagant beyond his means.”

So there you go: Aristotle, serving you ancient Athenian self-care realness. Interestingly, he adds a classical put down for people who misinterpret the boundaries of positive, productive pleasure-seeking. “We apply the term ‘self-indulgent,’” he says, “to the faults of children as well as to those of grown-up people, as there is a certain similarity between them.” But here, Aristotle’s wisdom might be missing the mark a little. In the homeschool self-care class with my son last week, I had a crack at drawing on the golden mean idea to get across why self-care habits are important and how you might recognize them when you see them. It went over pretty well, and I was pleased that my 11-year-old seemed to be getting the message via a lengthy monologue on Aristotelian virtue ethics. How very Chidi Anagonye of me.

Sometime later, though, I asked his little brother — who is eight, and has had far less exposure to internet memes and, to my knowledge, zero prior discussion on this particular topic — “What do you think people meant by ‘self-care’?” His reply was a revelation as to just how convoluted and contorted our grasp of simple concepts can become, and if I’d only asked him earlier, it could have saved me hours of research. His answer was: “It’s not just like brushing your teeth, but doing things that make you happy and other people happy. And that help your body.” Which, on behalf of all grown-up civilization everywhere, frankly makes me embarrassed that we’ve so lost sight of this concept that we have to turn to psychologists and philosophers to tell us much the same thing.

One more piece of practical advice Boyes gave me is that “for parents, it’s really important to find self-care activities that include your kids. It doesn’t work if your only self-care activities are ones you need alone time for. Things like coloring with your kid or spending time in nature can be self-care.” 

If only to keep the world in better perspective, I’ll be doing much more of that from now on.