Stay Beautiful: The Commodification of Feminist Self-Care

by thethreepennyguignol

How are you all doing? Would you like a cup of tea? Pet my cat’s little head? Here, let me get you a blanket. You look cold. Or maybe that’s just the icy stare I’m giving the next episode of Lost I have to recap. Who knows?

And, now that I’ve done a little caring for you, I’d like to talk a little about caring for myself. I’ve written about self-care before, but it’s been on my mind a lot lately; given the current state of the world, the divisions so many of us are feeling from our normal routines and our loved ones, all the things that might make us feel safe and comfortable and cared-for, there’s been a lot more discussion of self-care as something vital to navigating the place we’re in right now.

First and foremost, one thing: it is. Taking care of yourself right now is important. Mentally and physically. That means different things to different people, but I don’t think anyone is out here martyring themselves on the belief that we need to stop looking after ourselves and burn-out like a forgotten Tamagotchi just to make a point about how hard the world is right now.

There’s a quote I often see attached to pro-self-care treatises, one from Audre Lord, from A Burst of Light: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence. It is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” Usually, when this quote turns up, it’s used to argue for the importance of self-care as a feminist weapon – to care for oneself in a society that doesn’t want you to have value is something revolutionary. To some extent, I think that’s true, especially in the context within which Audre Lord was talking: after her second cancer diagnosis, living as a gay, black woman in a world that would probably have liked it better if she was none of the above. Value can be found in what we give to ourselves, and that value can be bestowed by the care of our own bodies and minds.

But I feel like, in the last few years, especially, self-care has become a trick question – a necessity we need to perform in order to prove our feminism, as opposed to an act of self-preservation. This great article by Tashina Blom sums up a lot of my major issues with this idea – specifically, that it’s designed to move us from a broader involvement in feminist communities and into a more internally-focused and therefore less societally-impactful activism.

But something that has bothered me specifically is the way that self-care has been branded towards when it comes to women (and, trust me, there’s a whole article in how it’s been sold as a female-gendered idea, thanks to this pervasively dumb notion that men don’t have the same emotions to tend to) – as a way to further fit into the cultural beauty standard.  As self-care has been co-opted by capitalism, turned into this multi-million dollar industry, so has it too been co-opted by the misogyny which is an in-built part of that system: when you search for self-care products, you’re going to find lists upon lists pointing to this face mask or this nail polish or that body spray or this new pallette of make-up. Where once the branding of such beauty products focused on the imperative to present as perfectly as possible, and towards this idea that this is necessary because it is an act of self-love.

Hey, isn’t it nice to feel freshly-shaved legs against clean sheets? Just try not to think about the fact that you never would have considered shaving if it hadn’t been packaged and cynically sold to you as a neccessary feminine beauty standard, babe.

And I don’t like that one little bit. It’s one thing to tell women that they have to look a certain way because that’s just how society prefers it, but to tell them that they’re doing it for their own good, telling them that it’s a feminist act to pay money to adhere to a specific beauty standard? That’s downright cruel. Hey, get a pedicure and a blowout, and it’ll make everything better! Or at least, you’ll be a little more palatable to everyone around you.

And, you know, that Audre Lord quote says that’s important, right? It’s a political statement to take of yourself. And it should be. And it is important. But what’s just as important, I think, is being sure that we’re not buying into certain aspects of self-care to find excuses for the pressure to preserve a certain beauty standard. Yes, I have a skincare regime, and sure, it’s fun to slap on lotions and potions and do stupid eyeshadow looks for a lark. But that’s not where self-care ends for me – self-care is the ugly, difficult stuff, the stuff that I do when I want to slam that self-destruct button for fun.

I don’t want a self-care that is built around shifting me back into the soft-focus view of womanhood that I’ve been sold for most of my life. If self-care, as Audre Lord wrote, really is an act of political warfare, then it shouldn’t be a step I take backwards into enemy territory.

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