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The Politics of Self-Care and Feminism

I realised quickly after my first burnout that one part of self-care for myself needed to include staying away social media, email, and the internet. To refresh. I didn’t understand it as an act of self-care at the time, and it certainly wasn’t the buzzword it has become today. I just knew that the simple act of unplugging myself for a day did wonders for my mental, emotional, and psychological wellbeing.

Fast forward to over half a decade later. Ironically the most poignant and real discussion I have ever been part of on setting boundaries for oneself, was at a feminist tech gathering. A few months prior to this gathering I had begun to examine what I needed to be whole and well, especially in the context of my work. This conversation with passionate, smart and fierce feminists from all over the world, has since become the catalyst for the difficult work to examine, unravel and practice self-care and its politics in both my life and the movements I am a part of or engage with.

Ironically the most poignant and real discussion I have ever been part of on setting boundaries for oneself, was at a feminist tech gathering.

While Instagram influencers and lifestyle brands would have us believe that taking care of our selves is something new that involves a pithy hashtag and indulging in a spa day, the concept itself actually has a long history. But what is political about it?  What is feminist about it? How do we as feminists, both individually and as a part of movements, practice looking out for ourselves? How do we understand the differing politics of self-care in various contexts?

This is exactly what we discussed and “unravelled” at the session at the Take Back the Tech Camp (TBTT) on the first day, when we settled down for a discussion on the politics of self-care along with those participating in the parallel Feminist Tech Exchange (FTX) camp. One of the major points of the discussion revolved around how self-care in today’s context has been hijacked by capitalism. This reduces the idea of caring for yourself to a performance where you indulge in an act that is accessible to people through their class, monetary and other privileges. A $10 billion-dollar industry has led us to believe that in order to be practicing self-care we need to take a spa trip, go on a vacation, or purchase a box of indulgence items. Kit-Kat for example has built their marketing strategy around this, ‘Take a break, have a Kit-Kat”. We purchase, and then we must be seen to have purchased – so we share on social media with hashtags like #SelfLove #SelfCare #PuttingMeFirst.

How do we as feminists, both individually and as a part of movements, practice looking out for ourselves? How do we understand the differing politics of self-care in various contexts?

In some cases this may be the kind of self-attention that people want and need to practice. I acknowledge that self-care looks different for each of us. But we must be cautious of reducing this deeply complex concept and idea down to a purchase. Self-care is linked to pleasure, and for marginalised people such as queer people, women, those from oppressed racial groups – whose bodies, lives and pleasure have been denied to them, the act of reclaiming and doing what gives them pleasure is deeply political. Sadie Trombetta writes about these acts reminding us that for many people putting our needs first is not about taking a break because we can, “It was a courageous act that started with acknowledging that they had needs, that their needs were important, and that those needs deserved to be met, no matter what their oppressors said. Self-care was a way to step away from toxic environments, to admit the hurt, and to find the time and space needed to heal”. It is sometimes about reclaiming what has been denied to you, it is about demanding your right to enjoy and indulge. It is about you taking what others are freely given.

It was a courageous act that started with acknowledging that they had needs, that their needs were important, and that those needs deserved to be met, no matter what their oppressors said. Self-care was a way to step away from toxic environments, to admit the hurt, and to find the time and space needed to heal.

This is what makes the concept of looking after your self actually political and often more radical than we are led to believe. Audre Lorde in the 1980’s wrote “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” Often in a neo-liberal context the only value we have is that of the labour we are able to produce – and wanting to indulge in pleasure is seen as a weakness. This becomes a political tool when we understand that the right to take, embrace and indulge in pleasure, to be human and have others recognise our humanity, is about moving past the oppression that does not allow for us to do so.

Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.

It is about putting that idea first, and having your humanity valued which is a deeply radical idea for many marginalised people and communities. Cameron Glover argues that self-care is the most important ingredient for political change, “To dismantle the systems that keep so many people oppressed and vulnerable to unnecessary grief and struggle, we need to give ourselves permission to enjoy beautiful things in whatever form they may take. Because for marginalised people, pleasure can be a lifeline to the humanity we fight so hard to have others recognise in us — and to see in ourselves”.

To dismantle the systems that keep so many people oppressed and vulnerable to unnecessary grief and struggle, we need to give ourselves permission to enjoy beautiful things in whatever form they may take. Because for marginalised people, pleasure can be a lifeline to the humanity we fight so hard to have others recognise in us — and to see in ourselves.

So, we understand that self-maintaining is political and complex and why it is so. But how is it also feminist? Being able to practice self-care means having the autonomy to make your own decisions. It means moving away from what you are ‘supposed’ to do to what we need to do and how we make this decision for ourselves. This is a deeply feminist idea – rooted in the ideas of autonomy and choice. For women especially, pigeonholed by patriarchy into the roles of nurturers and caretakers, the practice becomes a political and feminist act. In a time when we are expected to care for others ahead of ourselves, and when our bodies and decision-making power is not our own, women making those decisions with their full autonomy is what feminism demands we should be doing. From pro-choice movements that fight for a woman’s rights over her body to the legalisation of sex work – the core idea lies in making choices where we decide for ourselves. We fight for it since asking to put ourselves, especially our health, first is seen as weak. Asking for time off after childbirth, suffering from pain during menstruation are all seen as signs of weakness – our wellness and health is politicised and used against us.

As I began thinking about this idea of putting myself first, of asking and taking what I needed, I also felt the guilt of privilege weigh me down. I am deeply aware that I can demand for time off for example because in a very basic fiscal sense I can afford it. I can afford to take a break from work because in comparison to other communities I engage with, that break makes a marginal difference to my life. I have yet to find an answer for this that comforts me  – but one thing does stand out. Personal care is not just about the individual – it is also about the community and the collective. It is also about finding out how we integrate this into our leadership, our organisational values, and our movements so that it is a part of who we are and how we live.

As current, future, or potential leaders, this reflection is crucial – how do we practice our leadership and build our organisations to have this at the core, as a principle rather than a solution when a crisis point is reached? How do we identify the systems that are causing us fatigue, oppression, and pain as the cause rather than simply treat the symptoms? Jordan Kisner points this out in a piece that was published in The New Yorker saying, “promoting individual self-care as a solution to existential anxiety or oppression is that victims will become isolated in a futile struggle to solve their own problems rather than to collectively change the systems causing them harm”. I realised that even allowing myself for example to take time off from day-to-day work to attend the TBTT camp in order to learn and develop my own knowledge was an act of self-care. That if my own cup is not filled and my own learning is not continuous – how could I give to a movement?

Promoting individual self-care as a solution to existential anxiety or oppression is that victims will become isolated in a futile struggle to solve their own problems rather than to collectively change the systems causing them harm.

In a time when reason is more valued than emotion, unravelling and understanding the politics of self-care becomes all the more fundamental for us, and the movements we seek to develop and build. When our bodies, our emotions and our needs become weapons to be used against us, acts of defiance become rooted in thinking about your self and how we practice it. I find I am faced with more questions than answers, but I also know that asking the questions is the first step to finding the answers. This is one facet of self-care.

I also know that asking the questions is the first step to finding the answers.

This article was originally published on GenderIT.

Cover Image: “Self-care”. Illustrations by Paru Ramesh

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