The concept of self-care has spread throughout society through Instagram infographics, bundles on Amazon, and BuzzFeed quizzes, to name a few examples. For most, whether teenagers or adults, the image that comes to mind is crystal clear: a soothing face mask, a cup of tea, and a silk robe. There are many self-care definitions, seen as both a way to relax after a tough week or indulge in the luxurious pleasures of life. But what if I told you those are not the original goals of self-care?
Coined by Michel Foucault in the third volume of The History of Sexuality, self-care comes from the Greek “care of the self,” the foundational principle of all moral rationality. Caring is deeply tied to ethically seeing self in light of truth: to self-care is to become a moral being.
In A Burst of Light, Audre Lorde brings the idea of self-care to new heights. According to Lorde, self-care is more of a political act. For her, self-care is not an indulgence but self-preservation. To love and care for oneself in a world hostile to your identity and existence is a radical thought, which is why Lorde’s definition is compelling in queer, feminist, and activist theory.
The commodification of self-care points to two things. One, the growing realization that we must care for ourselves before carrying out the work. Activism is both draining and incredibly rewarding, but there is no shame in caring for oneself when times are rough. Like Lorde, we must realize how radical it is to love oneself in a world determined to bring us down. Two, the mainstream idea of self-care is flawed and upholds capitalist ideals. When brands lead us to believe the only way to care for ourselves is through buying, then they have stripped the idea of self-care from its political power.
So, what can we do? First, we must return to the true roots of self-care and see it as a political choice. Second, we must partake in real self-care, the radical form of self-acceptance and love. Authentic self-acceptance and love involve both physical and mental health. Lastly, we must recognize self-care as not another ritual of individualism and consumerism. Self-care is a step in advocating for others, for our identity, for change, and a meaningful way to prepare ourselves to face a cruel world. It’s crucial to recognize that self-care consists of much more than overpriced sheet masks from Amazon.