Oh Lordey, self-care as warfare


In the 1980s, as she battled cancer, poet and novelist Audre Lorde noted in her book A Burst of Light: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

Self-care has become a popular buzzword in activist circles. When we talk about self-care today, are we talking about the same thing Lorde was?

In medical circles, the term “self-care” originated in reference to the self-management of illness, its treatment and its prevention.

Whether self-care means putting on a face mask, drinking mimosas or unplugging from the internet, its most basic tenet is actively caring for yourself.

Self-care also exists in the context of social justice, extending beyond physical wellness to cater for a holistic approach that includes emotional, mental and spiritual fulfilment.

The rhetoric of self-care, tellingly, has moved from defiant to prescriptive.

There’s an ever-growing trend towards commodified self-care, which removes us from its original roots. Self-care, lately, is conflated with any number of items and experiences we can purchase in the pursuit of health and happiness.

Feminist killjoy Sara Ahmed acknowledges that “the struggle for survival is a life struggle and a political struggle”. Returning to Lorde, Ahmed reinforces that our mere existence is resistance because we were never meant to survive.

In this sense, self-care can be radical, political and powerful.

I’ve always found the concept of commodified self-care disingenuous. When you think of stereotypical “self-care” activities, what do you picture?

It feels like someone is trying to impose on you very specific and sometimes costly ways to look after yourself, such as taking a bubble bath, getting a mani or a pedi, going to an expensive yoga retreat, drinking herbal tea or meditating. This selection suggests a narrow idea of what self-care is.

Though self-care is sold as different for each person, the suggestions sound suspiciously similar.

In today’s global political climate, many things in these Buzzfeed-style suggestions feel extremely frivolous, but oddly necessary.

Scrolling through terrible news and attempting to gather the amount of energy necessary to engage and then disengage from the chatter, and still maintain sanity requires a solid foundation. How does one get or maintain that foundation?

I can’t answer that for you. I don’t think anyone can.

Political oppression is nothing new — but sleeping all day, watching trash TV or throwing a pamper party are all examples of the commodified sort of self-care that is being advertised as genuine political resistance.

These are things that we all agree feel good in the traditional sense, but are only really self-care if they assist in reaffirming and strengthening your sense of self.

Self-care, for me, is about remembering your sense of humanity. If face masks do that for you that’s great, but we must remember what things we can do — or think, or even buy — that help us to affirm that we are human beings, important and worthy of living.

To me, this is where mental health self-care is paramount.

Affirmative mantras, positivity and self-love are things that are free yet dear, and that we all have the ability to give ourselves in some way.

We can easily go over the many stress-relieving benefits of these acts of self-care. Though not all of us are at the same level of mental clarity or health, to me, self-affirmation is the most accessible type of self-care because its goal is not to sell you anything, but to affirm your sense of humanity. It’s important to remember this in these unsettling times.

Whenever value, especially monetary value, is placed on an act, we find there is pressure to perform this act for the sake of others, keeping up appearances. So much of what we do is about maintaining the image that we’re successful, autonomous beings, regardless of the reality.

In a capitalist society, it should not be surprising that we tend to measure health in terms of productivity.

Today’s commodified self-care and workaholism are two sides of the same coin: take care of yourself so you can produce more.

If self-care is viewed as a way to ease the effect of a greater demand for productivity rather than being seen as a transformative, healing act in its own right, it
becomes taxing on the individual and not a solution.

For self-care to work, it has to reaffirm us with no strings attached.

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Kiri Rupiah
Kiri Rupiah is the online editor at the Mail & Guardian.

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