“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence; it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare,” wrote Audre Lorde, a self-described ‘black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet’.
In 1988, her words were a rally cry for liberation – they are designed to persuade us to contemplate where our power lies, and how we might use it in service of our values. The idea that she – a black, queer woman, claimed the right to space, autonomy and recuperation, in a world that was hostile to her very existence, was truly revolutionary. For Lorde, therefore, self-care was an act of resistance, an insistence that she was worthy of care; to care for oneself – to rest, recover and restore – was essential to doing the hard work of social change. It disrupted capitalism, pushing back against white supremacy and other systems of oppression that work to undermine particular identities: woman-identifying, black, indigenous, queer. This is why it’s critical that we understand what she meant when we adopt her words en masse, to contexts distanced from hers by time and space.
Before the concept of self-care was rampantly commodified to become synonymous with spas and hydrating face-masks, the idea that women or others at socio-political and economic vulnerabilities not only could, but should, take care of their needs first was a radical idea. From the … to … and …, we are socialized to believe we exist to take care of the needs of others first; to deviate in any way is a threat to social order.
To say, “I matter, this is what I need and what I want” is inappropriate, selfish, dangerous, actively challenging the trope that we exist only to give our time and energy to productive labour or caring for the collective (one that is externally decided – marginalised people mobilising around causes pertinent to their communities is, of course, anti-national)
Thankfully, there has been a bit of a shift in public pulse and thought trends since then; we’ve perhaps come to recognize that our energy is a finite resource. At a relational level, it’s common for us to hear that ‘we cannot fill anyone else’s cup from an empty pitcher’. However, there has been another, more insidious shift. Stripping away its radical political roots has commercialized self-care. It’s now marketed as a personal responsibility, underscored by concepts of productivity, self-worth, and deservingness, as defined by a capitalist market. The core concept that rest is an essential part of resisting against oppression and fighting for social change gets lost.
This neutralization of self-care as a tool of political warfare is not an accident. When self-care is framed as little more than me time, collective survival becomes an individual responsibility. It makes it much harder for people who experience multiple systems of oppression to care for themselves without community support. Framing self-care as a simplistic replacement for integrated systems of social care, takes governments and organizations off the hook for a greater responsibility for the wellness and healthy functioning of communities. Shifting responsibility for well-being onto already vulnerable people is a strategy of divide and conquer. It serves to neutralize social outrage by separating and silencing critical voices.