After my natural-sunlight alarm woke me up in the most peaceful manner this morning, I got out of bed. The night before I meal-prepped my breakfast consisting of organic coconut yoghurt with goji berries and chia seeds, topped with fruit from the local organic store. After my 5-minute Headspace meditation, I tuned in to Adrienne’s live yoga class to wake up my body and stretch my sore muscles from the work-out I did the day before. After a cold shower according to the Wim Hof-method, I popped two eye pads on my face to look fresh throughout the rest of the day. I was ready for work. I took my bike and went to my favourite flex-workspace, the vegan bistro in the city centre and ordered my usual; a cappuccino with oat milk and beetroot powder. After working for some hours I felt like I had used all of my productive energy so I called it a day. I went to the local organic store to pick up some supplies for the juice-detox I would start the next day. Then I went to my 4PM appointment at the wellness centre near my house to get a scalp-massage. After an hour of pure relaxation I went back home where I found my partner making dinner so I installed myself on the couch to watch my new favourite show: euphoria.
This parody on the life of a Gen Z twenty-something as Instagram would like you to believe, is based on a general hype in the Western countries where we adopt (often Eastern) traditions that focus on mental and physical well-being. “Self-care practices of healing and tending to one’s body and mind have evolved, for many, as necessary tactics to survive in political and economic environments that seem antagonistic to mental and physical well-being.” In her essay Art & New Age: Who Cares? Art critic and curator Karen Archey describes how this hype is at odds with real-life problems such as the lack of healthcare in the US or how Western countries normalise over-working because jobs are usually very irregular in today’s labour market (Archey, 2017).
SELF-CARE AS WARFARE
In this essay I will not focus on this appropriated ‘hippie self-care’ as Archey (2017) calls it, instead I will attempt to shine a light on self-care as a necessity, mainly because of the lack of caring by others. In her essay Selfcare as Warfare feminist writer and independent scholar Sara Ahmed (2014) describes that the world is designed to care only for certain people, it is designed to benefit their survival. However, if the world is not designed for you, it excludes you. “When you are not supposed to live, as you are, where you are, with whom you are with, then survival is a radical action; a refusal not to exist until the very end; a refusal not to exist until you do not exist. We have to work out how to survive in a system that decides life for some requires the death or removal of others. Sometimes: to survive in a system is to survive a system.” (Ahmed, 2014) If the patriarchal system refuses to care for you, the only way to survive is to take care of yourself.
A much loved quote among feminist theories on self-care is by feminist, poet and scholar Audre Lorde: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” (Lorde, 2017) In the conclusion of her book Living a Feminist Live, Ahmed (2017) points out the discrepancy between the quote and Lorde's oeuvre. On the one hand, she underlines in several texts that focusing on caring for the self can lead us away from engaging in political struggle, while, on the other hand, Lorde defends self-care as not being self-indulgent. Ahmed questions towards whom this defence is geared. She underlines that it is easy to call somebody “self-indulgent”, if they need to care for themselves in order to survive; when the world is not designed to foster their survival. In this sense, Lorde’s quote can be read as a reaction to the ones that are not subjected to a lack of care (Ahmed, 2017). Ahmed (2014) explains that self-care as a means for survival becomes warfare: “This kind of self-care is not about one’s own happiness. It is about finding ways to exist in a world that is diminishing.”(Ahmed, 2014)
SELF-CARE AS PRIVILEGE
According to artist and curator Sundus Abdul Hadi (2017), one of the biggest critiques on self-care is that it is deeply rooted in privilege. She clarifies: “the ones who need to practice self-care the most, i.e. those struggling with class and economy based injustices and oppressions, which are usually connected to race and gender based injustices, cannot afford the services of self care.” (Abdul Hadi, 2017) In her essay The Bureau of Care: Introductory Notes on the Care-less and Care-full, curator, writer, theorist, educator and former journalist iLiana Fokianaki elaborates on the origin of our contemporary (individualistic) understanding of self-care. She claims that it is rooted in colonialism and the idea of white-superiority (Fokianaki, 2020). Fokianaki (2021) explains that most indigenous populations lived by a collective notion of care. However, this was at odds with the individualistic self-care of the Western countries. Therefore, the implied cultural superiority that helped the colonisers to justify their takeover of the territories of the indigenous populations, replaced communal care with individualistic care (Fokianaki, 2021).
Inequality or privilege within self-care crystallises within care labour, for example. The majority of care workers are people who do not enjoy white Western privilege or wealth whilst the care they provide is preserved for the ones who do enjoy this privilege. (Fokianaki, 2020) According to Fokianaki (2020) there is a need for the reconstruction of care work. She describes how feminists organised themselves in order to call for a so called ‘care-full society’: “They critique neoliberal policies and turbo-capitalism while promoting a feminist commons, a redistribution of power, social justice, and ecological consciousness.” Fokianaki underlines the importance of the recognition of the gendered and racialized care work that is present in our society (Fokianaki, 2020). Ahmed (2014) additionally illustrates how people who care for others become part of them and thereby grant them freedom. “When a secretary becomes his right hand, his right hand is freed. Your labour as support for his freedom.” She then states that in the refusal of supporting or caring for the patriarchy and instead redirecting the care towards yourself, self-care can, again, become an act of political warfare. (Ahmed, 2014)
The world we live in saves care only for the privileged. People of colour, people that belong to the LGTBQ+ community, disabled people, poor people and other people from marginalised groups are not cared for by the patriarchal system. (Ahmed, 2014) Ahmed (2014) describes privilege as being a ‘buffer zone’, if there would be a cliff with a road on the one side and an abyss of unprecedented depth on the other side, privilege would be the width of the road. “Privilege does not mean we are invulnerable: things happen, shit happens. Privilege can however reduce the costs of vulnerability, so if things break down, if you break down, you are more likely to be looked after.” She describes that being marginalised is having to be resourceful in order to survive. (Ahmed 2014) This also brings up the question of intersectionality: the ones who have the least resources have to become the most resourceful.
In the feminist movement of the sixties and seventies, women fought for better healthcare and against “patriarchal systems that defined how the female body was understood and cared for”. However, the white feminists did not succeed in recognising the systematic oppression, lack of care and abuse of black women and other marginalised groups. (Fokianaki, 2021) This lack of caring for marginalised groups was later addressed in theories regarding intersectionality.
Intersectionality departs from the understanding that a person is not unidimensional but multilayered. That means that a person can experience discrimination or privilege on multiple levels. Intersectionality is usually explained as a crossroad. Several components of one's identity form different roads: at the intersection lies intersectionality. With intersectional feminism, one recognises this multilayered quality of a person and thereby acknowledges that they can be marginalised on a multiplicity of factors. Besides that, one also acknowledges that one factor is not ‘worse’ than the other, they are just different but together making it more difficult for this particular person to function in our society than for somebody that is being marginalised only on one aspect of their identity. (Janssen, 2020) We can therefore argue that everybody is different and has a different experience with marginalisation and discrimination.
COMMUNITY CARE VS. INDIVIDUAL CARE
In addition to self-care being perceived as a privilege, it is also highly criticised as not being able to change the patriarchal system that excludes marginalised groups of access to care. Therefore, most feminist theories argue in favour of communal care or community care instead of the individualised practice of self-care. Within contemporary feminist theories, feminists attempt to revive the collective notions of care as practised by the indigenous people of most of the Americas, Africa and Asia. “Building on these existing knowledges and practices, contemporary feminisms enact collective care”, (Fokianaki, 2020) to try to fill the gap of the lack of care towards marginalised groups.
In her essay Communities of Care, Organizations of Liberation, Yashna Maya Padamsee (2011) states that “We need to move the self-care conversation into community care. We need to move the conversation from individual to collective. From independent to interdependent.” She fears that the individualised practice of care will isolate people in their struggle and their healing. Padamsee further argues that “it is our responsibility not as individuals, but as communities to create structures in which self-care changes to community care. In which we are cared-for and able to care for others.” (Padamsee, 2011) Padamsee insinuates here that there is a link between self-care and community care, in order to be able to care for others, you first have to care for yourself. On one hand, we need self-care in order to be able to ‘show up’ and care for others (Archey, 2017), while on the other hand, others can also be part of our self-care routine as they empower us and give us strength in our fights and struggles. (Ahmed, 2014) Fokianaki argues that by caring for others, we change the way in which we care for ourselves and by that, care and self-care become interdependent. (Fokianaki, 2021) By this interdependence, a web of self-care that is interlinked with others will appear.
If we want to fight the patriarchy, we have to stand together. Fokianaki (2021) states that we have to practise communal care if we want to change the system. She says we should steer away from the ‘neoliberal approach to self-care’ and aim to ‘transform people into active and engaged citizens’. We should not be involved with self-improvement but rather on bettering ourselves in order to be able to contribute to the communal care; to benefit others. (Fokianaki, 2021) By doing so, we would not only stand a chance against the system, but it would also enable us to form a different understanding of ourselves. Care becomes less about responsibility for our own being, our own safety and our own health or self-improvement and will focus instead on ‘collective joy and fulfillment’. (Fokianaki. 2020) If we want to pursue this practice of collective caring, we should learn from structures of “NGOs, refugee squates and care initiatives that operate outside state systems”, Fokianaki argues. In her view, these collectives successfully hacked the patriarchal system by “showing that working within a group can be more effective for all, not just those explicitly suffering.” (Fokianaki, 2020)
A CRITICAL READING ON THE COMMUNAL
A lot of theories that focus on self-care within feminist practices are written by Black feminist writers or people from marginalised groups (Abdul Hadi, 2017). Most outcomes or solutions for the lack of care for marginalised groups that are put forward by these texts focus on community or communal care in order to be able to fight the patriarchal system and make sustainable change. It is striking that within a subject that has an abundance of written texts, there is such a unilateral outcome. It made me wonder about the history and the origin of the need for self-care and empowerment. Maybe there is a connection to the exclusion of marginalised groups in the feminist movements in the sixties and seventies that could have led to an exponential growth in the need for self-care by marginalised groups, and later a growth in theories regarding self-care and community care written by members of these marginalised groups. Although this is at this stage of thinking merely speculation, I think we should be aware of the monotony of outcomes and critically reflect on them.
Ahmed (2014), for example, points out the downside of collectiveness, as it can serve as a facade to disguise racist or oppressive behaviour by individuals. “I read one anti-feminist article that implied feminists are being individualistic, when they call out individual men, because that calling out is what stops us working more collectively for radical transformation. Collectivity: can work for some individuals as a means for disguising their own interest as collective interest. When collectivity requires you to bracket your experience of oppression it is not a collectivity worth fighting for.” (Ahmed, 2014) Instead of the man being the individual, the caller becomes the individual because the man has a collective to disappear into, whereas the caller can not make an appeal on this privilege. A big part of the problem, then, is that self-care is perceived to be self-indulgence because marginalised people are being reduced to be individuals instead of a part of a group. If you are not part of a group or part of the ‘wrong’ group, you are more vulnerable. In the podcast HIDDEN BRAIN from NPR, psychologist Jamil Zaki points out that we feel more empathy for people that are part of the same group or community, our so-called ‘in-group’ (Zaki, 2019). So by focussing on self-care as community care, there lies a trap where we could actually exclude people and thereby shift the problem without solving it.
In the project Take Care of Yourself, Sundus Abdul Hadi (2017) creates a dual solution for the lack of care of self-care. Part of her project was an exhibition where she invited multiple (mainly female) artists whose practice originates in the idea of self-care. Within the project she used a curatorial vision with an intersectional approach, which she describes as: “works by artists from diverse communities that speak on the complexities of struggles related to issues of racial, gender, and class inequalities, in conversation with one another yet equally powerful in monologue.” (Abdul Hadi, 2017) She urged all the contributing artists to set aside the ‘struggle olympics’ amongst communities and rather focus on celebrating differences and by doing so created an intersectional approach that shifted the ‘power dynamics of oppression and domination to one of empowerment and liberation’ (Abdul Hadi, 2017). Referring to the intersectional approach she quotes: “[the intersectional approach] can force us into a risky place of radical self-reflection, willingness to relinquish privilege, engagement with others, and movement toward change.” (Roberts & Jedusason, 2013)
Within the project, Abdul Hadi focused on community building. By finding a shared departing point (self-care) and focussing on creating a safe space and facilitating collectiveness and safety from her role as curator, she proposed an alternative or additional solution to the lack of care for marginalised groups. She built a new community and enabled others to focus on their own self-care as a tool for empowerment. “By focussing on building alliances and expressing solidarity with other “struggles”, I was drawn to the idea of creating a collective vision, decorated by celebrated differences, that pushed for social change on many levels.” (Abdul Hadi, 2017) Abdul Hadi took the role of a facilitator and shared the means that she had (time, space, network, care and budget) to enable others to practise self-care.
WHITE SAVIOUR COMPLEX
In acts of facilitating or allyship, where privilege easily comes to play as a white or otherwise privileged person, it is important to take a critical stand towards the use of one's own privilege and to familiarise yourself and steer away from the so-called ‘white saviour complex’. The origin of white saviour complex dates back to slavery and colonialism when white people thought that they could ‘elevate’ people from different cultures to a higher level by saving them from their ‘horrible’ living conditions. However, these living conditions were interpreted by the white people as being horrible, not by the people who were living with them, their view was out of the picture or not seen as important. The people needed to be ‘saved’ at all costs. (Matil Lodik, 2021) This white saviour complex can for example be pointed out in the picture Fokianaki paints from the white-superiority that replaced the communal notion of care with the contemporary individualistic one. (Fokianaki, 2020) If we want to use our privilege for the better, we should act as an ally instead of acting from a place of ‘I know better’. Anti-racism and inclusion expert Chanel Matil Lodik (2021) describes allyship as setting aside your privilege and using it in order to help or facilitate people who need it. She states that this means that you should step aside or take a step back to give up your place for someone who deserves it as well or lend a helping hand if needed. (Matil Lodik, 2021)
SHARING IS CARING
To practise self-care or to be able to care for yourself is a privilege. Having the time to take a moment for yourself, having the mental capacity or the energy to think about yourself or having the socio-political status that allows you to think only about yourself (how briefly it might be) - is a privilege. For me, a way to use one’s privilege is to share it. If I am able as a curator to think about self-care, I would like to pass it on.
What Adbul Hadi does in her project is a fruitful solution which I think is worth exploring further. If the ones that have privilege and are willing, would act as facilitators for the ones that are in need of self-care, we could use our privilege and use it for the better. If the ones that got the means, like curators, established organisations or even artists among themselves, would share, they would thereby enable others to focus on self-care and fill in the gap. With time, maybe these people find themselves in a state where they can share their prosperity with others, and a pyramid game of self-care is born.
Abdul Hadi, S (2017). Struggle and the Politics of Self Care: A Curatorial Perspective [Master dissertation, Concordia University].
Ahmed, S. (2017). Living a Feminist Life. Duke University Press.
Ahmed, S. (2014). Selfcare as Warfare. femenistkilljoys. https://feministkilljoys.com/2014/08/25/selfcare-as-warfare/
Archey, K. (2017). Art & New Age: Who Cares?. Frieze. https://www.frieze.com/article/art-new-age-who-cares
Fokianaki, i. (2021). A Bureau for Self-Care: Interdependence versus Individualism. e-flux. https://www.e-flux.com/journal/119/402021/a-bureau-for-self-care-interdependence-versus-individualism/
Fokianaki, i. (2020). The Bureau of Care: Introductory Notes on the Care-less and Care-full. E-flux. https://www.e-flux.com/journal/113/359463/the-bureau-of-care-introductory-notes-on-the-care-less-and-care-full/
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