EVERY SELF FOR THEMSELVES
Self-care is the lovechild of neoliberalism and capitalism
by Paula Ethans
The roots of self-care in the anti-oppression struggle are long and deep. For decades, self-care has been a crucial tool for equity seeking groups. Self-care is linked to pleasure, and for those who consistently have their bodies, lives, and pleasure denied to them—people of colour, women, indigent people, and LGBTQ communities—doing things that provide pleasure is indeed radical. In that way, self-care is feminist. It’s people standing up for themselves and declaring, I am worthy of love. I require certain basic things and I deserve to be cared for.
But self-care as it exists today is no longer radical.
Self-care has been co-opted by the patriarchy. Capitalism, colonialism and neoliberalism have wrapped their claws around it, using it as a tool to distract and isolate marginalized people from fighting to reform our oppressive systems.
Self-care has been commodified, morphed from radical reclamation to reflexive consumerism.
Soaked in an “ethos of consumption,” slogans like treat yourself blatantly encourage spending money on things that are nice, but unnecessary. Beats by Dre tells us we “deserve the best” and L’Oréal sings “Because you’re worth it,” convincing us that we are entitled to luxury items.
Self-care is both a symptom and a tool of capitalism, making us feel the need to improve ourselves so we can be more productive and contribute more to the conveyor belt of consumerism. Self-care tells us to do what we must—take a bubble bath or go on a meditation retreat—so we can keep grinding in a system that was designed to perpetuate inequity. It’s profiting from people’s experiences in an unjust system, pushing them to continue surviving in and upholding it.
Caring for oneself has been reduced to indulgences accessible only to the privileged. The $10 billion-dollar industry has convinced us that practicing self-care means going on a vacation or visiting the spa. Mainstream self-care shuts out those who need it the most. Phenomena like being sexually assaulted or not having enough money to feed one’s family are directly linked to mental ill-health, yet those affected by these issues can’t afford the luxury of today’s self-care.
The patriarchy has weaponized self-care, making it a neoliberal tool of continued subservience to capitalism.
The word self, in self-care, signals to us its neoliberal ideology. Yes, it’s referring to oneself, but it’s also discussing only one self. Our self. No one else’s self. Every self for themselves.
Self-care is rooted in the neoliberal ideology individualism. It isolates your experience, maintaining that anxiety and fatigue are out of the ordinary. It tells you that the average person is alright, and you too can be alright, if you just light a scented candle. If you get enough sleep and eat enough vegetables—just take care of yourself—your anxiety will slip away. It’s gaslighting on a national level.
Self-care is a tool of the patriarchy because it distracts from the bigger picture. It doesn’t want you to notice that most people live precariously and spend too much time working, feeling exhausted, stressed, and disheartened.
Some say that self-care was initially a good solution to our fast-paced lives until it was co-opted by companies. Telling people to take care of themselves is a good thing, but was it ever a good solution? Was it ever even a solution? Or was it a band-aid for a bloodbath?
To suggest that our very real, systemic problems can be remedied by big blankets and bubble baths is deeply paternalistic. Telling people, 'This is the reality and it's not going to change so try to make yourself a little happier,' is dismissive, belittling and manipulative.
Self-care was molded into an individualistic consumerist notion—marketed as the solution to our existential anxiety—to distract us from the bigger picture. Need a break? Have a Kit Kat, don’t demand better labour laws. Diabetes getting you down? Do some yoga, don’t fight for accessible health care. As Jordan Kisner writes, it ensures that “victims will become isolated in a futile struggle to solve their own problems rather than to collectively change the systems causing them harm.”
Capitalism created a downtrodden workforce by pushing employees to their limits, and it is now trying to provide its own solution. The problem is, it’s no solution at all. Unsurprisingly, capitalism hasn’t suggested people revert to the more humane 40 hour work week or actually take their vacation days, ideas which would help workers focus on their well-being. Instead, capitalism tell people to do more squats, moisturize more often, and drink more mushroom coffee.
In reality, self-care is an escape, not a solution. It promotes coping, not healing. Capitalism uses self-care to peddle the narrative that our issues, be it gendered household pressures or precarious employment, are “divorced from material and political context” and can be solved by chocolate and chanting. It tells us to draw inwards—inundate ourselves with movies and mantras – because it’s only us who has this problem, and it’s only ours to solve.
It’s a convenient narrative. It’s easier to see these things as individual anomalies rather than widespread issues embedded in the fabric of our society.
Unfortunately, it’s a fictitious narrative.
In the wake of the wellness movement, mental health in America is getting worse. Between 1999-2014, the US suicide rate increased twenty-four percent. Seventy-eight percent of adults were just as, or more, stressed in 2018 than 2017, and eighteen percent of adults report having an anxiety disorder.
Millennials spend twice as much as baby boomers on wellness products. Millennials—who’ve been accused of ‘killing’ numerous industries because they have almost no disposable income—are telling us with their spending habits that they’re unhappy in this capitalist regime. Unfortunately, they don’t know how to channel that dissatisfaction.
Yoga classes don’t pay the bills. Exfoliant can’t scrub away PTSD. And we can’t sleep off intergenerational trauma.
It’s okay to enjoy a treat sometimes. Rainbow lattes don’t harm anyone and they make us happy. But we can’t allow ‘good vibes’ to be our guiding philosophy; we can’t self-love our way out of economic racism or crippling student debt. We cannot ‘cope’ our way out of capitalism.
We need to understand that the mental health crisis isn’t just ‘how some people are wired’ and it’s not millions of isolated, individual reactions. It is a systemic problem that can only be adequately addressed by ending the economic order that puts billions of people in a tumultuous, insecure position.
So as we continue with our bubble bath bliss, we also need to fight against the institutions that make us need self-care so badly. Go to yoga classes, but also go to town hall meetings. Buy cinnamon buns, but also buy critical race theory books. Call your ex, but also call your Senator.
This fight mainly falls on the shoulders of the privileged. Marginalized communities are focused on surviving—truly requiring self-care—and cannot commit the same energy and resources to resisting and transforming systems. It’s on white women, wealthy folks, men, straight people, etc. to do the hard work.
As Angela Davis said, “freedom is a constant struggle,” so giving ourselves nice things from time to time is fine. It helps us wade through the darkness. But there will be no light at the end of the tunnel if we do not walk towards it. Fight for it. Put down our bath bombs and march for it.
We cannot claim our liberty from the bathtub.