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