Caring for the Self (Not with a Face Mask)

None of us are strangers to the term self-care. But do we have an understanding of this term’s real meaning?

Step away from the $100 face mask labeled “self-care” hun. 

None of us are strangers to the term self-care. But do we have an understanding of this term’s real meaning? As we approach the holiday season, let’s discuss the origins of self-care, and how it has been molded in order to market us goods rather than encourage us to actually care for the self.

The notion of self-care can be traced back to the Greeks. Yes, Socrates believed in self-care, but it wasn’t in the shape of expensive bath oils or week-long juice cleanses. Care of the self has its origins in ancient philosophy. In the Alcibiades dialogues between Alcibiades and Socrates, they discuss the ruling principle of man is not the body, but the soul. Young Alcibiades was set to take on a role as a political leader when he met with Socrates, who told him that his potential would remain unfulfilled without attention to the care of the self. Socrates believed that “care of self” and to “know thyself” were fundamental principles, both in having relationships with ourselves, and with others. 

Self-care is about having a complex understanding of the self and taking care of the self.

Fast forward to the seventies and eighties, when the term self-care had a resurgence. Three main communities brought self-care into focus: Black communities, queer communities and feminist communities. Their take on self-care was that prioritizing the care of the self was a political act, oftentimes radical and rebellious. 

Self-described “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet” Audre Lorde said: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” (1988) 

Caring for the self, and loving the self, are in fact radical acts. Race, class and gender dynamics are present behind self-care. For who has time to care for the self when their societal role is to care for everyone else? Or when they have to work horrifying hours to afford housing and food? Or when they have to provide for a family? The responsibility of care does not fall upon shoulders equally. Lorde’s iconic words rallied against societal inequality in which only some people are worthy of care. She fought against “the many forms of anti-life surrounding us." 

Caring for the self is a way of fighting against a world that is hostile to your identity and your community. It proudly declares to the world, I am worthy of care. Our society blatantly prioritizes the lives and livelihoods of some over others. It is therefore defiant to demand care of the self, when your society tells you that your "self" is not as important as others. 

When a society only allows certain demographics to care for the self or to prioritize the care of the self, to rebel against that is a powerful act that upholds the philosophical belief of the self.

Self-care as a political act honors the original concept of caring for the self. It acknowledges that caring for the self is a necessity. In Plato’s Apology, Socrates emphasizes the importance of reminding people to “concern themselves not with their riches, not with their honor, but with themselves and with their souls.” 

The sheer irony is not lost on me that now self-care is literally about concerning ourselves with riches. We have been sold self-care as material items, rather than a focus on the self. Posting your entire skin-care regime on Instagram and labeling it “self-care” is so far-fetched from the origin of the term, as well as from the political battlecry it became. 

Let’s flip the calendar to 2016. With an overall rise in national (and international) stress came a rise in the popularity of self-care. Following the 2016 election, Google searches for the term peaked from Nov. 13 through Nov. 19. Articles popped up on seemingly every news source, giving guides to self-care in the wake of the election. On social media platforms, the term became ubiquitous.

No one noticed the trend faster than brands and advertisers, who were quick to capitalize on selling us the concept of self-care. The true meaning of self-care was lost, becoming unrecognizable from “treat yo-self,” which let’s be honest, is simply shopping and pampering.

Online slogans morphed the meanings of powerful words into ways to get us to buy things. If you google Image search “self care,” one of the most popular lines that appears is “self care isn’t selfish”. This has stripped self-care and its importance of context and meaning in order to sell us goods. Things branded self-care actually have nothing to do with caring for the self.

The push for us to buy into self-care became inescapable. #SelfCare accompanied paid promotions for juicers, athletic wear, skincare, makeup, bath products, salads, vegetable spiralizers — god, what doesn’t it cover these days?! Caring for one’s self simply became the latest phrase for health, beauty and fashion trends. 

Self-care has become intertwined with the health and beauty industries. When I was working on my photography seriesPlasticand taking photos in plastic surgeons’ offices in Beirut, a woman looked at me and said to the surgeon: “Why doesn’t she wear makeup? Why doesn’t she take care of herself?” Ignoring how patronizing it was for someone to talk about me to the man but not directly to me, I was quick to explain that for me, taking care of myself was not the same as applying foundation and lipstick or getting a nose job, much to her mortification. 

Huns, we all need to care for ourselves. But we need to properly partake in self-care, and examine not only what that is, but also deeply explore our concepts of the self. With the heinous day that is Black Friday looming at the end of this week, let us not attempt to simply purchase self-care, but instead let’s try and do the real thing.