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The Commodification of Self-Care: What It Is and What It Isn’t

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By Kate Harveston

The revolution won’t be televised. It will be commodified — probably by Nike and Pepsi. However, the McResistance isn’t the only thing being appropriated and commodified. It’s everything else under the sun, too.

Take the concept of self-care. It’s a well-intentioned phrase that a million Instagram hashtags and a million more ad campaigns have almost totally stripped of meaning. It’s a product now. Actually, it’s zillions of products.

So, what was the original intention of the concept of self-care? We’ll look in a moment at the ugly stepsister that’s taken its place. First, what’s it supposed to be — and why did we let ourselves forget?

What Was Self-Care Supposed to Be?

The last few months and years have been an upsetting time for more than a few of us. You may not be surprised to find out that internet searches for the phrase “self-care” hit a 14-year high during the political turmoil our country has faced in recent years. Sharing previously unspoken grief and trauma is a major part of self-care. It’s also not surprising that more than 60% of Americans view the execrable U.S. political climate as a source of significant stress, according to a 2018 APA report.

What might surprise you is that seeking and applying advice on self-care during times of political turmoil is very much in keeping with the original spirit of the concept. The late humanist and African-American and LGBTQ activist Audre Lorde was clear about the political significance of self-care when she said: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

There has never been a single moment in human history where those who have little, or nothing, did not have to defend their possessions, and often with their very lives. Times of collective difficulty mean we must lift ourselves up by raising each other. In other words, it’s not about blind consumerism. Those creams, facial peels, apps, guns and plastic surgery are distractions from what actually ails us.

Self-care is about cutting through the noise and clamor of life using meditation, pleasurable hobbies, socialization, mobilization and other methods. We need to find ourselves and our intrinsic value as a person, and then help others do the same.

When entire communities wither in the shadow of societal dysfunction, self-care means using the tools of self-empowerment to ensure the little people — those with little or nothing — know they are not alone. We invest in ourselves so we can invest in our communities, friends, families and even perfect strangers when they need us.

However, we’ve all been taught to turn inward. In fact, our culture demands it. Timothy Leary’s “Turn on, tune in, drop out” was once the rallying cry of the counterculture. Release yourself from oppressive institutions. Get back in touch with yourself and with each other. Find a higher meaning for your life.

Today, “Turn on, tune in, drop out” is “Netflix and chill.” It’s less a war cry of struggling minorities and the working class and more a command to go home, be alone and sedate yourself. Never mind voting. Never mind who owns the means of production. Never mind that our government has helped spur the opioid crisis through policy — or lack thereof. Never mind the immigrants in cages. Never mind, never mind, never mind.

What Has Self-Care Become?

When Timothy Leary coined his phrase, “turn on” and “tune in” had nothing to do with television. It also wasn’t about getting stoned in your basement.

It was about, in his words, activating “your neural and genetic equipment,” “becom(ing) sensitive to the many and various levels of consciousness,” “interact(ing) harmoniously with the world around you,” and engaging in “an active, selective, graceful process of detachment from involuntary or unconscious commitments.”

It’s about self-reliance and self-truth, community, choice, and the pursuit of self- and worldly improvement. It’s about rejecting false idols and manufactured distractions.

How do Timothy Leary’s and Audre Lorde’s thoughts on self-empowerment square with self-care as we understand it today? The phrase, as popularized by the modern zeitgeist, couldn’t be further from what these two had in mind. It is explicitly about indulging oneself.

How could it not, in a land that worships, and encourages at every turn, blind and numb excess? By design, the working class is largely now distracted enough, and just barely comfortable enough, to let their political, social and economic power slip right through their fingers one grain at a time.

It’s less about finding and healing the things inside you and more about creating entirely new problems to solve with well-marketed products. It’s about making you feel bad about yourself until you buy something.

We can’t eat or pray ourselves into better self-worth, stronger communities and a more equitable political situation. However, we might be able to love ourselves into it. Doing so requires self-love first.

How Can We Practice Effective Self-Care?

The Audre Lorde Project has some thoughts about what healthy self-care can and should look like. It frames its approach as a sort of community-focused wellness plan. It requires that we ask ourselves questions like the following, and then help others ask them about their own lives:

  • What are your unmet needs?
  • Which needs do you anticipate in the future, or during an upcoming event?
  • Is this a need of the heart, the mind or the community?
  • Who can support me and help me meet my needs?
  • Who’s around me who requires my support in meeting their needs?

In its truest form, self-care is not selfish. You don’t have to be a bra-burning, marching-in-the-streets warrior to practice it, either. Self-care begins at home and includes physical, emotional and spiritual aspects.

In a way, it’s about exploring each of the constructive, pro-social and spiritually healing activities and experiences you have access to already, and usually without reaching for a credit card. Self-care is about:

  • Getting the nutrition and sleep your body needs
  • Finding peace in nature
  • Developing one’s body and self-determination through exercise
  • Having an ongoing commitment to recognizing and honoring anger and negativity, but refusing to let it rule us
  • Meeting with support groups
  • Finding friends to share a sympathetic ear
  • Identifying and nurturing skills you didn’t know you had
  • Practicing meditation, mindfulness and gratitude
  • Finding unmet needs in your community and giving them your time and attention

Hopefully, you’re getting the picture. Self-care culture, as we understand it today, is a bandage over unanswered needs and a momentary escape from the quiet desperation of living in an unjust world. We should know by now that pampering ourselves delivers only the most fleeting and unsatisfying form of peace. It’s a simple solution for our poor collective mental health, our broken communities, our cruel and outdated social contracts, and the very real sense that society has left many of us behind. It’s about remembering, not forgetting.

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