Self-care: a luxury and privilege that lots of people still don’t get enough of

autumn_forest_1920x1200The rhetoric of “self-care” comes up a lot these days, with so many harried people rushing hither thither, stretched to the point of exhaustion, calendars crammed from morning to night with no breathing space unless it too is written in.

I sort of cringe when people ask me about self-care, which people do these days because I’m one of the harried masses. I cringe because I understand too that the rhetoric of self-care is steeped in class privilege. That’s not to say that the sense of being over-stretched every day respects class boundaries.

But the concept of self-care as these days has a luxurious quality about it that is frequently accessible only to those of means. I came across a great article about self-care and justice by Toronto writer Nashwa Kahn where she talks about just this. She provides a feminist analysis of self-care as a neo-liberal idea not sufficiently subject to critical commentary.

All too often, we equate it with spa days, shopping getaways with our friends, sipping on pricey lattes, attending classes in swishy yoga studios.  Even cheaper or free versions of self-care require time, if not money. And if someone is in survival mode, time is as scarce as money. Khan writes:

…we forget that a few key components in these fleeting moments of self-care are other expenses like time, individualized space and caregiving. There are generational differences in immigrant understandings of self-care, as well as differences in the accessibility of self-care. I would argue that this is linked to self-care as a Western commodified worldview – one where community needs and power dynamics can be erased in a new wave of self-care capitalism.

Despite its being mired in this type of world view, geared mostly at privileged white women, she cautions against a new, “progressive” movement where suddenly the commodities of self-care are abandoned before women of colour, who also “can and should be able to have nice things,” her to enjoy them. 

What she does call for is a more critical discourse around all aspects of the self-care “package,” so that it’s not just cordoned off into “feel-good moments”:

Now, a girls’ day out shopping, mani pedis and bougie brunch can be named self-care. People do not have to think about those who service them or the processes that enable some people to sit in a gentrifying cafe, wear clothes made in a sweatshop and dispossess other people in the name of care. People no longer have to ponder the woman they tipped a few bucks. She, like the person who made the clothes or the person who was displaced to make room for the cafe are rendered invisible, while those indulging in self-care are positioned as healing themselves in ways that cannot be critically examined.

So with all that as preface, Khan has expressed much more eloquently than I ever have one complex set of reasons why the language of self-care makes me uncomfortable.

But I think too that there’s another reason why it makes me uncomfortable, and that’s because I frankly don’t do enough of it. I’m not saying I don’t get enough manicures, pedicures, or massages. These are not regular parts of my life and I confess that, speaking to Anita the other day about possible rewards that we could take at various points in our upcoming half marathon training I was thinking more in terms of breakfast at the diner than cute new outfits or spa days. Not free, but not an outrageous luxury either.

I’m on a Facebook sabbatical this week, and to me, that’s self-care. Besides feeling as if it’s a time suck, stealing time that I don’t have right now, I’m also almost unable to bear the random and uncontrolled stream of incoming commentary and news about the US election (and I’m not even an American, not even living in the US).

I’m writing this instead of watching the third Presidential debate tonight. That’s self-care.

I plan to walk to and from campus tomorrow, 50 minutes each way, much of it on the pathway through the park and beside the river. The trees are in a perfect state of autumn transition right now. And October has been so generous weather-wise, with warm days and hardly any rain. My walking commute is a form of self-care that gives me a buffer at the beginning and end of each day. I’m fortunate to live in a city where I have a safe and beautiful route available to me, minutes from my front door.

And yes, my self-care includes running (which, despite what so many of us have said over the years, is not simply a matter of throwing on your shoes), meeting friends for dinner, soaking in a hot bath with Himalayan salt (I haven’t a clue if it’s any better than regular epsom salt, and I am equally ignorant of whether epsom salt baths are any better than plain old water), knitting, colouring (yes, I did it, I bought an adult colouring book and some pencils–I like it).

But it equally includes going to bed early, spending an afternoon cooking (I realize this only counts as self-care to those who do not have to do it every day), waking up early enough to meditate, and, alternatively, staying in bed for an extra half an hour, or hour, or longer.

I like Nashwa Khan’s critical take on self-care as a social justice issue with class and race dimensions that are all too infrequently pushed to the side. At the same time, I think there is a valid notion of caring for ourselves in kind and compassionate ways, not driving ourselves into the ground, with the only reprieves being found in pedicures and fancy brunches.

What does self-care mean to you and have you ever thought of it as a social justice issue?

27 thoughts on “Self-care: a luxury and privilege that lots of people still don’t get enough of

  1. Like you I cringe at most talk of self care. What we need are better structural supports for work life balance, good elder care,, affordable day care, coverage for health care things like physio. I hate the personalizing of self care as if it’s really a choice for the person earning an hourly wage, taking public transit, working two jobs, and then working a second shift at home cooking and cleaning. It’s not that I don’t ever take days off. And like you I view exercise as self care and a privilege. But the way the discussion is framed really jars me. As if the unfair division of work in the home were a matter of women falling in our duties of self care. We need different, more political language around this.

  2. I guess for us we have the luxury of income to pay for things like help with house cleaning and jobs that reward overwork. There I think it’s both a personal choice, to be an overworked overachiever, and a cultural one, valuing people who choose more balanced lives.

    1. Yes, that’s the other side of it (hence what I wrote about “corporate bragging” where that’s valourized and balance is “lazy” or only for those who lack ambition.

      1. I tell the story to myself this way, there’s a finite amount you can achieve in life and some people choose to spend it all at work. We recognize those people at work for their tremendous achievements. But there’s no performance evaluation for life and if there were they might not be doing so well in the other categories.

      2. Yes, this is another of those great conversations you and I have been having for over two decades now and we both think similarly about it. Similarly, the task list with all of its check marks is not carved into anyone’s tombstone or on display alongside the family photos at the memorial celebration of life!

      3. Our bosses also tried to shame you and make you feel guilty for trying to take care of yourself while they have no qualms about taking time off from work any time they want to plus many of them want to fired you if you do take time off.

  3. I had not thought of self-care as a justice issue. It obviously is, yet in my case of caregiving for a spouse with a slow declining illness the gender issues weren’t as obvious. There are both women and men in my online support group (, but the women are perhaps more likely to have no help. The class issues are more obvious, and that is clearly a political issue of inadequate support for elder care but woven together with varying cultural expectations.

    One oddity in the system in the US is that in almost all circumstances a spouse is financially responsible for their spouse’s care. In some states the spouse must spend even their retirement savings, down to allowed amount that is usually around $100,000, before Medicaid will pay for long-term nursing home care. I think that in a patriarchal system it was a part of a man’s responsibility to take care of his wife, but I was horrified that my pre-nuptial agreement did not protect me from having to spend my own savings on my husband’s care when his money ran out.

    To go back to self-care, during my husband’s illness people kept telling me that I needed to take care of myself, but it wasn’t clear what that would consist of. I’m not a spa day kind of person, and I couldn’t face keeping up my athletic training when I might be interrupted at any minute. Since my husband’s death I’m back to bicycling and loving it, but it does take a lot of time.

    Perhaps what is most at issue here is how much control we have of our own time. That is class-based but also situation-based.

    1. Pam, I’m very sorry about your loss. You raise some a great point about control over our time. Sometimes I think that the most basic “self-care” is adequate nutrition and rest. And that is clearly class- and situation- based since not everyone has the option of a full night’s sleep (I’m imagining new parents, or single parents, or people who don’t have a clean and quiet bed under a safe roof, or someone whose work hours don’t make it possible to get consistent sleep and rest, for example). Thanks for your comment, and enjoy the bike!

    2. It would not be a situation based if the class based did create the situation in the first place.

  4. Like you, Tracy and Sam, I’ve been feeling more and more uncomfortable about the ways we talk about “self-care”. It really needs unpacking in so many ways. The idea of “pampering” ourselves, whether it is a bubble bath, spa day or slice of chocolate cake, has built-in a sense of “guilty pleasure” (as if we are abandoning our real lives and responsibilities) and is certainly gendered. And of course it’s super-individualistic, placing all the responsibility for mental and physical well-being on the individual, as if persons had control over their work and home lives. As someone with a secure, well-paid and flexible job, I am very privileged to have more control than most people. But all of us need the help of structural features in systems that serve as checks on other powerful forces. An article came across my FB feed titled: “The way to a better work-life balance? Unions, not self-help”. It’s here:

    We’re seeing more of these articles pushing back against the rhetoric of self-care in a bunch of the ways you clearly point out in your post. It’s good to keep talking about it.

    1. You’re so right that we usually think of it in terms of “pampering,” as if it’s an indulgence that needs to be snuck in, not fully deserved!

  5. Many (if not most) conversations about so-called “work-life balance” seem to presuppose that there is one correct way to understand “work” and (something supposedly separate) called “life,” as well as a distinction between them, elevating an evaluative claim to some kind of quasi-factual status.

    1. That too. I totally agree and in fact I think Kim Solga, who blogs at “The Activist Classroom,” posted about that last year. There’s a lot of good stuff worth reflecting on in the rhetoric of work and life and what counts as “the good life.” Thanks for your comment, Shelley!

  6. One of my favorite writers on self-care is Shannon Barber, who is a black woman– you can find her work by googling “self care like a boss”. Her work is aimed at folks who might be poor or marginalized but want to find ways to make self-care work. There are lots of voices out there talking about this…

  7. Around the turn of the millenium, we discussed this issue at a St. John’s community meeting dealing with mental health. Our focus was on promoting self care that did not cost money, and we coined the term cashless coping. Activities included walking, listening to kids laugh, playing with cats or dogs (our own or someone else’s), finding wild flowers etc. We encouraged people to share their ideas for cashless coping, and later we developed specific ones for the holidays and one for new moms. I think it is really important to look beyond manis/pedis as self care (although if that is what floats your boat, I’m not going to judge because women get judged enough as it is) and consider why women need to practice self care, how do we define it from our different standpoints, and how to ensure we have access to resources we need to achieve both.

    1. I like this idea of cashless coping. And I think too we need to think about the gendered dimensions of the need for self-care. Why is it something we associate mostly with women? Thanks for your comment, Martha.

  8. Tracy, I LOVE This! I’m at a point of taking self-care (small sabbatical) and I TOTALLY agree, it can be something free, (like taking a Facebook Sabbatical!) cheap, or even something that could SAVE us money! GIRL POWER! You’ve inspired me Tracy and I’m going to talk about this issue with the ladies who watch my You Tube show! You and I have A LOT in common! I hope we can connect and talk? I’ll be praying for you! Thanks Tracy!

  9. I’ve never had a pedicure, manicure in my life. I’m not a spa person at all. I dislike saunas.

    Self-care among the poor, we might have seen it simply enough rest for a busy parent and for the person to enjoy a nice meal in peace at home. For some self-care it’s even more basic: personal safety. I deem that priority no.1, even over nutritious meals and rest.

  10. Reblogged this on Hey, That's Good Stuff and commented:
    Wow, so true. I was raised middle class and need to see posts like this so that I can be cognizant of classism I am unintentionally normalizing.

    I make an effort to be as intersectional as possible in my critiques of the world within academia because of my privileged position as a middle class white woman.

    Two years ago for instance, I wrote a paper about the emotional labor and racial hierarchy present in white upper class nail salons, which work to reproduce a denigration of Asian women.

    Last semester I also wrote a paper about the normalization of “whiteness” at large. This being when a white person typically refers to someone without a distinguished “racial identifying term” around the word they mean a white person.

    This is of course reproduced through the “otherness” of anyone “non-white” which is, frankly –total bullshit– and needs to end.

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