The Problem With Self-Care
NB: When I started That Hummingbird Life 4.5 years ago, I started it as an online home for burnt-out women with the mission of helping women who always put themselves last realise that self care wasn’t selfish. It’s fair to say things were different then. Self-care wasn’t the trendy thing it is now (#selfcare). It felt revolutionary: it wasn’t a common turn of phrase, it was more of a wake-up call and a form of protest. I have since developed take a much more feminist-stance on self-care and this piece is a reflection on how the self-care has been co-opted (for the worse) and a call-to-arms for a new movement.
As women we’re fighting a range of visible and invisible battles every single day. Against ourselves, for ourselves and everything in between.
We’re socialised as women to put ourselves last, taught to hate every part of ourselves while simultaneously told that we’re worth it (in the name of spending money to fix our ‘flaws) and repeatedly told we can have everything and do everything but are met with criticism, trolling and dreamshitters no matter what we choose.
(Case in point: I had a bit of a rant on Twitter the other day about my decision to be childless-by choice and how everyone I know warns me against getting a dog because of the commitment but would only be too happy for me to announce I was pregnant. It sparked a great conversation with women who had children who told me I wasn’t alone in facing the criticism. One woman told me how when she had one daughter she was told she was selfish for only having one, and then when she had another girl , was constantly reminded that they needed a brother. WE CAN’T FUCKING WIN.)
And I think there’s a new battle on the horizon: self-care.
In the last couple of years, self-care has started becoming a trendy buzzword that it never was before.
Before it was conversations about how we’re not superwomen and learning to say no. It was about learning to ask for help and setting boundaries, and making time for ourselves.
Don’t get me wrong, in the last ten years there have been some amazing projects and people who I only wish had been around when I needed them the most. Magazines like Flow, In The Moment and Project Calm. Women like Christy Tending and Rachel Daisy.
But they’re the minority. Now it’s an Instagram hashtag to be thrown around and rather than a solution, it seems to have become a problem. A problem that is perpetuating the bullshit notions of patriarchy that we’ve been fighting against for years. (If you don’t believe me, go look at #selfcare on Instagram.)
On a society level, so many of the conversations about wellness or self-care we have as women are, well, fucked-up to say the least.
This new #self-care trend tends to do one of two things:
Makes you feel shit about yourself because self-care looks like something that has to be beautiful and impressive. It seems to be something exclusively for white, middle-class, skinny, yoga-doing, green-smoothie-drinking and law-of-attraction believing women. And I don’t know about you, but I do not see myself reflected in that. It makes me feel fat, worse about my love affair with dry hair shampoo and makes me feel like I seriously do not have my shit together.
It tempts you into believing that if just got on the green smoothie wagon, everything in your life would be okay. You decide you’re going to get up at 5am the next morning for your new routine of yoga, smoothie, meditation, work-out, affirmations and when the next day, you snooze the alarm clock until seven and root around looking for a clean pair of leggings, you end up in scenario 1, feeling shitty, ashamed and like you’re the only woman out there who doesn’t have her shit together.
I don’t know about you, but neither of those options seem great.
And I’ve been in both scenarios countless, countless times. I now realise it takes time to form habits, that self-care can look like whatever the fuck you want it to, but it’s taken time to get to a place where I stop judging and blaming myself.
All this is to say is that this new trend of self-care is simplistic, reductive and generally bullshit.
It’s going backwards. As women we’re now not only faced with the pressure to have it all and do it all, (while looking effortless), but to take time for ourselves in a way that looks beautiful, convinces others that we have the perfect life and to keep our shit together all the damn time.
I used to think whole notion of self-care was revolutionary in the way that it was about reclaiming yourself, and it was a radical act to look after yourself in a world that tries to convince you you’re not good enough at every turn you make.
Back when I started talking about self-care, I was arguing the point that self-care isn’t about a spa day or a bubble bath, but instead doing things that light you up.
Now I find myself arguing that the notion of self-care is no longer a revolutionary act but something that is becoming yet another tool to further oppress women.
The revolution has been co-opted.
By corporations and mainstream media which uses it to sell us more shit we don’t need.
By this whole aspirational branding side of the online world which tells us that if only we think good thoughts, only positive things will happen.
By the female empowerment brand that gaslights us on a daily basis: “a marketing strategy that leverages social status and white privilege to create authority over other women.” — Kelly Diels
And I think it’s time for a new revolution.
Because buying a new gorgeous mug and expensive tea, brewing said cup of tea in said gorgeous mug and putting together in a flat lay of candles, notebooks and pens to photograph on Instagram to show people you’re having a #selfcaresunday is not fucking self-care.
Showing pictures of the weight you have lost next door to your meal-prep for the week that I think even my pet rabbits would turn their nose up is not fucking self-care.
Learning the art of putting on make-up so it doesn’t look like you’re wearing make up isn’t fucking self-care.
It’s not radical, it’s not revolutionary; it’s the same shit women have been told to do for centuries:
Take up less space
Look like you have all your shit together (for the most part we’re no longer hung as witches or put in asylums for being 'hysterical’ but we still have to pretend like everything’s okay for the sake of society at large)
Keep up with the Joneses
Know your place and stay there
Be a ‘good woman’
It’s quite literally buying into the same bullshit we’ve been oppressed by that so many of us fight against. And I am so sick of this shit.
So I’ve been thinking lately about what the actual intention of self-care is, going back to the roots of what it is actually about.
It’s not about taking a bubble bath and justifying an expensive spa pass. It’s not about taking photos on Instagram and showing everyone your new food prep routine. And it’s certainly not about staying small, being a good woman and knowing your place.
It’s actually about self-preservation.
It’s about keeping your own light lit in a world that seeks to dim your brightness and make you like everyone else.
It’s about doing the necessary things you need to do in your life to look after your mental health, keep yourself safe and protect yourself from dreamshitters.
It’s about standing up for yourself, your beliefs, who you are, especially when you don’t see yourself or your story reflected anywhere around you.
It’s about creating a lifestyle that is sustainable so you can continue to have the energy, hope and enthusiasm for the the work you do to make the world a brighter place.
It’s about making choices for yourself that allow you to make the world a better place than how you found it.
It’s about saying no when the world demands you say yes to everyone and everything.
It’s about working on yourself and examining your beliefs you hold about yourself and where they came from so you quite being your own personal dreamshitter.
It’s about examining your own her-story and the position you hold in society and what you can do to make the world a brighter place for the people not yet invited to the table.
It’s about acknowledging that you don’t have control over everything and that life doesn’t become a unicorn love-fest just because you think positive thoughts and that’s okay.
It’s about acknowledging that we have a duty as citizens to not let the world go to shit, no matter how fucked-up it gets. To collectively hold onto hope and build alternatives to structural oppression rather than the more tempting option of (and I get it’s often tempting), going into ourselves and hibernating.
It’s about seeing your bright sides as well as your dark sides and embracing the shadows instead of hiding them away, ashamed.
Like the definition of preserve says, it’s about both ‘maintaining something in its original or existing state’ and to ‘prevent its decomposition’.
It’s about our survival as women; bright, creative, weird, brilliant women who don’t know how to be another way than how we are but are always being told we’re not right, or we’re doing it wrong and that we’re not wanted in society.
It takes true courage to be yourself in a world that consistently reminds you that you should be something else.
It takes rebellion to wake up every day and fight for the things you believe in and who you are.
And it takes a shitload of resilience carry on being yourself and fighting for yourself and the things you believe in, when all the signs point the other way and tell you that it’s futile. (It’s not.)
So let’s flip the narrative.
Let’s see self-preservation as the life-changing and sustaining work it is, rather than #selfcare and an excuse to buy a new candle.
Let’s stop trying to make everything ‘sexy’ and see that it takes real work to keep your own light lit.
Let’s stop doing things for clicks and instead acknowledge that this isn’t glamorous stuff and do it anyway.
And let’s stop making everything look so impressive and instead get real and honest about who we are, what we experience and the stories we have to share.
In so many of the articles out there about self-care, this wonderful quote by the revolutionary feminist Audre Lorde comes up time and time again:
Audre said it first: it’s about preservation.
And it’s about more than just yourself.
Dare to get political.
Dare to make a stand.
Dare to do what you need to keep being you.
Come home to yourself, not a skinny chai latte or a new bunch of lavender for a flat-lay.
I’d really love to hear your thoughts on self-care, self-preservation and really start a new conversation about what it means to sustain and survive as a woman. Let’s get chatting in the comments below!