Revisiting self-care as a political act

I hate the term “self-care.” It is always sounds too woo-woo to me. It carries connotations of superficiality, summoning up the image of people relying on scented candles to handle oppression, injustice, subordination. Because the phrase has been hijacked by “influencers” and by marketers, it can seem that self-care is not-politics, that it requires inattention to politics or disengagement from politics.

When I set aside the term and focus on the practice of self-care, when I live true self-care, I know it is just another dimension of politics. True self-care requires the sort of engagement with oneself, the sort of care for and attention to oneself, that, in a just and ethical society, would be manifested collectively, in how we treat one another, in how our institutions function and how they make us feel, and in the principles and policies of our governments.

True self-care means being fair to oneself, treating oneself as as an end-in-oneself, as an agent, the author of one’s life. This requires nurturing one’s own agency, at both very basic levels and more sophisticated ones. It means resting and relaxing, it means finding and doing activities that expand one’s spirit and one’s mind. It means treating oneself as a person, not a machine, not a worker, not a consumer, but as a full-fledged, multi-faceted human being.

Self-care is not self-absorption. It is not collapsing into oneself. It is working with yourself as you would have others work with you and as you should work with them. When I engage myself supportively, compassionately and with dignity, I get better at engaging others in this way. Self-care and care for others are yin and yang.

The more oppressive and unjust our institutions are, the more we must find our own ways to assert and care for our personhood, our agency. Precisely because so many of our institutions do not operate ethically, justly, decently, treating ourselves in these ways is a political act: it is taking a stand for one’s personhood, one’s intrinsic value. Moreover, when we practice treating ourselves ethically, justly, and decently we are practicing those ways of treating people, other people as well as ourselves.

Unjust and oppressive institutions fail to recognize and actively interfere with our agency. In a more ethical and just society, we wouldn’t have to practice so much self-care or practice it so individualistically. Self-care is not a replacement for other kinds of political action, for direct work to better our institutions. But that doesn’t mean that self-care isn’t itself political action. For those of us who feel our political responsibility deeply, remembering this can short-circuit needless, unwarranted guilt for caring for ourselves.