Culture Editor and Staff Writer: Anuka Upadhye
The first thing I think of when I hear the term self-care is cucumbers-over-eyelids, intricate skincare routines, lavish bubble baths and candles, and absurd amounts of online shopping to “treat yourself.” As the COVID-19 crisis has prompted an unforeseen amount of isolation and mental breakdowns, half of the American population (including me) has resorted to engaging in self-care to cope with the new world we live in.
What I didn’t know about self-care is that it didn’t always mean splurging on skincare, buying new yoga mats, or lighting nice-smelling candles. Our modern society has warped its initial definition so much that it has convoluted the original meaning. The term “self-care” was coined by Audre Lorde, an American author and feminist. She first uttered this expression in A Burst of Light: And other Essays as a term of female resistance: “caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” Self-care started as an act of defiance against the patriarchy: in a world that minimized and oppressed women, engaging in self-care was the counterargument: women mattered, and were worthy of care.
Looking around in beauty shops and online stores, I don’t think the same meaning holds true anymore. Rather than a term of empowerment, self-care has turned into a set of rules over how a woman “should” and “must” take care of herself, but these standards are catered to women mostly in upper class, industrialized capitalist societies From how I see it, the mainstream media has created a materialistic culture around self-care, emphasizing that it is impossible to care for our bodies and minds without investing in certain products. The materialization of self-care has made the practice inaccessible to women who do not have the luxury to take care of themselves in the way the mainstream media suggests, barring many women from their own empowerment. Instead of self-care being a term for female resistance, it has now played into the stereotypical binary between men and women: femininity and daintiness versus masculinity and virility. The fact that self-care was a term meant only for women has been turned against us as men use it as an example of our weakness.
Their argument is, while men are inherently strong and invincible, women must constantly attend to themselves in order to survive.
After learning about the disparity between the original definition and its modern interpretation, I began to critically examine the self-care practices that I have adopted over quarantine, and realized that 99% of these rituals I engaged in prioritized my appearance. Why so?
As women, I believe we are fixated on how others perceive us externally. I have personally recognized that the society in which I live in does not value my intelligence, wit, or any other trait associated with the public sphere as much as it values these same traits in men. In order to be successful in the male-dominated public sphere, women must exaggerate traits associated with the private sphere—attractiveness, femininity, and, empathy—along with intelligence and skill in order to be successful. So the implicit decision I made-- to prioritize self-care that would make me look better--demonstrated to me that we’ve strayed far from the original, intended definition.
Oftentimes, my skincare products mention that the creams are packed with an “anti-wrinkle” formula, as if the completely natural aging process is something women should be ashamed of. However, the same products that are advertised to men make no such mention. When I did home workouts to Chloe Ting, she advertised to women an ideal, feminine form: “thigh gap,” “big booty, not big thighs,” and “no bra bulge.”
Through working out, doing skincare, and “taking care of myself,” I have consciously and subconsciously molded my body in a way that reflects society’s expectations of what it means to be a woman. Through enacting these rituals to improve my body, I have somehow cared for “myself—but, in reality, my actions have not actually been dictated by what I want, but rather through what a patriarchal society expects of women.
If these practices that I engage in are so obviously linked to patriarchy, why don’t I just stop immediately? Why do I still continue, even though it’s reinforcing stereotypical gender norms? I struggled to grasp the answer to that question until I read Saba Mahmood, postcolonial scholar and professor, in one of my college courses. She claims that women resist the male dominant order by subverting oppressive practices and reclaiming them as their own in order to further their empowerment. She poses the question: what if, by becoming so good at perfecting appearance women’s societal expectations, we instead found agency? Although a male-dominated society makes women obsessed over their bodies and their appearances, Mahmood is arguing that this obsession is what contributes to their mental strength, as well.
By reframing the mainstream manifestation of self-care in this way, we again come closer to Audre Lorde’s initial and intended definition. Although the term self-care has been distorted to conform with the expectations of patriarchy, perfecting this oppressive practice has again become an act of defiance. Although the products that I use and the videos that I watch still remind me that I am living in a world that treats women differently, I believe that continuing these rituals will create the discipline that I need in order to survive in a male-dominated world.
However, the consumerism associated with the new adaptation of self-care still limits certain women in society from engaging in the practice, namely lower-class women who do not live in industrialized communities. Therefore, ultimately, we need to work towards making self-care accessible for every woman, because it is a necessary act of self-preservation. Speaking more broadly, we must also work to dismantle a male-dominated world that makes women’s self-preservation so vital in the first place. But, until then, we will rely on a practice that by perfecting, reasserts our self worth.
Lorde, Audre. “A Burst of Light and Other Essays.” Dover Publications, 2017, 2020.
Mahmood, Saba. “Feminist Theory, Embodiment, and the Docile Agent: Some
Reflections on the Egyptian Islamic Revival.” Cultural Anthropology, vol. 16, no. 2, American Anthropological Association, 2001, p. 205, 2020.