T. sent me this article recently, and I was greatly annoyed by it, even though I agreed with it, basically. The gist of the article is something that I think is completely correct: that self-care is good as a means, but is repugnant as a goal. At least, that’s how I interpret it. The cult of self care makes it sound like you can consume your way not only to bliss, but also to virtue. This is disgusting. At the same time, if you are wallowing in misery and self-neglect for the sake of not being self-indulgent, you are not actually helping anybody. Making sure you’re disorganized and miserable is a recipe for failure, regardless of the nobility of your goals. Thus, the column is excellent advice.
The problem is, people of a certain philosophical makeup don’t want to read advice (for the same reason they don’t want to do self-care). So, in order to get the message through, Laurie Penny dresses it up in trendy left-wing language of resistance to neoliberalism and surviving in late capitalism and radical acts. And maybe this helps it get through to some people, but at the cost of making many of the things it says untrue.
I get the point that in certain situations self-care can actually be an act of resistance against an unjust regime. If you don’t, think of the archetype of the person who is put in prison and takes meticulous care of their appearance to show they are unbowed. But we are, for the most part, not in that situation. Let me suggest that for the vast majority of the people reading that article, and for Laurie Penny, self care is not a radical act. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t do it! And it doesn’t mean the essential point of the article, as I see it, is wrong. It’s just that rhetorically, it’s awful. Laurie Penny says “the light in me is sometimes a government building on fire”. But she is not gonna go and set a government building on fire. And that’s not bad! I’m very happy Laurie Penny isn’t going around torching Parliament. And if thinking that self-care is a radical act helps sublimate that destructive urge into doing yoga, that’s probably for the good. But for goodness sake, I wish everyone would stop writing like this, endlessly ratcheting up the rhetorical stakes of doing exercise or eating a sandwich or watching a movie. Critical theory tropes and Marxist tropes have their places. Let me claim that those places are not the lifestyle section.
Here’s how I see it: you should want to make the world a better place. You should work towards that goal. Self-care by itself doesn’t help achieve that goal and doesn’t prevent it. But you need to be in a good enough state as a person to be able to do things, and so self-care can help get you there. That’s it. Full Stop.