Did We Get Our Self Care Wrong?


In the spring of 2020, Crystal McEwen lost her mother to COVID-19 and her husband to an affair. McEwen, an educator, was home to her mother, who had bipolar schizoaffective disorder and early-onset dementia. Due to strict visiting restrictions in Brooklyn’s crowded hospitals, McEwen couldn’t be with her mother in her final hours. “My mother was my baby,” she said. “But suddenly I didn’t have a family.”

To cope with her grief, McEwen, 38, sought out a therapist, began journaling, developed a meditation practice, and increased the time she spent in prayer.

Around the same time, Samantha Purnell, 24, a real estate agent, began investing in new wellness products and documenting her experience on TikTok, where her videos have garnered more than 8 million views. She estimates she spends nearly $ 1,000 a month on blowouts, nail appointments, fitness classes, self-tanners, massages, makeup, skin care products, a diary, and a subscription to a meditation app. “I call it charging my beauty batteries,” she said.

Both Purnell and McEwen describe their practices as self-care.

Today the term has a confusing range of meanings. Karla Scott, a professor of communication at St. Louis University who has studied the language of self-care for 27 years, says she can relate to any practice that supports and supports wellbeing. “When you are doing an act that is self-sufficient, you are doing yourself,” she said.

The coronavirus pandemic has provided scientists and individuals with an opportunity to rethink the importance of self-care and the culture that goes with it. As part of my work as a researcher studying how ideologies shape behavior, I spoke to nearly two dozen people from across the country about their relationship with the term.

Before the pandemic, many of my interviewees did not feel entitled to take the time to relieve their stress – now they see it as an integral part of their wellbeing. “When I started taking it easy, self-care was a turning point,” said Kenyah Canady, 22, a customer service representative in Cincinnati. She used the “time out” from the quarantine to invest in natural immune preparations, skin and hair care.

However, Maya Scully, a 17-year-old college student in Seattle, recalls images of wealthy white women taking bubble baths when they hear the term self-care. “The word is just one way for beauty brands to make money,” she told me.

To cope with the stress of recent climate disasters and the pandemic, Maya began cutting up Japanese manga comics and replacing the missing scenes with her own artwork. She also developed a diary habit and learned to cook. But she won’t call her coping strategies self-care; She says the term is too “difficult to get hold of” because of its association with consumerism.

McEwen himself has a complicated relationship with the idea of ​​self-care. “No amount of bath bombs will change what the virus did to this neighborhood and what it did to me,” she said. “But I believe that self-care is the only reason I’m still here.”

The history of the term “self-sufficiency”

To understand how the term “self-care” evolved, I looked at the history of the term. The term has its origins in medical research, but its leap from science to public consciousness can be traced back to the Black Panther Party and black feminist writers.

Scott and other researchers attribute popularization of the term to activist and writer Audre Lorde, whose 1988 collection of essays entitled “A Burst of Light” described self-care as a way to cope with the personal journey of cancer as well as structural trauma are from racism. “Caring for myself is not complacency,” she wrote. “It is self-preservation and that is an act of political warfare.” The quote was integrated into the feminist canon.

As recently as 33 years ago, it was “normalized to be overworked, stressed, not feeling joy, not feeling well, not being healthy,” said Scott. “That makes it very radical to say, ‘I’m going to put on my metaphorical oxygen mask so I can survive.’ “

Self-care remains particularly radical for those facing structural inequalities. “As black women, we often become reliant on caring for other people,” said Iresha Picot, a Philadelphia therapist and mental health attorney who works to bring the idea to more black women. “Except for other black women,” she said, “no one in society is really invested in my survival, health, or well-being.”

Picot is a supporter of GirlTrek, the nation’s largest self-care network for black women, which caught her attention when she saw the phrase “self-care beyond bubble baths” on its social media content. Picot now organizes hiking groups for other black women and posts regularly on the group’s Instagram account, where she offers practical options for self-care, such as incorporating exercise into everyday life or protecting the time in solitude.

Self-care can also be seen as a radical term for men, said Christopher Peña, 64, because it is most often discussed and promoted as a feminine pursuit. During the height of the pandemic, Peña faced a severe physical disability. His wellness routine didn’t include face masks or bath bombs – instead, he learned languages ​​and, when fully vaccinated, began a class on indigenous cultures for members of his assisted living facility in Tucson, Arizona.

Peña said he felt comfortable connecting with his cultural heritage. “Men often think we don’t need to be self-sufficient,” he said. “But that’s how I survived.”

The link between self-care and consumerism

As critics note, many of the practices and products touted as “self-care” by the wellness industry today have little relation to the radical wellness approaches described by Peña, Picot and Scott. But with research showing people around the world experience unprecedented levels of anxiety and depression, it’s hardly surprising that consulting firm McKinsey estimates that the $ 1.5 trillion wellness market will grow 5 to 10% annually by feeding us Sells products and services designed to help us look and feel better.

And no, a lot of it is not really necessary, say experts. “One of the values ​​in studying black women’s historical narratives is a better understanding of non-consumerist self-care strategies,” wrote Stephanie Evans, professor of Black Women’s Studies at Georgia State University, in an email. “Natural movement, homemade crafts, spirituality, the sensual pleasures of eating and drinking, and simple rest are free or cheap when done right.”

However, experts have another concern that extends beyond the relationship between self-care and consumerism. They fear that the growing terminology of self-care is a reflection of the American tradition of dealing with hardship in isolation. As our psyche suffers more suffering, often from wider social ills, it is our responsibility to alleviate it. Self-care has “become a cure for what the system created,” said Scott.

“We live in a society where people take great pride in doing things themselves,” said Picot. But self-care doesn’t have to work that way, she stressed.

And sometimes it doesn’t work at all. In late 2020, as I was preparing to spend the winter vacation without my family, I stretched my budget to buy yoga classes online only and a $ 70 product called Kantic Calming Cream that promised “self-care through skin care.” .

These practices offered me comfort and a solid dose of distraction, but they did not go to the heart of my need. What I needed was regular face-to-face contact with my family and friends, and no form of self-care could replace it.

The importance of community maintenance

And when I reread Lorde’s “Burst of Light” I realized that most of her essays describe the care she received from others: “In the bleakest of days I am kept afloat by the positive energies of so many women, sustained and strengthened who carry the breath of my love like firelight in their thick hair, ”wrote Lorde.

Self-care became a famous takeaway, I realized, but it wasn’t the only lesson she had to teach – or the most important. In fact, Evans, the expert on black feminist writing on wellness, believes that Lorde never intended to create a harsh divide between self-care and community care. “She talked about taking care of herself in relation to her fellow human beings,” said Evans. “It’s neither individual nor collective. It’s both. “

“In the absence of community-based care, self-care is inadequate,” said Cheryl Grills, professor of clinical psychology at Loyola University Marymount, whose research highlights the importance of community care in dealing with mental health problems, especially for those suffering trauma. showed because of racism and sexism.

After hearing about self-care routines used by Americans across the country, I finally saw the folly of describing some self-care practices as worthy and others as shallow attempts to buy wellness. That’s just a small step away from assuming that we should all go through something like a pandemic the same way, which would be ridiculous.

But what I’ve learned is how far self-care has moved from the intentions of those who put it in the cultural spotlight. Lorde believed that it was vital to her wellbeing to sustain not only by herself but by others – and experts agreed. This is something that we as confident Americans could benefit from thinking about the next time we need a bit of grooming.

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