It is somewhere between 1:00 and 2:00 in the morning and, as per usual, I am flicking through internet tabs. Without really taking anything in, I am dividing my attention between a recipe for broccoli and peanut butter soup (one which has been in my favorites tab for maybe three years, still never attempted), some news story about a terrible event in which many people have needlessly died, and the usual social media sites. Scrolling down my Facebook feed, in between the enviable holiday snaps and the links to more sad news stories—people don’t talk very much on Facebook any more, I’ve noticed; it’s mostly a conduit for the exchanging of links—a picture catches my eye. It’s a cartoon of a friendly-looking blob man, large-eyed and edgeless, wrapped up in blankets. The blob man is saying “It’s okay if all you want to do today is just stay in bed and watch Netflix.” I draw up my covers, nodding to no one in particular, and flick to a tab with my favorite old TV show.
The above story doesn’t refer to any particular night that I can remember. But the general theme is one that I’ve played out again and again. I’m not sure I’m ever going to make that soup.
If you’re a millennial with regular access to the internet, you’ve probably seen similar images to the cartoon I’ve described above. They’re usually painted in comforting primary colors or pastels, featuring simple illustrations, accompanied by text in a non-threatening font. They invite you to practice “self-care”, a term that has been prominent in healthcare theory for many decades but has recently increased in visibility online. The term generally refers to a variety of techniques and habits that are supposed to help with one’s physical and mental well-being, reduce stress, and lead to a more balanced lifestyle. “It’s like if you were walking outside in a thunderstorm, umbrella-less, and you walked into a café filled with plush armchairs, wicker baskets full of flowers, and needlepoints on the walls that say things like ‘Be kind to yourself’ and ‘You are enough,’” says the Atlantic. Though the term has a medical tinge to it, the language used in the world of self-care is more aligned with the world of self-help, and much of the advice commonly given in the guise of self-care will be familiar to anyone who has browsed the pop-psychology shelves of a bookstore or listened to the counsel of a kindly coworker—take breaks from work and step outside for fresh air, take walks in the countryside, call a friend for a chat, have a lavender bath, get a good night’s sleep. Light a candle. Stop being so hard on yourself. Take time off if you’re not feeling so well and snuggle under the comforter with a DVD set and a herbal tea. Few people would argue with these tips in isolation (with a few exceptions—I think herbal tea is foul). We should all be making sure we are well-fed, rested, and filling our lives with things that we enjoy. In a time where people—especially millennials, at whom this particular brand of self-care is aimed—are increasingly talking about their struggles with depression, anxiety and insecurities, it’s no wonder that “practicing self-care” is an appealing prospect, even if it does sometimes seem like a fancy way to say “do things you like.” What is concerning is the way that this advice appears to be perfectly designed to fit in with a society that appears to be the cause of so much of the depression, anxiety, and insecurities. By finding the solution to young people’s mental ill-health (be it a diagnosed mental health problem or simply the day-to-day stresses of life) in do-it-yourself fixes, and putting the burden on the target audience to find a way to cope, the framework of self-care avoids having to think about issues on a societal level. In the world of self-care, mental health is not political, it’s individual. Self-care is mental health care for the neoliberal era.
As I write, the U.K. Prime Minister, Theresa May, is tweeting about World Mental Health Day and suicide prevention. She is not the only one; scrolling through the trending hashtags (there are several) one can find lots of comforting words about taking care of yourself, about opening up, confiding in a friend, keeping active, taking a breath. One such tweet is a picture of an arts-and-craftsy cut-out of a bright yellow circle behind dull green paper, designed to look like a cheerful sun. Printed on the sun are the words “everything will be so good so soon just hang in there & don’t worry about it too much.” All of us have probably seen some variation of these words at many points in our lives, and probably found at least a little bit of momentary relief in them. But looking through other tweets about World Mental Health Day reveals a different side of the issue. People talk about the times they did try to seek help, and were left to languish on waiting lists for therapy. They talk about the cuts to their local services (if they’re from somewhere with universal healthcare) or the insurance policies that wouldn’t cover them (if they’re in the United States). They talk about the illnesses left cold and untouched by campaigns that claim to reduce stigma—personality disorders, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia. They talk about homelessness and insecure housing and jobs that leave them exhausted. They talk about loneliness. And, in the case of Theresa May, they talk about how the suicide prevention minister she promises to hire will have to deal with the many people who consider suicide in response to her government’s policies. These are deep material and societal issues that all of us are touched by, to at least some degree. We know it when we see people begging in the streets, when we read yet another report that tells us our planet is dying, when we try to figure out why we feel sad and afraid and put it down to an “off day”, trying not to think about just how many “off days” we seem to have. We turn to our TVs, to our meditation apps, and hope we can paper over the cracks. We are in darkness, and when we cry out for light, we are handed a scented candle.
A common sentiment expressed in the world of self-care is that anyone can suffer from mental ill-health. This is true, but it’s not the entire story. In fact, mental health problems are strongly correlated with poverty, vulnerability, and physical health conditions (with the causation going both ways). Furthermore, there is a big difference between those of us who are fortunate enough to be able to take time off work for doctor’s appointments and mental health days, and those who can’t; those of us who have children or other dependents to take care of, and those who don’t; those of us who have the financial independence to take a break from our obligations when we need to, and those who don’t. Not all people have the same access to help, or even access to their own free time—employers increasingly expect workers to be available whenever they are needed, both in white-collar jobs and precarious shift work. Add in the (heavily gendered) responsibilities of being a parent, studying, a night-time Uber gig to cover the bills, or a long commute from the only affordable area in the city, and the stress of life will pile on even as it soaks up the time you’re supposed to set aside to relieve that stress. Funding cuts are in fashion across a plethora of Western countries, both to healthcare and to other services that indirectly affect our health, especially the health of people who need additional support to lead the lives they wish to live, or even just to survive. The rhetoric around self-care is flattering but flattening, treating its audience as though the solution to their problems is believing in themselves and investing in themselves. This picture glosses over the question of what happens when society does not believe or invest in us.
Even for those of us who are relatively lucky in life, self-care does not solve our problems. “It’s okay if all you did today was breathe,” promises a widely-shared image macro of a gentle talking pair of lungs. Well, I hate to break it to you, talking lungs, but it’s 2018. We’re supposed to be walking powerhouses of productivity, using every minute of our time to its best effect. In an economic environment where careers are precarious and competitive, young people are increasingly pressured to give up their free time to take on extracurriculars and unpaid projects “for their resume,” produce creative content “for exposure,” learn skills such as coding, scout for jobs on LinkedIn, write self-promoting posts about their personal qualities, and perhaps worst of all, attend godawful networking events, some of which don’t even have free canapés. Taking part in all this sounds unfair and exploitative, but you’re in a world where solidarity is just the name of a song from the Billy Elliot musical; if you won’t go along with it, there’s a line of brilliant, hungry graduates from top-name schools right behind you who will. It doesn’t stop with work either. This way of thinking about ourselves—constantly in need of self-improvement, constantly aware of our need to market ourselves as premium humans—seeps into our personal lives as much as our professional lives. On your way home from the office, perhaps you’ll flick through the apps on your smartphone, doing all the tasks you’ve assigned to yourself so you can be stronger, smarter, more attractive. Have you walked the 10,000 steps today mandated by your Fitbit? Have you done your Duolingo practice? You’re falling behind with learning French. Learning French will make you more appealing to employers, and might also make you look sexy and mysterious on dates. Have you responded to that Tinder message? It wasn’t very interesting, but you can’t remember the last time you met a romantic prospect organically so you should really get around to responding. You need to think of a good joke first, though; if you come off as too generic they’ll be on to the next candidate. Have you finished that book for your book club? You’ll look like an idiot if you don’t know how it ends. Did you play the guitar today? Creativity is important. Have you checked the news? What if someone asks you about the situation in Myanmar? How’s your posture? Is it upright? Check your reflection in the window. Why are you slouching? Why are you so pale? Why are you so tired? Who is this person?
It’s harder, too, if you’re a woman. (Copy and paste this sentence and stick it into any article you like, it’ll work.) The standard pressures from the advertising industry have only ramped up as we’ve turned away from traditional media, insinuating their way into social media under the same guise of aspirational content, but this time smiling with the face of a friend. Youtube and Instagram stars draw you in with viral content and enviable abs, promising you that if you drink the juice, do the workout routine, learn how to use a hairdryer with perfect salon technique (and if you’re finding it difficult this new product makes it SO much easier, use my code for a 15 percent discount!) you can be the best version of yourself you can be. This is a lie, of course—the goal is not to be you, it’s to be them. You know this, and know it isn’t what you should think, but you cannot help how you feel. The insecurities burrowing deep under your skin and planting the desire to be someone else don’t even have to be internally consistent. Being a woman means you can stand in front of a mirror and simultaneously be upset that you’re not as skinny as a sportswear model and as curvaceous as a 1950s pinup girl. Your phone is filled with updates from the lives of beautiful women you do not know. Flick to the next image in your feed, past the girl with the Photoshopped manicure (perhaps in reality, her nails, like yours, are bitten down). The next post is about self-care. There’s a link to buy bath oils in the description.
On social media sites such as Instagram and Pinterest, pictures exhorting us to set aside an evening to relax sit alongside images of gorgeous people we will never look like (but will spend hundreds of dollars and hours trying to emulate), images of locations we will never travel to (but will keep for years on our bucket lists), images of top 10 tips from successful entrepreneurs (whose life advantages and luck cannot be guaranteed, but who we will continue to hold up as experts in how they attained their position in life). Ironically, in telling us to take the pressure off ourselves, self-care discourse can feel as though it’s doing the exact opposite—adding “taking care of our mental health” as yet another task to put onto our plates, alongside finding a fulfilling, well-paid career, doing overtime to prove our worth, networking to maximize our chance of success, getting to the gym five times a week, finding the perfect skincare routine, practicing an interesting and resume-friendly hobby, seeing friends in a variety of glamorous locales, finding a partner, and creating an original yet classic décor theme for our homes. If it’s too hard, and you need something easier for a little bit, you are invited to seek solace in consumption. Watch Netflix, watch Amazon Prime—put a little more change in the pocket of the world’s richest man, in exchange for a couple of hours’ distraction. Get delivery food from an app that uses poorly-paid “independent contractors”, the bulk of them time-poor, cash-poor millennials like you. Squash down the wave of guilt—guilt at spending too much money, at using services you don’t support, at ordering the chicken when you swore you’d go vegan months ago. You’re feeling constantly guilty about something or other anyway, so one more thing to feel guilty about barely registers. After eating, you curl up on the couch, hugging your knees with your arms, small. You are taking up the most minimal space; even in our darker moments, we feel a need to exist in the most efficient way possible.
Why are these feelings familiar to so many of us, yet we feel so alone? We are atomized, individualized, struggling under the same system but struggling inwardly and separately. Self-care slots in neatly with capitalism, treating mental ill-health as an individual problem divorced from material and political context, to be solved by pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps and maybe spending a little money on the way. We are invited to draw inwards, shut our curtains; pull ourselves into movies and food and warm water and blankets as a means of escaping our problems without solving them. We are encouraged to “reach out” to others, if we feel able to, but our relationships to others in the language of self-care appears to be as mutual conduits for pressure relief; “reaching out” always seems to mean drawing someone into the blanket with you rather than throwing the blanket off.
None of this is to say, by the way, that these tips are in and of themselves bad, or that they haven’t brought solace to anyone. The problem arises when self-care becomes a sticking plaster on the wounds caused by capitalism. Sooner or later, the blood seeps out.
But what if there was an alternative? What if you didn’t have to worry about your insurance covering a therapist, because everyone had universal coverage? What if you weren’t exhausted from balancing your job and your family, because you had affordable daycare, decent parental leave, and six weeks’ paid vacation? What if you didn’t have to spend every waking moment optimizing yourself for the job market, because we had built an economy that did not put disproportionate power in the hands of employers? What if we stopped thinking of ourselves as being constantly in competition with each other, because we realized it was more a source of misery than success? What if we didn’t feel a nagging sense of doom every time we looked at the news, because we were actually on the road to making things better? What if we built something different? What if we did it together?
All of us need to take pleasure in things we enjoy. It’s important to take care of our needs and smell flowers and eat cheesecake. But if our deeper anxieties are at least in part caused by our conditions, then maybe our solution lies in fixing our conditions. Instead of commiserating with coworkers on a poor working environment, imagine organizing with them. Imagine connecting with other people in your community over things that matter to all of you; whether that’s saving a treasured park or bringing attention to a local crisis. Going door-to-door, meeting people you’ve been living next to this whole time, hearing their voices, hearing your collective voice get a little louder every time someone joins you. Imagine what putting faith in solidarity could do at a local level, or a national level. How would it feel to take back power, to have agency? Developing bonds with people over something that matters can be electrifying, and of course if you win, that’s a real change to the world you live in, for you and the people around you! Even if you don’t win, all is not lost, because you created a possibility—the possibility that future victories might come, that other people might be inspired by what you did, that you could return to try again, that there’s a better thing to be created. Most importantly of all, there’s hope, perhaps the most powerful force in life. No bubble bath can give us that. Maybe that’s a gift we give ourselves.
This article was originally printed in Issue 15 of Current Affairs. Get your print copy in our online store.
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