In our society, self-love and acceptance have been branded as products of self-care. We believe that if we don a DIY papaya and honey face mask or start doing yoga, all will be made right in our personal universe. Self-care is marketed as a feat so easily attainable that all you have to do is indulge in it.
For some, those acts of self-care truly won’t do anything, especially because what’s dictating their negative mental health is more than just this quarter or the weather — it’s the state of the world.
I have definitely been guilty of allowing myself to watch Netflix as a form of self-care. Although treating yourself to a fun activity now and then is not a bad thing, I just think the idea of self-care that we’ve been fed — this instant gratification we buy in to — is misunderstood. We think it’s for everyone, a one-size-fits-all, but we fail to realize that benefitting from these forms of self-care is a privilege that certain identities simply cannot afford.
When used for the wrong purposes, self-care can also be harmful. Self-care can be used as a scapegoat for distraction, something to hide behind rather than a push to confront the uncomfortable. For those who are fortunate, self-care is the Band-Aid to their bad day. But it can also be an excuse to tune out — for non-Black folks, this may look like staying home from protests or avoiding the need to address the racism we witness affecting members of our community, for example.
Although taking time for yourself to process the current state of our world and shutting out the media with self-care methods is a valid pursuit, it must be done in moderation and with cognizance of the fine line between care and complacency.
Many people don’t have the option to opt out, to pat on a face mask or look the other way in the face of oppression. People who work paycheck-to-paycheck do not have the luxury of taking half an hour out of their day to apply a manicure. For Black people, Brown people, Indigenous people, other people of color, members of the LGBTQIA+ community, and people with disabilities or mental illness, self-care is envisioned very differently.
For some, self-care may not be something that is available or accessible to them. This is because the problems affecting their mental health are often external — socially constructed and institutionalized.
Self-care that is truly inclusive and effective must be internal, not external. It must seek to get to the root of societal issues that directly affect us, untangling internalized oppression through active allyship, community building, and self-reflection. The purest form of self-care is directed at society and at oneself — essentially, any act done in service of your well-being. Perhaps this means confronting the past through journaling, regulating emotion through meditation, going to a local protest, or finding community among people who will lift you up and make you feel safe.
Real, authentic self-care isn’t something that you can buy. It’s a continuous practice of confronting the uncomfortable, discovering new and unconventional forms of self-service, and standing up to societal injustices that affect you and those around you.
If we really want everyone to be able to take part in the practice of self-care, our narrow definition of it needs to be expanded and extended to those for whom it will make no tangible difference.
Fruit masks and pedicures may be more popular, but they only work on the surface. True self-care goes beyond the surface; it isn’t a quick fix, so stop buying into it.
Reach contributing writer Sarah Pham at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @sarpham
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