A friend often tells me I’m bad at self-care. When I ask him what he means, he usually responds with some version of “Well, you know.” But really, I don’t know what self-care is, what it means to be bad at it, or even why I should be good at it. Being told I’m bad at self-care usually feels like being told I’m bad at a job I didn’t apply for and that I’m not even paid for.
If I don’t know these things, on the other hand, I’m probably the only one. Self-care is a cliché of the times; cliché enough that it’s been written about from almost every angle: There are celebratory pieces and critical pieces, pieces that use it as a buzzword and pieces that attempt to contextualize it. (Michel Foucault is often invoked, I find.) In 2020, the poet Leigh Stein published a satirical novel, Self Care, about a progressive women’s startup. That simple title conveys almost everything you need to know about the book’s focus and tone. Self-care is a marketing gimmick, and thus a favored object of critique. Still, I want to know what I’m missing.
In the novel, as in most writing about the term, there’s a nod toward self-care’s origins in the work of activist Audre Lorde, who wrote, in her essay collection A Burst of Light, that “caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” Stein’s book did not include, though it easily could have, the subsequent complications of that particular quotation—namely, that it comes at the end of a grueling diary of Lorde’s experiences with breast cancer, which would eventually take her life.
In Lorde’s diary, the details of caring-for-self are not as clear as the motivating force behind it: laying claim to the life you have. Dying from cancer is outside her control, but living despite it is not. “How do I want to live the rest of my life,” a 1985 entry opens, “and what am I going to do to ensure that I get to do it exactly or as close as possible to how I want that living to be? I want to live the rest of my life, however long or short, with as much sweetness as I can decently manage, loving all the people I love, and doing as much as I can of the work I still have to do.” Questions of how to make the most of your life become pointed when mortality is no longer an abstraction.
Reframed thus, self-care might be thought of as the newest form of the art of living well, the understanding of a good life that exists in the particular balance of structure and spontaneity, a practice that encompasses both discipline and indulgence. Waking up early, eating healthy food, journaling, and exercise are all self-care as much as ordering in, treating yourself to a nicer bottle of wine, watching a trashy movie, or taking a long bath. It’s about tending to the human body like an animal: listening to what makes it happy, and what makes it not.
This definition is still compatible with intense self-absorption. In Stein’s novel, Devin, one of the women at its center, spends her time drifting from treatment to treatment, colon cleansing, going to workouts, and otherwise meticulously tending to herself. This world of consumption sits next to a world of constant, churning anxiety—over the news, over modern-day femininity, and over personal branding. Maren, Devin’s friend and cofounder of their startup, “Richual,” goes in the other direction, drinking too much, eating too much, and generally not taking care of herself as she tackles the basics of running their company. In this dynamic, they capture something basic about taking care of yourself: It’s easier to do when somebody else is taking care of you, whether that be your friend or, in the form of an inheritance, your deceased parents. Still, when I read descriptions of such exhaustive self-care routines—fictional or otherwise—I’m reminded of a line from HBO’s comedy series Succession: “I work hard but I don’t play hard. I play easy. Why would you play hard?” Do I really need to take care of myself when I have so many other things to do?
Like burnout, self-care is the watchword of an era in which people feel unable to command their own time. Alongside admonishments to slow down, unplug, and take a break, there are the imperatives of the workplace: Constantly improve, be available, and work on your vacation. The experience of tracking “wellness” brands like Goop is almost like reading a romance novel: the presentation of a world in which there is ample time and resources to devote to simply fine-tuning the instrument of yourself, minus (or not) a male hunk. The extravagant leisure of self-care is as aspirational as the idea of being a hard-working, self-starting “hustler.” In the fluid world of Internet entrepreneurs, the two are likely to be combined: Podcasters sell vitamins, influencers sell cleanses, and even Alex Jones sells supplements. While stressing how hard they work, people also want to stress how hard they work to take care of themselves.
And, also like burnout, self-care is coded feminine. In reality, all sorts of people might concern themselves with it—with his specialized diet advice, Jordan Peterson is surely a self-care guru. But the marketing mavens know who can be guilted into somehow thinking that they’re doing both not enough and too much. Much as self-care, as a concept, is often criticized for being individualistic, it’s often sold as the path toward being a better worker, a better spouse, and a better friend—but mostly, a better worker. While this marketing might induce me to drink a little too much and sleep in, being unfocused and tired doesn’t really stick it to the man either—it just sticks it to me.
The self-care industry is annoying, the concept is elusive, and waking up at the same time every day will improve your life in clear ways. Every critique of self-care—that it glorifies consumption, promotes self-absorption, and represents an individual retreat from public life—is true. Unfortunately, you still have to take care of yourself.
Recently I purchased a book by G.G. Renee Hill called Self-Care Check-In: A Guided Journal to Build Healthy Habits and Devote Time to You. Everything about this book, including the graphic design, is excruciating. From the success story of its introduction to the inspirational quotations sprinkled throughout, it seems carefully calculated to make the eyes roll. But the somewhat abashing truth is that when I fill out its journal questionnaire and reflect on my day, I feel better. As with talk therapy and certain types of medication, I don’t really know how this works. But though I have little respect for it, it somehow does.
If self-care is a revealing cliché of the times, it may be about the amount of chatter that can be generated around questions of human need. However theorized or commodified, what people need for good lives is ultimately stubborn and simple: food, shelter, friends, and the give-and-take of freedom and structure. (There are other things that can help—health, for instance—but people manage good lives without them.) These can be withheld, twisted, and sold back. But while the Instagram ad promising the secret to a well-managed life isn’t going to help you, neither is an account, however true, of why the world you live in is stacked against you. You’re still stuck with the world you fall asleep and wake up in.
Maybe there is no version of taking care of yourself that is intellectually satisfying, and perhaps benefiting from something that feels embarrassing and trite is one of the self-care industry’s subtler gifts. Unfortunately for me, my Self-Care Check-In has fallen behind some furniture. I suppose I could fish it out, but it always seems as though there’s something a little more important to do.