What Does “Self-Care” Really Mean?

Self-care has become a buzzword from Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop to Black Lives Matter. But what do we do when taking care of ourselves just becomes more work?

Illustration Tim Lahan
August 11, 2015

I once worked with a woman who relied on a staggering roster of holistic practices—yoga, herbs, acupuncture, a raw vegan diet—in order to better cope with the psychological demands of her particularly stressful job. Though an L.A. life coach probably couldn’t have dreamed up a healthier routine, I noticed that she often seemed even more stressed by her strict regimen, which required, among other things, having access to certain foods, getting herself to appointments with various specialists, and occasionally ingesting vile-sounding “cleanse” concoctions. Her term for these elaborate rituals, supposedly a way to unwind from work, was “self-care.”


A 1983 report from the World Health Organization first defined “self-care” simply as “the activities individuals, families, and communities undertake with the intention of enhancing health, preventing disease, limiting illness, and restoring health.” Since then, the concept has been expanded by psychologists, activists, and new age practitioners, all of whom have emphasized reclaiming time to focus on oneself amidst our bustling work and social obligations. In a 2008 article in Psychology Today, Dr. Dana Gionta wrote: “Balancing work, family, and personal life has always been challenging. It is even more challenging today. Our technological advancements are overwhelming us with information overload.” Motivational online communities have similarly bemoaned the frantic pace of modern life and have advocated reconnecting with one’s body. As a recent post on the popular lifestyle blog Tiny Buddha exhorted, “The more you practice taking really good care of your body, the more it will reward you with good health, tons of clarity, energy, and the ability to experience all the good that life has to offer for years to come!”

Most recently, the idea of self-care has been embraced by professional women in a hybrid form that combines psychology and new age dicta with a spritz of contemporary feminism. Upwardly mobile working women, who face increasing pressure to “lean in” or “have it all,” are now openly sharing their techniques for coping with the stresses that heavy workloads and the “second shift” of domestic duties entail. While consciously setting aside time to recharge may have once evoked the tone-deaf advice of the wealthy—Gwyneth Paltrow’s oft-mocked newsletter Goop once suggested a quick trip to France to relieve the pressures of everyday life—activist communities have steadily infused the term “self-care” with political meaning. Over the last few years in particular, young organizers associated with the Black Lives Matter movement and other causes have taken to social media to discuss the importance of regular self-care in a world that values certain lives over others. On Tumblr, one post quoting the black lesbian poet Audre Lorde—“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation and that is an act of political warfare,” as she wrote in 1988—has been reblogged over 10,000 times.

Working women are challenging the idea that self-care necessarily entails expensive trips to the spa or “treating” oneself to consumer goods. Self-care can include those things, but it can also mean simply taking a walk or unplugging from email for an hour—small actions that help restore a sense of balance in our hectic lives. By blocking out time for self-care, women are furthermore refusing to feel guilty about putting themselves before others. For example, the inaugural post of a running column on self-care in The Hairpin declared, “We’ll be focusing on more holistic ways of self-care, and routines, but also the struggles that come when you’ve been socialized to equate an act of self-love with solipsism.”


It's no surprise that the concept of self-care has grown in popularity over the last few decades, particularly with women. Multiple studies have shown that Americans now work more than any other industrialized nation and suffer high rates of stress-related health problems as a result. While technological advances such as smartphones have allowed us new forms of leisure, they have also tethered many of us to our jobs even in our so-called downtime, compelling us to check work emails or monitor social media on nights and weekends. And, as a 2013 report from the American Psychological Association found, young women in particular are bearing the brunt of these increased work demands. According to the study, women reported feeling less valued than men in the workplace, in terms of salaries and opportunities for advancement. Furthermore, a 2014 survey released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that on average, women were still doing more housework than men.

In its ideal forms, self-care enacts a labor slowdown and asserts the right to be lazy, the right to stop working. Yet, as demonstrated by my former co-worker, who ran herself in circles in her quest to de-stress, self-care can go awry when it ends up seeming like work in and of itself, something that we’re obligated to do to improve ourselves. Many proponents of self-care have emphasized that rather than provide immediate gratification, self-care requires constant maintenance, or, as a 2010 article in Psychology Today put it, “hard work and perseverance.” When, then, do we actually get the chance to take a break?

Even more insidiously, conversations on self-care often fail to differentiate between recovering from work and recovering for it. For example, earlier this year, Yahoo published an article titled “6 Ways 'Me-Time' Can Help You at Work,” which detailed some of the career benefits of practicing self-care, including “Helps you work faster” and “Inspires creativity.” Likewise, the fashion and lifestyle publication Refinery29, which regularly runs features on dealing with work-related anxiety, published “Why It’s Essential to Completely Unplug on Vacation,” noting that one of the benefits of enjoying time off was that, upon arriving back at work, “Your productivity and creativity will improve.”

In other words, attitudes toward self-care can quickly become what the theorist Lauren Berlant calls “cruel optimism,” or, “when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing.” A cruelly optimistic relationship to self-care is one in which self-care is envisioned primarily as a means to rejuvenate us so that we’re able to work faster and harder—precisely the condition that has caused so much of our stress to begin with.

Given our incredibly fraught relationship with work, it seems what we ultimately need is not simply self-care, but, instead, what labor journalist Sarah Jaffe has called a “politics of leisure” or a societal—rather than individual—prioritization of free time. Such a social program, according to Jaffe, would entail workplace policies like paid time off and equal wages for women, plus men stepping up to do their share of housework. Perhaps once we collectively manage to shrink our ever-expanding workloads, we’ll finally be able to think of painting our nails or going to a movie in lieu of working not as something we have to designate as “self-care,” but merely as living a life.


Posted: August 11, 2015