Bee Johnson / The New York Times

February 15, 2021

Self Care, From Audre Lorde to Gwyneth Paltrow

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When I think of self care, I’ll admit that the first things that come to mind are Pinterest-approved Instagram graphics and Goop, Gwyneth Paltrow’s wellness and lifestyle company. As a matter of fact, as I was writing this article, I took a moment to examine the self-care philosophies of both groups — Instagram led me to a post on “How to De-Stress For Your Zodiac Sign,” which had recommendations ranging from watching a rom-com to opening memory boxes, while Goop guided me to a $837 skincare routine claiming that a hot bath would get rid of all my problems. 

Now, to be fair to Gwyneth, it’s possible that “luxuriating in a steamy tub” for 20 minutes would truly revolutionize my world view, but I doubt it. This attitude towards self care — which seems to emphasize materialism as well as an ever-increasing turn into oneself — rubs me the wrong way. It feels consumerist, self-aggrandizing and also just … not that helpful. Well, again, maybe I’m wrong, and a singular bath will transform the caffeine-addicted, grouchy columnist before you into a glowing beacon of new age womanhood with a Buddha mentality. 

However, the history of self-care is far more expansive and revolutionary than this materialistic attitude would suggest. 

In 1982, during his lecture series, The Hermeneutics of the Subject, Michel Foucault uses “care of the self” in contrast to self-knowledge in order to investigate the relation between subjectivity and truth. His exact argument centers around understanding how Stoic and Epicurean models of “care of the self” differ from Platonic and Christian views; but, as I’d guess that most people aren’t reading this article as part of their philosophical endeavors, I’ll instead leave you with a brief summary as presented by the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

To sum, Foucault claims that, for ancient philosophers, care of the self was an essential principle of morality and ethical conduct, whereas care of the self within modern thought lacks moral content. Within this ancient framework, self care is an act of ethical transformation. 

Self care took on a new life with Audre Lorde’s 1988 book A Burst of Light, where she writes: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence. It is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” The book came shortly after Lorde’s second cancer diagnosis and was picked up within many queer, activist and feminist circles. In a world that constantly undermines and attacks one’s very identity, self-care becomes a necessary aspect of survival.

Both Foucault and Lorde’s conceptions of self-care operate upon very different logics than the mode of self care which has weaseled its way into the mainstream. Self care, as either an act of ethical transformation or a mechanism of self-preservation, is undeniably important. Especially at this historical moment, amid political turmoil, extreme violence and a global pandemic, self-care should be considered essential — especially for those communities who are suffering the most from the failings of our medical and economic systems. The issue, then, is what we consider self care. 

Too often, our intent to care for ourselves gives rise to self-sabotage, as our intentions for comfort begin to supersede growth. There’s a cultural element to this argument. As Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun lay out in their 15 characteristics of white supremacy culture, one of the norms of white supremacy is a belief in the “right to comfort,” or rather, “the belief that those with power have a right to emotional and psychological comfort.” The same characteristic plays in with other cultural norms presented in their work, especially — and in my mind most importantly — “individualism.” 

It’s kind of funny that one of the first people to speak on self care was Michel Foucault — a man who famously embraced neoliberalism later in life, claiming that market control would ultimately increase individual autonomy and allow for new styles of living. This same logic, wherein the market presents individualist solutions, exemplifies how self care has been co-opted. 

Self care, from a radical point of view, still goes back to the collective. Looking at self care from the perspective of activist burnout, Yashna Padamsee — a writer and employee of the National Domestic Workers Alliance — writes:  “Audre Lorde’s quote refers back to an act of preservation and act of survival for people at the margins. Self-care is an act of shoring up and resourcing ourselves to bring a stronger self to the movement. That’s the school of thought I come from.” 

The commercialization of self care would have you think that the only solution to your alienation and pain comes from the market, that only a turn inwards will solve your problems. Basically, slap a face mask on your trauma and see what happens. Now, this may be ungenerous. But why accept the coopting of radical self care by the market? By all means, preserve yourselves. Take a moment to breathe, to recenter and reflect. But, don’t accept the self care which tells you that removing yourself from society and spending all your money on products will somehow solve your woes. Self care should be an act of love, and love is anything but a capitalist construction. 

Mira Kudva Driskell is a sophomore in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]. Portrait of a Gen Z on Fire runs alternate Mondays this semester.