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?

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