Audre Lorde. Source: Picasa
by Steph Hebdon

At this point, self-care is a buzzword. It is by no means new. It has roots in the civil rights movement, the women’s rights movement, and the LGBTQ movement: with self-professed ‘black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet’ Audre Lorde writing, “caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare”. The concept of self-care as we now know it has changed a lot since Lorde’s words, and many people using it have little to no knowledge of its beginnings. It is now something of a trend. But, in its simplest form, self-care is the very reason for our survival as a species. We, like all other creatures, are innately hardwired to look after ourselves. Today, our basic needs are (if we are privileged enough) able to be met with little to no effort on our part. So why has self-care seemingly become one of the fastest growing concepts in recent years? Why has it all at once wormed its way into our everyday vocabulary? Why, after years of dormancy, has self-care become important again? 

Quite simply, it would appear that with all the luxury and ease that modern life has afforded us; we have become less equipped at looking after ourselves. We might feed ourselves, and clothe ourselves. We might bathe and earn money and sleep every now and again; but each day brings a new statistic about the rise of mental health issues, or a breaking story detailing the detrimental effects of stress. In recent months there has been growing discussion around the notion of millennial burnout, an affliction characterised by exhaustion so overwhelming that it leaves us unable to complete menial tasks, yet simultaneously plagued by an undercurrent of anxiety that convinces us we should be completing them anyway.

Millennial burnout is an affliction belonging specifically to those born between 1981 and 1996 - a generation who have, as Anne Helen Peterson suggests, ‘internalised the idea that [we] should be working all the time.’ We attend to our very basic needs, but because ‘there is no ‘off the clock’, everything else sits permanently at the bottom of our to-do list. With little awareness of the irony, we share these stories and read the statistics from our smartphones while travelling to work, or waiting to pay for our weekly food shop, and ignore them – because, in a world which demands so much of our attention all of the time, who has the time to relax?

Today's self-care, then, is the product, or rather the remedy to, an overworked millennial generation. A generation endlessly berated for our lack of tenacity; for our burning need to be politically correct. For the choice to be socially and morally ‘woke’, and a generation who will perhaps forever be described as snowflakes. But we are a generation who are also under extraordinary pressure. We are the first to earn less than our parents, the first to have grown up alongside the Internet, and the first to strain under the consequential pressure to forever be ‘switched on’. We are expected to work every hour the day gives, whilst signed to a zero-hour contract, and running a side project or three. And, have you ever really achieved anything unless your social media shows just how deliriously happy you are about it? The resurgence of self-care is our rebellion. It is the coming-together of actions that directly oppose everything the world is telling us we should be doing, and it is arguably more needed now than ever. Amid a climate that is increasingly unstable, self-care signifies a route back to the idea that we should put our own physical and mental health before the pressures of society. 

The practice of self-care is, at its root, inherently simple. It is very literally the act of caring for ourselves. Its representation online is, of course, inclusive of just that - but it is not exclusive. Aware of the influence a social media trend can hold, companies have jumped at the chance to utilise it, exploiting the hashtag with the aim of increasing sales and widening exposure. And we ourselves, whether consumers, influencers, or regular everyday human beings; are similarly guilty. How many times has a conversation about an ill-advised purchase resulted in the jovial use of ‘#selfcare?’ How many times has the hashtag been hastily added to a sponsored post, designed with the sole intention of promoting a new brand of skincare?

It is, some would say, a natural progression - an unfortunate downside to the nature of advertising and social media. But, the further self-care embeds itself into popular culture, the further it strays from its original concept. It is trivialised. It is ironic. The term becomes increasingly and intrinsically linked to specific items, precise experiences. Buy this facemask. Take your mate to this spa. Sign up to this yoga and wellness workshop. Because if you don’t, you’re not practicing self-care well enough. And the more often the practice is linked to purchasable products, the closer it becomes to being a consumer product in itself. 

This is where we encounter difficulty. Because self-care cannot be bought or sold. It is, by design, subjective. It is different for everyone who considers it and practices it. What might be self-care for you one day will be something entirely different on another. Moreover, for those who have different needs, self-care can literally be about staying alive. To reduce the practice to a hashtag consisting largely of yoga and Netflix is distinctly ableist. Self-care might well include a night watching terrible television, but it also includes taking medication, attending health appointments, eating meals. It might include finding the correct carer for yourself, quitting your job, applying for financial help, buying a walking aid, learning to communicate in an unconventional way. It might also include encouraging yourself to get out of bed, trying something new, educating yourself. Not really Instagram-friendly, is it? Figures show that Google searches for the term ‘self-care’ have more than doubled in the last year - a hugely promising realisation. But if it is really to have a positive impact, the variety of representation also needs to increase.      

The danger of both the monetisation and the limited representation of self-care lies in the people it excludes. It is evident that enduring fatigue, and the aforementioned ‘millennial burnout’ is a generation-wide problem. Even for those who do not align with the avocado-eating, podcast-consuming millennial stereotype; modern life is exhausting. The need for self-care is universal. But its practice is not, and this is something that the modern representation fails to depict. Scrolling through posts adorned with the self-care hashtag, we find millions of pictures that illustrate a very specific, very marketable form of self-care. 

It is monopolised by wealthy, healthy and white Instagram influencers, and is guilty of excluding pretty much everyone else. And when those within the varying minorities are faced with this, they are left feeling as though self-care is just another trend that they are excluded from. Because, while a facemask might aid a bad skin day, it will not cure a chronic illness. A holiday may well provide an excellent escape, but it requires a form of financial stability that not everyone is privy to. And the newest shampoo being sold to you in an #ad has probably not been made with the requirements of Afro hair in mind. And this needs to change. Because, as Lorde's words teach us, self-care is at once a radical and necessary act. We can still practice self-care. You just don’t need the latest products or a hashtag to do it.

Follow Steph on Twitter: @StephHebdon