Some Trouble with Self-Care

Hi Joel,

I’ve been thinking about our recent conversations about how to care about things while also caring about things. How do we do the small but necessary tasks of living while also doing the large but necessary work of making life possible and good for everyone?

Personally, I don’t notice that I’m struggling with the first of these tasks until I 1) lose my keys and/or wallet and 2) find myself resenting the typical duties of parenthood. So, for me, just paying attention to the immediate world (“Did I eat lunch today?”) is a step. Having children helps, as they remind me when they are hungry. Having a dog helps, too, as he reminds me to get out of my thoughts and take a walk around the block.

But I also have some concerns about the idea of “self-care.”

Here are the questions I’m thinking about:

  • Why is selfcare so often gendered? Do we not expect men to take care of themselves? Is this because we expect women to do it for them (including making doctor’s appointments and making them go to them) or because we expect men not to need care? Do we expect women to run themselves to exhaustion and thus need “selfcare” more often?


  • Caring for others is also gendered, both informally and professionally. The helping professions (teaching, social work, nursing) developed in a time when white women often left the labor force upon marriage. Thus, there was not a push to make these jobs sustainable. The women of color doing paid labor (often things like sanitizing hospitals, changing bedpans, serving as domestic servants) were/are not considered worthy of care, and the jobs that white women held were often ones that you weren’t going to do for more than a few years, so we overworked them. Women now work in much higher numbers, but we retain models of work that were for a time when women weren’t doing these jobs for the long-haul. Social workers leave the field quickly, as do teachers. So, clearly, the structures don’t work. Why don’t we change them instead of telling women to practice selfcare?


  • Along those lines, how does selfcare align with the neoliberal value of independence? Do we ever find ourselves blaming others for their lack of “selfcare“?  If selfcare is on your to-do list, is it another chore? Is it possible to get to a place where selfcare is something we do rather than something to be done?


  • When we buy selfcare, whose goods and services are we buying? Who does our nails, gives us massages, mows our lawns, and cleans our houses? What are the racial/ethnic and gendered elements of this? How do we ensure that these people have the opportunity to care for themselves?


  • In what ways do selfcare practices signal wealth and leisure to others? Do we use selfcare as a status symbol?


See the source image

Above, mixed messages in a poster advertising “Self Care Week,” the theme of which is “Self Care for Life.” Now, which is it–a week of things activities that will stress us out (because my job duties don’t end just because I take the afternoon off for a massage) or a life organized in a less stressful way?

  • What do we gain and what do we lose by cordoning some activities off as “selfcare“?  What is the rest of our life that isn’t “selfcare“? Does the use of the “selfcare” frame contribute to resentment about these other parts of our lives? How do we ensure that it doesn’t? How can we make self-sustaining practices part of our life instead of something that we add to our life? In what cultures do people do this effectively? What social arrangements do they have that make this possible?


  • Whose leisure is seen as selfcare and whose is seen as laziness? Do we have to have a story of exhaustion before we permit ourselves selfcare? If so, does this promote greater (and perhaps competitive) overwork?


  • If we expect people to perform selfcare, do we excuse ourselves from caring for them?


  • I know that these questions sound critical of selfcare, but that’s where I’m at now. I think there is good stuff about selfcare too, and I’d never dissuade someone from doing it in a way that is differently from how I do it. But, especially for wealthier white women, I want to push on how we think about this a bit.


Thoughts and suggestions welcome!


One comment

  1. I like this discussion. I’ve discovered there are different perceptions and definitions of self-care (in my deep, comprehensive study composed of what articles pop up on FB). There’s the massage/pedicure definition, which I reject. When I needed those things the most (single mom of three boys living under the poverty level), I could least afford them—both the time and the money were out of my reach. Now that I have plenty of time and sufficient money, I can afford them—but I need them the least. So I like your questions about who gets it and who actually needs it. I read another article that talked about simple things like making your bed in the morning and making time to eat more healthily. That definition made far more sense to me
    I get frustrated by the first definition of self-care because it is practiced and promoted, usually, by those who, in my view, usually need it the least—people with disposable time and income. (As a yoga teacher, I am very aware that the people most likely to take advantage of the benefits of yoga are white women w/disposable time and money, and while everyone benefits, again those who need it most are least likely to get it). So I have no answers, but I like engaging with the questions.
    Finally, I don’t want to seem as if I’m disparaging those with sufficient time and money. Most often these states come about because of good decision making, and when I see the folks I now with both of these things and all the good things so many of them do with their disposable time and income, I am loathe to appear disparaging.


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