On day one of four-day, I stayed in my pajamas until six p.m. Grateful for respite from a hectic semester, I readily indulged every relaxing impulse I had: I ate chocolate in bed, scrolled passively through my phone and reread old favorite books.
I also let my phone rack up unanswered texts in the triple digits, drank (maybe) two glasses of water and didn’t see the sun until it had nearly set. At six p.m, I took stock of the situation, put on jeans, and forced myself outside. Much to my frustration, I instantly felt better. Despite spending the day engaging in what one might label as “self-care,” I had failed to provide myself with what I really needed. In the end, the most compassionate thing I could do for myself was overcome my inertia. Sure, I needed rest and chocolate, but I also needed human interaction and sunlight.
We toss around the term “self-care” a lot, especially on college campuses, where stress culture abounds. Self-care, supposedly, is the balm for our stress and burnout, but what do we really mean when we talk about it? Our common definitions can feel vaguely useful at best.
Senior Piper Olsen pointed to the flippant way people often use the term to justify impulsive comforts, passing off a skipped day of classes or an iced coffee for lunch as hashtag-self-care.
“I think there’s a self-awareness to how short [ideas of self-care] fall,” Olsen said.
Olsen explains that this flawed notion of self-care can sometimes impede personal growth and introspection, preventing accountability. When viewed uncritically and without nuance, it can be used as a tool of avoidance and, counterintuitively, stop us from actually taking care of ourselves. This was what my decidedly non-rejuvenating day of rest taught me. Sometimes, self-care should look less like self-indulgence and more like acting as one’s own caretaker.
Under the guise of self-care, people can sometimes be absent in friendships, ignore responsibilities and avoid seeking out things like fresh air and movement.
“Sometimes it bothers me that people do things in the name of self-care when it’s really just being a bad friend or a bad person,” Olsen said.
This is a tricky boundary to delineate. Prioritizing one’s own comfort and well-being is not an indication of selfishness or apathy. Taking a while to answer a friend’s messages is a natural response to the exhausting expectation to be socially available at all times. Rest and boundaries are sacred and necessary.
Dr. Rae Chresfield, Associate Dean of Health and Wellness and Director of the Counseling Center, emphasized the importance of boundaries.
“Setting boundaries so that you know where one person begins and you end is another aspect of self-care,” Dr. Chresfield said, in an email to the Wire. “Boundaries can help you make self-care a priority by … being comfortable with your priorities.”
Still, rhetoric and common practices of self-care can quickly become highly individualistic.
Junior Fraser Moore traces this individualism back to the colonization of the US. Frontier culture spawned new notions of self-reliance and positioned self-care above care for others. Furthermore, he stated, our structures give us almost no support, creating a cyclical sort of self-dependence.
“We’re forced to turn inwardly because we are our only sort of guiding principle and guiding light,” Moore said. “And what that does is exacerbate the whole system: by turning inwardly, we become more individualistic in our own principles and beliefs.”
When we can’t find support within ourselves, Moore said, we turn to consumerism, another ideology baked into the foundation of our society.
“Think about how easy it is to buy an item on Amazon,” Moore said. “In some ways, it’s kind of cathartic, because you think you’re improving your life in some way. All it’s really doing is hooking you up to a stream of money.”
Amidst unparalleled levels of stress and depression, companies pounce on this need for catharsis. Buy this aromatherapy candle and you’ll never be anxious again! Collect these branded trinkets and enjoy a rush of dopamine every time you click ‘buy’!
As the concept of “self-care” began to regain popularity in the last decade, brands were quick to capitalize on its resurgence, positioning their own products as vital tools of self-care. Suddenly, self-care became synonymous with expensive face masks and comforting luxuries, rather than a regenerative practice of self-respect and awareness.
Not only are these “self-care” methods ineffectual and money-driven, they are also unavailable to those without the disposable income to access them, who often need self-care most urgently.
“Those things aren’t even self-care,” Olsen said. “Self-care, as we see it now, is just a new unattainable standard, which means it’s antithetical to self-care anyway.”
To what standard of self-care is our culturally accepted definition antithetical? Radical activists, specifically the Black Panther Party, first popularized the term in the 1960s. Writer Audre Lorde is widely credited with reintroducing the term into the cultural lexicon in 1988. Lorde famously said: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
As a Black lesbian activist, Lorde was responding to structures that were not built for her survival, let alone comfort. She rejected the notion that she needed to overextend herself to be worthy and emphasized the idea that self-care coincides with community care. When we divorce this notion of self-care from its political roots, it loses much of its power.
Dr. Chresfield underscored the importance—and, often, the lack—of self-care for marginalized people. People affected by racism, ableism and other forms of oppression often require more self-care as a result of marginalization, but many have a harder time accessing it.
“It is often not acceptable for marginalized people to give themselves permission to engage in self-care and it is rarely offered,” Dr. Chresfield said. “That means that marginalized people have to request/demand what others can freely take without explanation.”
Dr. Chresfield also acknowledged that self-care can look different for marginalized people. Sometimes, just being around people with similar identities and experiences is a powerful form of self-care. In general, while self-care varies widely from person to person, she defined effective self-care as activities that restore and re-energize. Cooking a healthy meal, playing basketball and connecting to a higher power are a few of the examples she gave.
“Perhaps a broad definition of self-care would just be taking time for oneself,” Moore said. He accesses peace and self-care outdoors, claiming that the natural world serves as a rare distraction from our connected, commodified world.
“It’s very easy to get trapped in our rooms in college,” Moore said. “Just appreciating the turning colors and the cold air and the petrichor in the mornings on the concrete—I think there are small beauties every day and if we would just appreciate those, maybe we would be happier.”
Olsen emphasized the necessity of growth and introspection in practicing effective self-care.
“For me, traditionally, the most significant moments of self-care have been moments where I grew as a person, or changed my habits, or listened to my body,” Olsen said. “[You need to]
do things that are challenging. And you take time to rest, but it’s meaningful rest, and not just shutting down and numbing yourself from the world.”
This “meaningful rest,” while crucial, isn’t always easy to incorporate. In addition, students frequently express dissatisfaction with Whitman’s treatment of self-care on an institutional level. Most of my peers emerged from four-day equally stressed and exhausted, with an unrelenting workload waiting on the other side. Many of the college’s attempts to promote self-care focus on small items and events, rather than large-scale changes or discussions.
Dr. Chresfield, however, cited the new Wellness House as an indication of Whitman’s improvement.
“I wanted students to be able to live in an environment where self-care was integrated into their living space,” Dr. Chresfield said, discussing the WSU grant-funded interest house. The house promotes mental and overall wellness, providing ample resources and activities.
Perhaps this kind of intentionality and community formation is what we need to begin engaging in meaningful acts of self-care. Or perhaps “self-care” has been so oversaturated and so thoroughly polluted by consumerism that it’s no longer even a useful term. The point remains, though: we need to rest, but not at the expense of self-awareness.