Last week I made what might look like a reverse-resolution: to aim to go to the gym just twice a week instead of three times a week. I’m not a compulsive calorie-burner; in fact, my relationship with exercise is quite healthy and positive. I enjoy working out because it feels good and helps disperse mental stress and physical tension. I just don’t have time for all the self-care routines I’ve taken on to balance my life and keep myself happy, healthy and whole. At this point I’m managing stress that’s partly caused by the stress of stress-management routines.

The notion of self-care – that it is not just OK, but radical to take time to look after your own physical, mental and emotional needs in a world that is not always built for human well-being – originates in activist and mental health communities. The message was originally espoused by and directed at individuals most at risk of burn-out: people who daily navigate and resist heteropatriarchal, white supremacist , capitalist social structures designed to oppress, marginalize and stigmatize them. In the hands of white feminist social media personalities, self-care has morphed into a trendy aesthetic: a variety of the performative vulnerability that is so often rewarded on Instagram. Crying selfies, face masks, hydration, and unapologetically cancelling plans in favour of staying in bed are all #selfcare.

I don’t want to suggest that white privilege precludes the need for self-care or that selfies, face masks and napping are not legitimate tools of self-care. At its heart, self-care is about making a more loving world by starting with self-love and that is a worthy message for everyone. But as is its nature, social media has both contributed to the propagation of a positive idea and blunted its critical edge. Self-care contains an implied critique of the capitalist imperative of productivity, but it has been easily subverted to sell Band-Aid solutions for the symptoms of burn-out without addressing their root causes. It is a way to market everything from $5 face masks at the drugstore to expensive yoga retreats in Costa Rica.  Self-care is no longer about surviving and thriving despite capitalism, it is about maximizing one’s use of capitalism by maintaining productive functionality. And that is problematic for so many reasons.

Like a lot of millennials, I’m an overworked non-profit employee doing creative work on the side, but I’m also healthy, childless, dog-less and have a 15 minute commute to work. I have no reason to be as tired as I am, but maintaining an exercise routine to keep myself energized and relaxed, meal planning and packing lunch every night to stay healthy and on budget, tidying clutter to keep a pleasant space to come home to, pursuing hobbies for the satisfaction of making something, keeping a journal for mental clarity, etc., etc. is too much to fit in alongside a full-time job and basic domestic chores, let alone real leisure. When I inevitably fail to keep up with my checklist of self-care because I’ve been actually resting I get… stressed out! I’m driven by the feeling that if I don’t keep up on all these good habits, things will be much worse down the road. I’ll turn into one big knotted muscle or something. Worst of all, my time and energy for more fulfilling creative work dwindles as it is repeatedly postponed to the end of the night, and then the next day and the next.

Consumerist self-care is marketed at women (it meshes well with existing gendered complexes that marketing capitalizes on, such as body image) and women have been at the forefront of espousing self-care in all its varieties. There’s good reason for this. Women have historically been care givers, and that legacy continues to inform the expectations placed on women by themselves and others. Self-care can be an antidote to the toll of all that other-care. Real self-care as it was originally conceived is not pretty or cute. It can look like taking medication, or setting boundaries in relationships, or making genuinely difficult and rewarding life changes. But it is always work and the mainstreaming of #selfcare obscures the work and the mess and conflict that come when people who are routinely and systematically expected to care for or accommodate others center their own needs in a meaningful way.

As self-care eats into my leisure hours, becoming a source of pressure itself, I wonder if #selfcare is just another way that women are pressured to have it all, and be it all. As delayed (or foregone) parenthood, house ownership and career stability are increasingly accepted parts of millennial adulthood, perhaps the balanced lifestyle promised by self-care is just a new form of unrealistic feminine perfection that conveniently keeps us busy and keeps us buying.

In comparison “Treat yo’self”, a motto popularized by characters on Parks and Recreation, so transparently invites indulgence and consumption that it resists the same insidious subversion of message.  If not taken in moderation, “Treat yo’self” may lead to debt before balance but at least it promotes a self-love based on giving yourself permission to enjoy life, rather on grimly doing things for your own good.


IMG_20180718_115103_621Elisabeth Hill is an Edmonton-based writer and researcher who currently works as a Programming and Engagement Coordinator at the Art Gallery of Alberta.

“Self-care” has become a popular term in the last few years, and with good reason. The Audre Lorde quote, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare” resonates with many who have popularized the doctrine of self-care. Femininity and femaleness bear care-giving and nurturing associations, which often become expectations (both internal and external) and demands.  “Self-care” is a reminder to prioritize our own well-being amongst the other emotional labour we do, whether that is parenting, being a good partner and friend, working in a profession such as teaching or counseling, or social activism. Self-care reminds us to set emotional boundaries, and boundaries on our time and outward productivity. Time spent nurturing our own well-being is just as legitimate as time spent at work or on other “productive” tasks, but we often feel anxious or guilty for taking that time.

freestyling-feminism

The problem with the popularity of “self-care”, is that it risks being conflated with the Parks and Recreation-coined phrase “treat yo self.” Now, I am not here to condemn “treat yo self”! Far be it for me and my thirty-six lipsticks to judge anyone for enjoying some retail therapy… or Netflix binges, or dessert for no reason, or sleeping until noon…. But, reducing self-care to various acts of consumption removes the nurturing, and radical core, of the concept.  A holistic understanding of self-care ultimately has to focus on the care portion – instead of being a moment to stop caring because you’re overburdened, it should be a moment to turn your caring and nurturing energy inward to rebuild.

To help me maintain a good balance of tough (self)love and more gentle nurturing, I use what I call the Maternal Theory of Self-Care, which is that sometimes you have to be your own mom and sometimes you have to be your own grandma.* Being your own mom entails things like making yourself do your chores when you don’t feel like it, making sure you’re eating balanced meals and going outside to play enough, sitting yourself down and having an honest talk about “what’s bothering you?”, and sometimes even putting yourself in a time out when you’re not playing well with others. The strict, but caring “for your own good” stuff, in other words. Being your own grandma, on the other hand, involves treats and sympathy.

*Speaking archetypally, of course. You may not want to model your self-care after your own particular mother or grandmother, or may have other figures who fill these roles better.

audre-lorde-quote

 10 ways to be your own mom

  • Clean your space. It’s a pigsty. Do the laundry while you’re at it.
  • Cook a proper meal with all the food groups. Maybe even cook something that isn’t cooked all in one pan! Or even go full mom and write a meal plan for the week.
  • Go for a walk/run/work out. Play outside.
  • Wash your face every day (and don’t pick at that pimple). Take your make up off before bed, too.
  • Make that appointment; doctor, therapist, hairdresser, whatever. And then go.
  • Don’t skip that party. You know you’ll have fun once you’re there!!
  • Take your meds, if you have them.
  • Do the damn dishes and clean the kitchen counters. How do you think you’ll feel coming home from a long day at work to that, hm?
  • Purge your closet. Are you really going to wear that again? It’s just taking up space…
  • Why don’t you ever use that musical instrument/bicycle/art supplies/etc? You paid for that and used to love using it…. (in other words, make/do something fun! Return to an old hobby or start a new one.)

 10 ways to be your own grandma

  • Make (order) your favourite meal. Have seconds!
  • And save room for dessert….
  • Take the day off and go on a nice outing.
  • Or stay in and spend quality time with yourself.
  • Cozy up and have a nap.
  • You don’t have to go to that party. You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to, dear!
  • Make yourself some tea.
  • Tell yourself you look beautiful.
  • Let yourself get away with being fussy, angry, and sad. Be sympathetic to yourself and validate your feelings, even if you know you’re being a bit of a baby.
  • And, of course, buy yourself a present for no reason.

lizElisabeth came to Edmonton to do a Masters degree in History at the University of Alberta after completing a Bachelor of Arts degree in Art History at the University of Victoria. Her research interests include medieval and early modern social and cultural history, especially issues around medical history and persecution. In the first year of her Masters degree, Elisabeth received the Joseph-Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholarship from the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada, followed by the Walter H. Johns Fellowship, Queen Elizabeth II Graduate Scholarship, and the Field Law Leilani Muir Graduate Research Scholarship.She  presented at the HCGSA Conference at University of Alberta in 2016 and will be writing the entry on Leprosy in World Christianity for the De Gruyter’s Encyclopedia of the Bible and its Reception (forthcoming). She has worked as a Research Assistant at the University of Alberta, and as a contract researcher and writer for the Government of Alberta’s Heritage division. In addition to her work as a writer and researcher, Elisabeth works with the Art Gallery of Alberta.