In my last year of college, I wanted to be the perfect student activist. I spent an inordinate amount of time building my laundry list of accomplishments: a part-time job, perfect grades, hard classes, big fundraisers, impressive campus events, and a résumé to neatly tie it all together in a template that took me two hours to choose.
Because I was so busy, I made sure I was getting in my self-care – an ever-present obligation in the social justice circles I was a part of. I would work all day, come home, open a bottle of wine, and put on Netflix. And for the hour or two I spent doing that, I would waffle between feeling extremely guilty that I wasn’t working and telling myself this was “allowed” because it would make me more productive. Or I would start making my to-do list for the next day. Or I would worry about how early I would have to wake up in the morning to make up for the time I was spending not working. And I just couldn’t figure out why I would go to bed feeling overwhelmed, anxious, and exhausted instead of the revitalized and rejuvenated spirit I was promised from self-care.
I was hiding behind a narrative of self-care that has been co-opted and diluted.
Social justice activists developed the concept as a way to combat our unhealthy work culture and foster well-being and self-preservation for those who needed it most – marginalized and oppressed communities. But, like so many other concepts built for the resistance and preservation of marginalized people, self-care has been appropriated for mainstream culture.
The narrative goes something like this:
Take 15 minutes for yoga or meditation.
Drink a glass of wine and watch a movie.
Take a bubble bath.
And while these proposals aren’t bad, this self-care narrative does nothing more than put a band-aid on the problematic way our culture treats work and productivity.
Our capitalist culture celebrates productivity so much that we overwork ourselves to the point of extreme depression, anxiety, crumbling relationships, and deep self-hatred and still measure ourselves successful.
More Radical Reads: There is No Wrong Way to Radically Love Yourself
While law firms, corporations, universities, and the like may promote self-care, they still often fail to offer reasonable hours or parental leave to their employees. They do not address sexism, racism, and marginalization within their company or their field. They foster unhealthy competition among employees instead of support. They exploit, pressure, overwork, and coerce.This work-obsessed, product-driven value system cannot be shaken by a bubble bath at the end of the day.
That same year, I started seeing a therapist, and we began to unpack what was making me so unhappy. I was doing “self-care” on the condition that it would make me more productive and useful. I had stopped valuing what made me genuinely happy. Both my work and my self-care existed within the capitalist, patriarchal paradigm of worth and value.
I viewed self-care as another responsibility, something I could add to my calendar just between class and work. I never saw it as an inherently necessary act for myself – not as a student or an activist, but as a human being.
I would say no to invitations from new friends because I was “tired” and I needed “time to relax” – but really, I was scared to meet new people. I ignored old hobbies and didn’t try to create new ones because “I didn’t have time.” In truth, I didn’t want to spend my time doing something I thought others would judge and put down. I wasn’t challenging myself or trying new things or nurturing what made me truly happy, and because of that I wasn’t really taking care of myself at all.
So I committed myself to fostering my self worth and value from a place that was not conditional on productivity or others’ approval. I committed myself to radical self-care.
Radical self-care, like radical self-love, pushes against the boundaries of the ordinary. It is robust, proactive, and unconditional. It is genuinely radical – it gets to the root of our bodies, hearts, and minds.
So instead of taking random bubble baths and watching TV, I pushed myself to go for runs, even if I could only make it a few minutes without a break. I wrote bad poetry. I laid in bed and listened to loud music with my eyes closed, and I didn’t let myself fold the laundry or do the dishes while I did it. I met up with new friends and pushed myself to be open and honest and vulnerable and to have fun. I didn’t do these things to be a better worker or a better activist or for the approval of others. I did them because I wanted to. It was really that simple.
More Radical Reads: My Self-Care Kit
That spring, I went for a weeklong camping trip on the coast of Oregon. And while the planning made me a little anxious, I still went. I encouraged myself to connect with friends, to try outdoor rock climbing for the first time, to hike to the highest peak in the park despite the diminishing part of me that said drinking wine and watching Netflix would just be so much easier. And as I laid there in the sunshine on top of this rock looking over the cliffs, I felt so calm.
It was that feeling self-care had always promised, but never offered – revitalization and rejuvenation in knowing I had done something truly good for myself.
I am not trying to define self-care with strict parameters. It looks different for everyone. And sometimes, for myself included, it does look like taking bubble baths, or watching Netflix, or eating junk food. But I think it’s important to question if we are truly committing to the robust, radical, preservational care of ourselves. If our self-care pushes against traditional value systems of worthiness and productivity. If we are resisting the culture that tries to marginalize, define, and shame us, and instead taking a radical approach to nurturing our bodies, minds, and spirits.