Stop Telling Me To Try Harder at Self-Care

 While self-care is certainly important, our culture has commodified the concept and turned it into a ritualistic practice for women so that they can better care for their families, writes Maylin Tu.

While self-care is certainly important, our culture has commodified the concept and turned it into a ritualistic practice for women so that they can better care for their families, writes Maylin Tu.

 

 

It feels sacrilegious to say this, but I’m starting to hate the term “self-care.” I might as well hate corgi puppies, sunshine and Tom Hanks in You’ve Got Mail. Even worse, I instantly run up against Audre Lorde’s famous quote, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

Yeah. But sometimes it’s just a bath bomb.

Everywhere I look, it seems someone or something is urging me to step up my self-care game, to take time for me.

Unfortunately for this essay, there may be as many definitions of this concept as there are people preaching it. I for one have seen the following described as self-care: yoga, reading fiction, binge watching Jane The Virgin, gardening, getting a massage, going to the doctor, meal prep, paying bills, going to therapy, friendship, cancelling plans, slaying vampires and spending $300 at Sephora.

I’m just waiting for someone to refer to breathing as a form of self-care.

How do I keep my face looking fresh when I can’t stop crying? How do I self-care when I’m completely broke? What serum will fix my broken relationship?

Even as self-care appears everywhere, the backlash against it is already in full swing. There’s this critique, which could be summed up as, “Woman the fuck up, already!” and this article from the New Yorker linking self-care to the American values of self-reliance, self-improvement and spending money on face creams you don’t need.

As for me, I’m reminded of religious rituals of purification and cleansing. And I guess that’s the thing about self-care: much like housework, it’s never done. You can’t win at self-care but you can invest in a new hair dryer.

I heard the best summation of this from Daniel Mallory Ortberg in the Dear Prudence podcast: “The world is falling apart and no one knows what to do about it [. . .] and so there’s this sense of, ‘I guess I will spend a lot of money on face masks and then we will all die.’”

Motherhood, Suffering & Emotional Labor

In between the face masks and the dying, life is hard. It feels impossible to talk about self-care without also talking about being a woman, being a mom, and the emotional labor that both entail.

I’m not a mom, but I’ve read enough Facebook posts to know that motherhood is not exactly a trip to Disneyland.

So I went into the movie Tully expecting it to be about self-care. Director Jason Reitman's latest film, which arrived in theaters May 4, is about a working mom, Marlo (Charlize Theron), whose sense of self is transformed when she hires a night nanny to care for her new baby.

Marlo is exhausted, barely scraping by, when Tully steps in with her emotional ease and reassuring platitudes. Written by Diablo Cody, the movie exudes a visceral sense of the trauma of everyday life.

In one scene early on, Marlo takes her shirt off at the dinner table, highlighting both Charlize Theron’s stunning physical transformation and also just how much pregnancy and childbirth can change your body.

Motherhood is bullshit. Life is bullshit. Having a body is total and complete bullshit.

Buy This Serum, Heal Your Life

Women are embodied in ways that men don’t seem to be in our culture. And often, suffering female bodies just aren’t very sexy, particularly when it’s the kind of suffering that can’t be fixed with a $140 moisturizer.

I’m part of a Facebook group that constantly talks about self-care, and it’s actually kind of soothing to read all about face wash, toner, eye cream and essential oils (I may have purchased five different kinds of sunscreen since joining this group. Don’t judge me, hashtag self-care).


In the context of patriarchy, self-care starts to resemble performative spirituality, the need to repeat the same ritualistic purification rites—a reminder of sin and death and imperfection displaced onto the female body.


However, darker themes sometimes surface. A partner who just got laid off. A loved one in the hospital. A friendship gone sour. And then there are the questions that arise from these situations: How do I keep my face looking fresh when I can’t stop crying? How do I self-care when I’m completely broke? What serum will fix my broken relationship?

On the one hand, I feel like women are supposed to suffer, visibly, bodily. On the other hand, I feel like they’re supposed to do it gracefully, with a healthy glow, poreless skin and a non-threatening email signature.

I think that deep down, suffering and trauma make us very uncomfortable. Self-care is the Band-Aid that soothes every wound, heals every marriage, cures shingles, heartburn and IBS.

The Victim-Blaming Side of Self-Care

On Facebook recently, a friend mentioned that in times of crisis, self-care “starts to feel like one more thing to add to the list of things on which I'm falling behind/failing.”

And that’s the conundrum, because so often women are urged to care for themselves so that they might care for others. Self-care becomes another form of emotional labor, performed not for the self but to be a better wife, mom, friend, employee.

In the movie, Tully says the magical words, “I’m here to take care of you.” You get the sense that this care is not the means to an end, but borne of a genuine love for Marlo.

By contrast, self-care can put the burden on a person who is already struggling to just do more.

The underlying message is clear: If you’re struggling as a mom, you’re just not self-caring hard enough. Or, if you had only practiced self-care, then you wouldn’t be struggling.

Something similar comes up a lot with trauma. There’s this enduring myth that if I were really trying to heal, then I wouldn’t still feel the effects of the trauma. I would be over it. I would finally be whole.

 Comedian and actress Amy Schumer's latest film,  I Feel Pretty , asks the question: "What if women started embracing their bodies?" But maybe that's the wrong question to ask.

Comedian and actress Amy Schumer's latest film, I Feel Pretty, asks the question: "What if women started embracing their bodies?" But maybe that's the wrong question to ask.

I Feel Pretty Confident

As some reviewers have pointed out, there’s a similar message in Amy Schumer’s latest vehicle, I Feel Pretty. Unattainable and unrealistic beauty standards don’t need to change! Women just need to embrace their inner supermodel!

Safe to say, we live in a culture that would rather prescribe self-love as the cure for what ails us than invest in justice, equality or universal health care.

There is zero exploration of the emotional labor involved in performing a confidence that the world does not support, only a Pollyanna-esque belief that all you need is a cheery disposition and positive attitude.

Emotional Labor & Male Violence

If we accept that women are meant to perform the majority of the emotional labor in the world, then we also accept male violence as the natural corollary. It’s stunning to see this default assignment of emotional labor show up in current events, such as, for example, the belief that the Golden State Killer turned to violence because he was romantically rejected by his ex-fiancee, or the idea that men will stop killing women if we only make sure they have access to sex.

Self-care is a type of madness that requires you to stand outside of yourself, to see yourself in the same way that some compassionate Other sees you, to bear witness to your own suffering

Incels take this idea to its logical extreme: that women exist to meet the sexual needs of men. But I don’t buy the idea that this is just about sex­; this is about the valorization of male desire as not only primary but compulsory.

The conflation of emotional and sexual labor can extend to the most ordinary relationships between men and women. I see this in boyfriends and husbands who refuse to go to therapy. I’ve never had a man imply that unless I dated him, he would probably go on to hurt someone else. But I have encountered men who seemed to wholeheartedly believe that my function in the world was to save them—from boredom, from a tragic family history, from themselves.

In this light, some of the ritualistic forms of self-care that women engage in starts to take on a more sinister shade. In his book Unclean, Richard Beck writes about penal substitutionary atonement and its relationship to ritual acts of cleansing. If women are the scapegoats of male violence and male sexual desire, then they can never truly be cleansed or purified.

In the context of patriarchy, self-care starts to resemble performative spirituality, the need to repeat the same ritualistic purification rites—a reminder of sin and death and imperfection displaced onto the female body.

"You are enough. And also, do more."

There is more than one way to read Tully as a film about self-care and motherhood. In a way, self-care is a type of madness that requires you to stand outside of yourself, to see yourself in the same way that some compassionate Other sees you, to bear witness to your own suffering.

To return to Audre Lorde’s writing, her definition of self-care is part of a larger, socially engaged framework. It seems to me that she attempted to integrate all of her life into a resonant whole. She writes in A Burst of Light: “For me, living fully means living with maximum access to my experience and power, loving, and doing work in which I believe. It means writing my poems, telling my stories, and speaking out of my most urgent concerns and against the many forms of anti-life surrounding us.” Her work and her life were one.

Perhaps Tully is not a statement about self-care, but rather a statement about self-parenting. I think this is a concept it’s taken me years to understand. If I’m honest, I already have the parent in my head who tells me that I’m not doing enough. That I need to try harder. Do more. Be better.

In a pivotal scene, Tully tells Marlo, “You’re convinced that you’re this failure, but you’ve actually made your biggest dream come true.”

Tully implies that small, everyday acts of care are holy. That being alive is holy. That mothering can be a ritual and a repetition grounded in grace. And that that can be enough for us.