Self-care as political warfare


Earlier this month, pop culture website ran an article on 'living your best life when your life is all over the joint', listing a number of tips to maintaining health through times of stress. Between points emphasising the importance of sleep, regular meals and vitamins were scattered mentions of a Clinique eye cream. Essentially, this was a native advertisement masquerading as a self-help guide.

Audre LordeThe marketing of such products functions much in the same way. From health spa day trips that ask you to 'pamper yourself and reward your staff' to Kit-Kat's long-running slogan 'Have a break', the need to relax and recuperate is perceived as a vulnerability ready to be exploited.

Self-care is conflated with any number of items and experiences we can buy our way into, in our pursuits of health and happiness.

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

Self-care, however, 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 need for this is rooted in the burden of oppression. Systems that arose from the subjugation of others have caused mass inequality, where marginalised people suffer transgenerational trauma, shorter life spans, and higher prevalences of physical and mental illness.

The same structures that created this inequality perpetuate it by denying their victims the tools to survive and thrive in this world.

A study published in the Medical Journal of Australia in 2014 looked into the racism prevalent within health care for Aboriginal communities and its psychological detriment. Refugees who have escaped poverty and genocide also face medical neglect. Poor and remote communities suffer inequity too when it comes to health services. In short the system frequently fails those who need it most.

Disparities hinging on race, class, gender and sexuality are a pertinent issue, but not a new one. Those who endure oppression have long fostered a culture of caring for themselves and their communities where external forces will not, reclaiming power in the process.

In her book A Burst of Light, the radical feminist writer Audre Lorde (pictured) wrote 'Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.' Feminist author Sara Ahmed deconstructs this quote beautifully, acknowledging that 'the struggle for survival is a life struggle and a political struggle. Some of us, Audre Lorde notes, were never meant to survive.'

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

Perhaps the most authentic aspect of self-care is its ambiguity. Caring for yourself can consist of anything from attuning yourself to your needs, surrounding yourself with support networks or finding a creative outlet, to a tangible approach that focuses on everyday health like sleep and nutrition.

Most effectively, self-care is relative in practice, hinging on the abilities and resources of its practitioner. This concept seems simple and sincere at its core, but at odds with the version of 'self-care' we see branded, packaged and sold to us in contemporary society.

A recent article by Ellena Savage discussed the 'manipulation' of everything into 'work' under capitalism. She noted that 'Work is work, socialising is work (networking), exercise is work (working out), cooking and tending to bodily needs is work (housework).'

It makes sense then, that just as every activity is characterised, commodified and monetised under capitalism into some form of work, so too has self-care become an activity to be characterised, commodified and monetised.

Self-care as a scheduling item is not inherently bad; in fact, devoting time to it can only be beneficial. It's when purported forms of 'self-care' that are financially exclusive or limited in accessibility, such as thousand-dollar spa days or top-end eye creams, become the only version we aspire to, that our definition of it should be reevaluated.

The conceptualisation of 'self-care' as a wholly formal and material engagement is restrictive and self-defeating. Looking after yourself in a truly beneficial way entails a more personal experience, alleviating stress and focusing on restoration rather than requiring more energy, money, and emotional drainage.

By refusing to acknowledge the multiplicities that the term encapsulates, we risk uprooting it from its power to heal and transform, into a product that can be bought or bartered like any other.


Somayra IsmailjeeSomayra Ismailjee is the recipient of Eureka Street's inaugural Margaret Dooley Young Writers Fellowship.

Somayra is a 17-year-old writer from Perth, of Indian and Burmese heritage. She has an interest in current affairs, ethics and social justice, particularly the intersections of racism, Islamophobia, misogyny and classism. Her work has appeared in New Matilda and Right Now Inc among other publications.

Follow her on Twitter @somayra_

Topic tags: Somayra Ismailjee, Clinique, Kit Kat



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Existing comments

Reading this piece, I was reminded of Henrietta Lacks, and the Henrietta Lacks Foundation, a non-profit organization founded by Rebecca Skloot, author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, who is donating a portion of her book’s proceeds to the Foundation. Henrietta was a poor black tobacco farmer whose cancer cells, taken without her knowledge, became one of the most important tools in medicine, with damaging consequences for her family who today can’t afford access to the health care advances their mother’s cells helped make possible. The Foundation strives to provide financial assistance to needy individuals who have made important contributions to scientific research without personally benefiting from those contributions, particularly those used in research without their knowledge or consent. The Foundation gives those who have benefited from those contributions — including scientists, universities, corporations, and the general public — a way to show their appreciation to such research subjects and their families. HeLa cells have been used for "research into cancer, AIDS, the effects of radiation and toxic substances, gene mapping, and many other scientific pursuits". According to Rebecca Skloot, by 2009, "more than 60,000 scientific articles had been published about research done on HeLa, and that number was increasing steadily at a rate of more than 300 papers each month.

AO | 23 February 2016  

True words! Because sometimes in the race to be productive we often forget that the quality of what we produce stems from the quality of our mind and spirit, which works very well when nurtured and taken care of. Thanks for writing this relevant piece, Somayra!

Jasmeet Sahi | 24 February 2016  

Hi, two things come to mind. I was reading about Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs which lays a pyramid that drives human survival (to his mind), where the base is physiological needs, safety needs, love and belonging, self esteem. The highest peak is self actualisation followed by transcendence, where the selfs fulfillment of potential maybe subsumed into altruism. And then the other is no longer an OTHER. Love thy neighbour as you love thy self. If you haven't you could probably watch The Century of the Self, which is on YouTube. It explores Freud, the market, branding, human desires, governance. All very skillfully. Thoughtful piece. Yours, I mean. Cheers, Shana

Shana Maria Verghis | 24 February 2016  

At the end of the day, private acts of self-care (by men and women), whether philosophised as acts of political warfare against the god of work or not, remain, because they are practised in domestic anonymity, private statements of belief rather than public calls of aspiration. The legislated non-trading Sundays of yore, taken with the story of the Mary who claimed self-care time against the kitchen of Martha to rejuvenate her spirit, were public declarations of belief by society that men and women are not subjects of the god of work, that, like the Sabbath, work is made for people and not the reverse.

Roy Chen Yee | 25 February 2016  

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