The Truth About #Selfcare

#Selfcare is a lie. 

It is.

But not in the way you think.

Let’s get this out of the way now: When I say I hate #selfcare, I don’t mean I hate focusing and prioritizing oneself and well-being. That IS good. And taking care of yourself is key to living well. But that’s not #selfcare. 

In 2016, self-care crossed into the mainstream as a concept of tending to one’s own well-being. And immediately, it exploded into something much more. The #selfcare movement has become a sensation across the globe. The hashtag has 15 million followers on social media. There are entire business platforms dedicated to spreading its mantra — that of do-it-yourself spa days, herbal tea blends, yoga mats, and Netflix binges.

But the origins of self-care are much older and deeper.

Self-care itself originated as a philosophical, then medical concept. Socrates, the great Greek philosopher, advocated for “attending to oneself” before entering the public sphere of leadership. Doctors have long expressed it as “a way for patients to treat themselves and exercise healthy habits, most often under the guidance of a health[care] professional”.

Before the 1960’s and 70’s, patients introduced to self-care were the elderly who required long-term care and the mentally ill, both of whom had little autonomy. Soon, it caught on as a tool for workers in high-risk and emotionally demanding professions. People like therapists, social workers, EMTs to combat stress from work. This was based on the idea that “one cannot adequately take on the problems of others without taking care of oneself”. The notion was that it could be achieved by enjoying a hobby, taking a vacation, or other similar activities. 

During the rise of the civil-rights and women’s movements, self-care took a political turn. The Black Panther Party promoted it as essential for all Black citizens to stay resilient in the face of systemic and medical racism. Healthcare reform was an important pillar of the Black Panther platform. It was largely a response to the mass failure to diagnose sickle-cell disease, which almost exclusively affects people of African descent. They created free clinics to test for the painful disease and provided follow-up care to patients.

At the same time, women were fighting a societal and medical system which ignored and devalued them. In her hit book Doing Harm, Maya Dusenbery exposes a medical research & advancement system that is almost completely devoid of female representation, and although progress has been made, it has been slow & painful. 

In their efforts to change this fact, representatives have made significant leaps, however. In the 1960s & 70s, women’s health activists “successfully transformed many aspects of medicine: they won the legal right to abortion, established women’s health clinics, and secured important patient rights…”. And the exposure of two high-profile prescription drug disasters involving women led to Congressional adoption of the Kefauver-Harris Amendment, which “significantly beefed up the drug-approval process, essentially putting in place most of the [FDA] regulations we take for granted today.”

In the 1980’s others built on their progress and continued to advocate for self-care. After making the decision to direct the course of her own medical treatment after a cancer diagnosis, activist Audre Lorde wrote what has become the cornerstone of the self-care movement. In her book A Burst of Light, Lorde declared “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation…”.  

These fights for survival in the face of oppression coincided with a ‘wellness’ trend making its way through the United States. With the tenets of improving one’s quality of life at the helm, the wellness movement was a result of healthcare professionals’ disappointment with traditional Western medicine’s failure to address all the needs of their patients. The idea was that wellness is more than just an absence of illness. It is continuous multi-faceted health, in the direct control of oneself (at least in part). And it  flew in the face of the entire American Medical System. More than that, the revolutionary view of wellness was met with a level of public ridicule similar to what Millennials experience today.

Graphic by Natalie Bauer

Progress continued over the next few decades until the 1990s when a notable shift began to occur. Self-care practices and programs began to move from minority populations into the mainstream and soon became associated with the wealthy.   Holistic wellness and fitness were heavily marketed as a lifestyle and largely embraced by health clubs, business execs, and moms looking for an escape. Its tone received a facelift as well – from survival and activism, to indulgence and luxury.

It wasn’t until the early 2000s that self-care made a medical resurgence. Post 9/11, a large-scale conversation around self-care’s role after traumatic events reemerged. And as the technology age swooped in, with independent media and content sources readily available, marginalized voices were able to join the conversation. Eventually they led it. 

In a political and socio-economic landscape as divisive as ever, self-care has become the tagline of choice for millions of Americans. Bloggers, medical providers, viral Instagram celebs, fitness coaches, and even Karen down the street have #Selfcare at the tip of their tongues. And yet, for far too many, they’re getting it completely wrong.

Self care was designed as a tool, but it ends up being used as a band-aid. In these trying times, it’s tempting to seek an escape from the struggles and wounds of everyday life. And with every other source touting luxurious #selfcare strategies as a means to that end, it’s no wonder. Bubble baths, essential oils, and massages are relaxing. Fitness challenges, yoga practices and diets are healthy. They all seem like progress and give us a much-needed, feel-good pause from our frustrations.

#Selfcare feeds our desire for instant gratification. It makes us feel better in the short-term, and tricks us into believing it’s healing us. That’s the nature of bandaids. They may protect a wound from the destructive forces around us, but they do not heal. Your own body heals its wounds–you! And when wounds surpass personal ability or knowledge, seeking guidance to gather tools and skills is the answer. Not more #selfcare.

We don’t need #selfcare.

What we need is to heal. Healing demands that we swing the pendulum back to self-care’s roots and shift our understanding of self-care as a way of survival rather than escape.

Well-being is a multi-faceted journey far beyond what you’ve been told. Living well means looking inward with compassion and honesty to identify the neglected areas in your life, traits that drive your behavior, and obstacles holding you back. And it is recognizing your power and responsibility in addressing what you find, and building the foundation of resources, skills, and tools to finally take action in a sustainable, successful way.

So, rather than #selfcare, I say #digin. Because by digging in deep and doing the work, you will most certainly find healing – and ultimately the well being – you’ve always been looking for.

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