The radicalism of self-care need to be reinitiated

Self-care is an important act of resistance. It is an attempt at asserting individuality and prioritising physical and mental health against the oppressive socio-economic institutions that threaten it. The nature of a late capitalist society means that it pushes for efficiency and ‘hard work’ – a flawed ideology, seeped in classist assumptions and little awareness of privilege – leaving many exhausted, stressed and overworked.

There is a mental health crisis in the UK: NHS Digital announced last year that the number of antidepressants prescribed to patients has more than doubled in the last decade, which has been accompanied by continuous cuts to mental health services since 2010. Self-care is used as a means of monitoring mental health, paying attention to wellbeing, and of recuperation.

However, with the popularity of self-care of late – it has, in some cases, been dismissed as a ‘trend’ – it has been taken away from its original aims. Instead of an adapting ideology, tailored to the needs and situations of individuals, self-care has been made fairly two-dimensional and inaccessible.

With this comes serious limitations, which have threatened a movement once radical and beneficial to many who chose to adopt its message.

Similar to many mainstream movements, self-care has been manipulated by those with the most power and platform. The Instagram incarnation of self-care has become synonymous with privilege, spare time and disposable income. Indeed, the top posts on Instagram tagged with #selfcare include a row of expensive beauty products and a yoga pose.

A key limitation to this is expense. Many disciples of the ‘treat yo’ self’ mantra will argue that the best way to feel better about yourself is to spend a lot of money on luxurious things; but what does that mean for a people on minimum wage contracts, or someone currently unemployed, or those who need to spend the last of their wage on food, not face masks or yoga classes? Surely it is the people excluded from these methods who would benefit most from the practices of self-care. The one-size-fits-all interpretation of self-care is damaging, and is part of a system it originally rejected.

Self-care has been manipulated to the extent that it has been used in advertising. A key example is Dove in their Self Esteem Project. This aims to build self-esteem in young people, raising awareness of body confidence through educational programmes. Though seemingly well-meaning, Dove’s project it is tied closely with the beauty industry, with privilege and beauty standards that self-care movements have historically rejected, and with the capitalist system the company has survived in. Self-care has been commodified.

Despite this, there is something important in the movement Dove is part of. In making a public message, the notion of self-care is becoming more normalised. Many young people will grow up in a society where self-care is common practice, and where prioritising mental health is seen as a necessary use of time. The danger, however, is the loss of individuality in the movement.

To make self-care radical again, it needs to be re-appropriated. This revolution must be independently acted upon, because what works for one person might not work for another. Self-care and intersectionality need to be closely linked to make the movement have the most impact. For instance, people with little or no disposable income cannot be expected to adopt the self-care routines of celebrities; people with disabilities might find some exercise inaccessible; and BME people might not identify with the self-care ideals of white beauty bloggers.

The vagueness of ‘self-care’ means that it is open for interpretation and should be accessible to all who wish to take part. No interpretation can become the norm; if so, as is at risk currently, it loses its status as necessary and important resistance.

Image: Casey Linenberg

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