#selfcare: Reimagining Self-Care Discourses from an Individualist Consumerist Practice to Radical Political Acts of Community Care

Hannah Jamet-Lange, 40089418 

Written for COMS 372: Theories of Public Discourse 

Fall 2020 

#selfcare: Reimagining Self-Care Discourses from an Individualist  Consumerist Practice to Radical Political Acts of Community Care As we find ourselves sliding from one crisis to the next, from one stressful election to the  

next all over the world, from a global pandemic upending everything we had come to see as normal  to a recession leaving millions of people unemployed or underpaid, forced to survive in precarious  living situations, we have come to constantly be confronted with ways on how to take care of  ourselves. A form of self-care that generally includes face masks and candles, long showers and  spa weekends (at least in pre-pandemic times). When I type “self-care” into Google, what comes  up are lists, mostly by lifestyle and women’s magazines—“Take Care of Yourself: 25 Science 

Backed Self-Care Tips”, “48 Ways to Take Care of Yourself in 2021”, “25 Self-Care Tips for  Better Health”—and sprinkled in are sponsored posts and advertisements for skincare products,  facemasks, bath bombs. These are the products sold as objects of self-care, improving one’s life through taking time for oneself—yet, this time for oneself is almost always coupled with  consumerism, with buying another product here that will make one achieve a happier life, more  calmness, a more balanced health.  

When we then, however, look back at the emergence of the term self-care in the 1950s as  a medical concept, to the way it was used in the 1970s and 80s, we see a vastly different picture, a  vastly different concept of self-care. Popularized by the Black Panther Party, self-care a concept was, instead, meant as a means of survival, particularly for Black people, as well as other  marginalized communities experiencing discrimination. When the government and other  authorities are neglecting care for certain populations, for these populations to take care of

themselves is a radical political act. When your survival is not made a priority by those in power,  surviving and thriving is a radical political act. 

In this paper, I will argue that, originating as a means of survival, in recent years, the  discourse surrounding self-care has become commercialized and corrupted in ways to keep people  constantly trying to achieve the sense of calmness and happiness they have been told is necessary  to achieve happiness. But at the same time, this makes them less aware of their material conditions  and of the neglect they are faced with by governments and other institutions of power. It leaves 

the burden of survival on people without putting the actual resources in place that are needed for  care. I thus argue that we need to bring back the original discourses, employ self-care in the way  it was used by counter-publics creating their own counter-discourses. Actual care needs more than  face masks and bath bombs, and instead has to focus on the concept of self-care as a radical 

political act. When faced with neglect, we have to think of self-care not just as an individual  pastime, but as a community-oriented practice of self-preservation leading to actual change and  overcoming of oppressive systems. 

Starting with historical concepts of self-care, it is important to establish that self-care was  not only seen as a form of caring solely for the self as an individual but rather in the way care was  administered to and from the community outside of government and institutions. In this, we need  to first look at the Black Panther Party’s (BPP) involvement in community health. Often  overlooked in favour of images of black berets and guns, the images that are most often thought  of in regard to the BPP, providing free and adequate health services to Black and oppressed people  was a fundamental part of the BPP Ten-Point Program1. The vision of the BPP was to address and  

1 The 1972 revision of the Ten-Point Program formally added health as the sixth point: ‘6. We Want Completely Free  Health Care for All Black and Oppressed People. We believe that the government must provide, free of charge, for 

fight against violence experienced by Black people in particular and oppressed people more  generally. For them, “lack of adequate housing, education, and jobs were also forms of violence”  (Basset 1741). Thus, since the state, the government did not provide the health care and the services  necessary for survival and for the thriving of the community, the BPP established their own  programs, consisting for example of free medical clinics and free breakfasts. “These programs,  deemed ‘survival programs’ by the Party, were a way for the Black Panthers to sustain the  community and help transform it as well” (Frierson 1521). While this sort of initiative is far off  from the discourses of self-care today, this community approach to care can be seen as a radical  act of self-care. 

Similarly, during the early years of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, before then-president  Reagan had even uttered the word AIDS, when government officials were completely ignoring the  crisis that left thousands of mostly gay men and trans women to suffer and die, these communities  most affected—which were in themselves already marginalized due to their sexuality and/or  gender identity and expression—had to create their own systems of care. “Building on the  community models of the Black Panthers, and feminist and gay liberation healthcare initiatives  from the 1970s, community organizations of varying sizes and political stripes emerged to fill the  gaps” left by governments and official health care systems (Care Collective 30). 

We can thus see the importance of these forms of self-care in which care emerges from  within the community for marginalized groups. Drawing on the concept of counter-publics  theorized by Nancy Fraser in response to Habermas’s idea of the public sphere, these groups and  

the people, health facilities which will not only treat our illnesses—most of which have come about as a result of our  oppression—but that will also develop preventative medical programs to guarantee our future survival. We believe  that mass health education and research programs must be developed to give Black and oppressed people access to  advanced scientific and medical information, so we may provide ourselves with proper medical attention and care  (Black Panther Party 1972).’” (Basset 356)

networks of care can be seen as creating a parallel counter-discourse to the ones prevalent in  mainstream society at the time. In the mainstream discourse and the mainstream public sphere, the  care and survival of Black people, of particularly LGBTQ+ people dying of AIDS, were not seen  as relevant to the main public discourse. However, since these topics affected marginalized  communities, they had to come up with their own responses. Thus, I argue, the discourses of care,  of self-care as community care that emerged within these counter-publics, are counter-discourses  to the hegemonic ideas of the times. As Fraser writes: “I propose to call these subaltern  counterpublics in order to signal that they are parallel discursive arenas where members of  subordinated social groups invent and circulate counterdiscourses, so as to formulate oppositional  interpretations of their identities, interests, and needs” (14). 

How then, did the change come about from these community-driven concepts of care to  the consumerist idea of self-care as individualist care of the self? We can examine this shift through  Michel Foucault’s theory of discourse and power/knowledge. Foucault defines discourse “in terms  of bodies of knowledge” (Mchoul and Grace 26). It constrains and enables writing, speaking and  thinking about a topic (31). Naming these discursive formations, Foucault explores how discourse  works as a system of representations, of rules and practices that shape how we talk about things,  how we perceive them, and how they come to be regulated and controlled. It is through discourse  that a topic is constructed and defined, which then influences how that given subject can be  discussed and influences our own and other’s actions related to that topic. Therefore, it is through  discursive formations that meanings are formed, and knowledge produced. In that way, discourse  is related to Foucault’s concept of power/knowledge according to which both power and discourse  are everywhere. It is through a cycle of knowledge giving power that further enables the acquisition 

of more knowledge that power becomes productive and part of the discourse. Power/knowledge  defines and constructs the objects of our knowledge, governs how they can be talked about, and  thus how they can be practiced, hence affecting behaviour and influencing entire networks. Putting  these theories into the context of self-care, we can see that the initial discourses were community 

driven, power/knowledge thus resided within communities, within the counter-publics. But when  the topic of self-care came to be picked up by the mainstream—this can especially be seen  happening right after the 2016 US Presidential Elections (Spicer)—the discourse around it  changed. Because it was talked about differently, this concept of self-care as individual wellness  came to be predominant over former conceptualizations of self-care. 

The way self-care is conceptualized now has a lot to do with economic gains. As William  Davies writes in his exploration of the economics surrounding happiness, The Happiness Industry:  How the Government and Big Business Sold Us Well-Being: “There is a clear economic incentive  for managers to consider the positive attitude of employees. Endless studies have shown that  workers are more productive when they feel happy” (108). At a time where “care services had  already been slashed and priced out of reach for many of the elderly and disabled, hospitals were  routinely overwhelmed and in crisis” (Care Collective 8), the self-care industry then becomes an  even bigger factor and something businesses try to sell to people to keep them engaged in  capitalism, both as workers and consumers. The main ambition is here not directly the actual health  of the people, to provide the care needed, but instead the profits generated through this industry by  businesses. “The most crucial thing for advertisers to remember, […], was that they are not selling  a product at all, but seeking to produce a psychological response. The product is simply a vehicle  with which to do this, along with the advertising campaign” (Davies 94). Thus, advertisers and  managers are not concerned with the health of consumers, but instead, want to promote the idea of 

self-care leading to health rather than actual health and care. As Spicer writes: “This once radical idea is being stripped of its politics to make it more palatable to a mass market. As this happens,  the central insights associated with self-care may well get lost. This could mean self-care becomes  just another brand of self-help. Self-care could also be seen as cheap replacement for social care.” 

This imperative of going back to self-care as a political concept is underlined especially  when looking at the ways “ideas of social welfare and community have been pushed aside for  individualized notions of resilience, wellness and self-improvement, promoted through a  ballooning ‘self-care’ industry which relegates care to something we are supposed to buy for  ourselves on a personal basis” (Care Collective 9). As a society, we have become more and more  individualized, less reliant on communities and instead juggling to stay afloat with everyone  looking out only for themselves and their direct networks. We have come to believe that care is up  to us ourselves, that we have to be self-reliant. In the Care Manifesto, The Care Collective writes:  “This notion that care is up to the individual derives from the refusal to recognize our shared  vulnerabilities and interconnectedness, creating a callous and uncaring climate for everyone” (15). 

Because everything is individualized in such a way, there exists a “pressure […] to be seen  as happy” (Segal 44). Happiness has become the epitome of self-fulfilment, of the goals to be  reached. But within a society that sees everything in such an individualized way, this happiness is  then seen as having to be achieved by oneself, which, on the flip side, means that all non 

achievement of happiness, all forms of misery are also the fault of the individual, instead of  reflecting broader systems failing us. “[Ehrenreich] warned us about the dangers of America’s  relentless promotion of optimism, cheerfulness and the power of the ‘positive’ thinking in the new  ‘science of happiness’. At the personal level, Ehrenreich notes, this can lead to self-blame and a 

morbid preoccupation with avoiding any acknowledgement of loss, sorrow or anger (thereby  undermining the courage to resist abuses and exploitation)” (Segal 60). As this passage from  Segal’s book summarizing Barbara Ehrenreich’s ideas from Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking  Fooled America and the World shows, the culture of self-help and positivity leads to suppressing  negative feelings and blaming ourselves when we cannot achieve happiness. In this context, being  seen as happy is imperative. And self-care, especially in the way the discourse around it emerged  after the 2016 US Presidential Elections designating Donald Trump as president, is promoted as a  way to achieve this sense of happiness, at least from an external viewpoint. It is a way to present  as happy, even when the actual causes of unhappiness are linked more deeply to lack of care  systems on an institutional level, to precarity. There is an emphasis placed on self-help, and with  that self-care, as a way to regain control over our lives which are disrupted by the ongoing health  crisis of COVID-19—among other crises—and a lack of care (Berlant, Desire/Love, 102). Self care thus being presented as individualistic things, it becomes hard to see the importance of  community. We are told to be self-sufficient as this is what keeps us engaged in capitalism, even  though “in order to really thrive we need caring communities” (Care Collective 36).  

This aspect is especially important when considering how the focus of who self-care is  directed to has shifted. Being formerly addressed mostly to marginalized oppressed communities  as a way to care for ourselves when faced with government neglect, the concept of self-care now  mostly targets the middle-class, those able to afford wellness programs and time for themselves,  those that are not stuck in precarious situations due to capitalist neoliberal policies. As Kisner  writes: “The irony of the grand online #selfcare-as-politics movement of 2016 is that it was  powered by straight, affluent white women, who, although apparently feeling a new vulnerability 

in the wake of the election, are not traditionally the segment of American society in the greatest  need of affirmation. Naturally, the movement has become a market.”  

We then need to consider how to go back to this sense of care as political, of self-care as  caring not only for ourselves by using face masks and bath bombs, as a capitalist idea but instead  addressing the roots of our discontent and precarity. Davies writes: “Capitalism spreads a plague  of materialism, which undermines our collectiveness, leaving many of us isolated and lonely” 

(211). It is this isolation that is imperative to overcome. In their Manifesto, the Care Collective  sets out in a detailed way how to reimagine care, led by the idea that we are all connected and need  to recognize these interdependencies (11). They imagine a vision of “universal care”: “the ideal of  a society in which care is placed front and centre on every scale of life. Universal care means that  care – in all its various manifestations – is our priority not only in the domestic sphere but in all  spheres: from our kinship groups and communities to our states and planet” (20). One method for  this are mutual aid networks as a “collective coordination to meet each other’s needs, usually from  an awareness that the systems we have in place are not going to meet them” (Spade 14). Especially  for communities that continue to face oppression and discrimination, and that are most at risk  during this ongoing global health crisis, looking out for each other and building kinship networks  of care is crucial to survival2.  

2 With the COVID-19 pandemic, especially in the early days of stay-at-home orders and social distancing, we have  seen a rapid emergence and proliferation of networks of care and mutual aid initiatives. Marginalized communities  are more likely to be infected by the disease, due to the need to continue working, in many cases in frontline and  service jobs which are more exposed to the virus. Further, we here also need to consider medical racism and social  factors of health, making it so that marginalized communities are more likely to have medical preconditions that  worsen the course the disease takes, as well as less access to health care, especially in countries like the US were  health care is not universal. There is much more to be explored on this topic and a further analysis of care during the  COVID-19 pandemic could be done, however, that unfortunately goes beyond the scope and possibility of this paper.

If we think of it in this way, self-care is political. As Audre Lorde wrote: “Caring for myself  is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” Caring for  oneself in more than the way promoted by mainstream capitalist discourses automatically means  caring for the community as well. It makes us stronger; it is a resistance against mainstream  discourses aimed solely at selling us the idea of self-care, rather than actual care. We can reimagine  “the political as that which magnetizes a desire for intimacy, sociality, affective solidarity, and  happiness” (Berlant, Cruel Optimism, 252). In that way, “[practicing radical self-care] means we’re  able to bring our entire selves into the movement” (Angela Davis, quoted in Tesema). It is through  recognizing our interdependencies and creating kinship networks of care, similar to the models of  the BPP and networks built during the AIDS crisis, that we rebuild the world. We build  communities aimed at actually improving people’s circumstances, both material and emotional,  that center people and care outside of a consumer-capitalist ideal. 

Works Cited 

Ahmed, Sara. The Promise of Happiness. Duke University Press, 2010. 

Bari, Shahidha. “The Radical History of Self-Care.” BBC Radio 4, BBC,  www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/5GwXsvJp6q8PM2RLL2Dgc00/the-radical-history of-self-care.  

Bassett, Mary T. “Beyond Berets: The Black Panthers as Health Activists.” American journal of public health vol. 106, no. 10, 2016, pp. 1741-3. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2016.303412 Bassett, Mary T. “No Justice, No Health: The Black Panther Party’s Fight for Health in Boston and Beyond.” Journal of African American Studies, vol. 23, no. 4, 2019, pp. 352–363.,  doi:10.1007/s12111-019-09450-w.  

Berlant, Lauren. Cruel Optimism. Duke University Press, 2011. 

Berlant, Lauren. Desire/Love. punctum books, 2012. 

Boyle, Sarah. Remembering the Origins of the Self-Care Movement. bust.com/feminism/194895- history-of-self-care-movement.html. 

Care Collective, The. Care Manifesto: The Politics of Interdependence. Verso Books, 2020.  Davies, William. The Happiness Industry: How the Government and Big Business Sold Us Well Being. Verso, 2016.  

Dionne, Evette. “For Black Women, Self-Care Is A Radical Act.” Ravishly, 9 Mar. 2015,  www.ravishly.com/2015/03/06/radical-act-self-care-black-women-feminism.  Fraser, Nancy. “Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing  Democracy .” The Phantom Public Sphere, edited by Bruce Robbins, U. Of Minnesota  Press, 1993, pp. 1–32. 


Frierson, Jannie C. “The Black Panther Party and the Fight for Health Equity.” Journal of Health  Care for the Poor and Underserved, vol. 31 no. 4, 2020, p. 1520-1529. Project  MUSE, doi:10.1353/hpu.2020.0113. 

Kisner, Jordan. “The Politics of Conspicuous Displays of Self-Care.” The New Yorker, 14 Mar.  2017, www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/the-politics-of-selfcare.  

Lorde, Audre. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Revised ed., Crossing Press, 2007. Mchoul, Alec & Wendy Grace. “Discourse” in A Foucault Primer: Discourse, Power and the  Subject. New York: Routledge, 2002. pp. 26-56. 

Mirk, Sarah. “Audre Lorde Thought of Self-Care as an ‘Act of Political Warfare.’” Bitch Media,  18 Feb. 2016, www.bitchmedia.org/article/audre-lorde-thought-self-care-act-political warfare.  

Segal, Lynne. Radical Happiness: Moments of Collective Joy. Verso Books, 2017. Spade, Dean. Mutual Aid: Building Solidarity during This Crisis (and the next). Verso, 2020.  Spicer, André. “‘Self-Care’: How a Radical Feminist Idea Was Stripped of Politics for the Mass  

Market.” The Guardian, 21 Aug. 2019,  www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/aug/21/self-care-radical-feminist-idea-mass market.  

Stamp, Nicole. “The Revolutionary Origins of Self-Care .” Locallove, 23 May 2019,  locallove.ca/issues/the-revolutionary-origins-of-self-care/.  

Tesema, Martha. “How You Can Honor the Radical History of Self-Care.” Shine, 23 July 2020,  advice.theshineapp.com/articles/how-you-can-honor-the-radical-history-of-self-care/.

#selfcare: Reimagining Self-Care Discourses from an Individualist Consumerist Practice to Radical Political Acts of Community Care

Hannah Jamet-Lange They/she

Tioh'tia:ke / "Montréal"