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Who Is Self-Care For?

Self-care has never been more necessary, or more misunderstood.

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Ever since the election, there’s been a question that perplexes Taz Ahmed, campaign strategist for 18 Million Rising, an organization dedicated to increasing Asian-American civic involvement. It’s not how to move forward at a time when the government is unleashing attacks on Muslims and immigrants, or what kind of work she needs to be doing to safeguard her community. No, the question that Ahmed can’t quite figure out how to answer is much more simple: "What's your self-care regimen?"

A recent episode of #GoodMuslimBadMuslim, the podcast Ahmed co-hosts with comedian Zahra Noorbakhsh, begins with the two women dissecting the deceptively simple query. “My self-care regimen is sitting on my carpet and crying while I look at the popcorn ceiling,” Ahmed jokes. “Is that what they mean by self-care regimen?”

When I call her a week and a half later, Ahmed explains that it’s not that she’s opposed to self-care; she just finds the question baffling. “As a daughter of immigrants, my parents were always just trying to get by and figuring out where the next paycheck was coming from, just trying to get food on the table,” she says. “There wasn’t ever a point where my mom was like, 'Every day you need to breathe intentionally for 15 minutes.’ That wasn’t something I was raised with."

And at a time when self-care is being used to refer to everything from cashmere socks and pricey pencil sets to staying hydrated and remembering to breathe, the conversation can get even more confusing. Is self-care an essential survival skill or a collection of luxury lifestyle accoutrements? Who is self-care for, and how are we supposed to talk about it?

Ahmed isn’t the only one noticing an uptick in talk about self-care. Searches for the term, which have been rising for the past few years, spiked up in November and are currently at an all-time high. Essays with titles like “Self-Care Will Be More Important Than Ever In The Age Of Trump” offer a fairly succinct explanation for the increased interest in the practice.

Despite its current status as something of a bougie buzzword, the concept of self-care predates celebrity-helmed lifestyle blogs and cutesy slogans. An article from the December 2003 issue of Nursing Leadership notes that self-care is as old as humanity itself; the term has been pretty widely used in healthcare, therapy, and social work spaces for years. As Irene Malatesta, marketing director for wellness startup LifeDojo, puts it, “‘self-care’ is any practice that you initiate and do yourself for the purposes of maintaining your own physical and mental well-being.”

Although there are guiding principles to self-care — staying mentally and physically healthy, taking time to recharge and relax, maintaining good boundaries — there’s no one set of tasks or behaviors that can concretely be considered self-care for everyone.

And that open-endedness may be why it was so easy for the term to get co-opted. Early online mentions of self-care hewed close to its traditional meaning, like this TED playlist labeled “The importance of self-care” that largely focuses on tried-and-true topics like meditation and nutrition. But in recent years, it’s morphed into something along the lines of consumerism masked as wellness; an excuse to engage in selfish indulgence while claiming to pursue self-improvement. Twenty-three dollar bath tea? That’s self-care. Adult coloring books? Sure, why not. A $30 journal claims to be chock-full of self-care prompts and activities that’ll aid you on your journey to greater wellness, so long as you’re able to afford $30 for a journal. Even nail decals have gotten in on the self-care act — and let’s not forget virtually every overpriced bauble hawked by Gwyneth Paltrow, who’s never met a $40 body scrub she couldn’t position as an opportunity for relaxing self-care.

Malatesta suspects that the popularity of this consumerist take on self-care is rooted in the sadly persistent stigma around wellness and mental health. “Openly discussing self-care is socially acceptable if it fits within the context of conspicuous consumption (i.e., manicures, spa days, or even luxury shopping) but is much less socially acceptable when it indicates genuine vulnerability (i.e., seeing a therapist or taking anxiety medication),” she notes. “People are really afraid of being judged or seen as less capable if they admit they’re struggling.”

And while there’s certainly an argument to be made that even the most bougie, eye-roll-y expenditure is, or at least can be, self-care — if it renews and reinvigorates you, why not? — the positioning of self-care as an item to be purchased, as an aspirational lifestyle hawked to the kind of women who read Goop in earnest, has the perverse effect of making self-care feel less accessible to the very people who need it most.

For all the misgivings Ahmed has about being expected to have some detailed, point-by-point self-care plan, she openly acknowledges that the increased focus on individual wellness has had tangible benefits for people — particularly in the burnout-prone activist spaces where she works.

In the early aughts, Ahmed was working in environmental activism; in those days, she tells me, no one was talking about self-care at all. To the contrary, she says, “You had to work 20 hours a day to show that you were really, really an activist” — and as a result, there was a great deal of turnover as people burned out. In an environment that put an emphasis on devoting all of one’s time and emotional energy to caring and advocating for the needs of others — with little to no time left over for one’s self — many found that they were unable to make activism a long-term, sustainable lifestyle.

In contrast, the organizing spaces she works in now are very focused on self-care and sustainable action. When we spoke, Ahmed told me she was currently reading Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for Others as part of her work. Organizations like Vigilant Love do group breathing exercises before each event; grounding techniques intended to help people maintain a sense of focus and engagement have become a regular part of the Los Angeles Asian-American activist community.

Yet even still, Ahmed tells me, “I just don’t think that people have figured how to really talk about it.” The intentional, explicit approach that many people have been relying on — bullet point lists, asking how much water people are drinking — can feel a bit awkward. “I think it’s kind of annoying to be asked if I’m drinking water. That’s the one silliest question that I’ve been asked the most since Election Day.”

But perhaps it’s all a part of the process of making self-care an expected, natural part of American culture. Aspirational, consumerist self-care helped bring the concept into the cultural conversation; the stressful political climate created a widespread need. Hopefully, as the conversation of what sustainable, long-term self-care looks like continues, we’ll stop thinking of it as “self-care” and start thinking of it as just a part of living.

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