In 2022, it’s almost impossible to be a woman online and not encounter at least one article or advertisement about the importance of #self-care.
Even more potent in the midst of a global pandemic, the wellness industry has, over time, commodified and white-washed self-care to such an extent that it wouldn’t be surprising if you assumed the concept was invented by some savvy marketing executive.
The notion of self-care, however, has feminist roots in the women’s rights movement and the American civil rights movement. It was poet and activist Audre Lorde who famously said, “Caring for myself is not an indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
For women and people of colour, self-care has, historically, been a way of rebelling against institutions and systems that are racist, sexist, discriminatory and reinforce inequality.
The self-care movement was bolstered by black women in order to dismantle hierarchies of race, gender, class and sexual orientation through the emergence of free community health care clinics and social-service programs.
In bell hooks’ book, All About Love, she writes: ‘Self-love cannot flourish in isolation.’
Commercialised self-care, however, is encouraged in isolation, with a strong focus on the individualised ‘treat yourself’.
But when Audre Lorde spoke of self-care, she was suggesting that we consider the self as the community – and shift our focus towards community care through challenging the systems that serve the individual over the common good: this is the philosophy that union action is founded upon.
What does actual ‘self-care’ look like for workers?
Self-care was originally meant for those who worked in roles that were emotionally distressing, like trauma therapists and social workers. Commercially, it is heavily targeted towards women.
But with a cost-of-living crisis, a global pandemic and smart devices making work inescapable, burn out has become an insidious contemporary phenomenon, and Australian workers are spending more money on mental health services and ‘self-care’ than ever.
It’s easy for bosses to virtue-signal about self-care without providing the necessary means to prevent burn out and other hazards in the first place. But in order to actually practice self-care, workers need time and financial security to do so.
They need to be able to fully disconnect from work; they need actual flexible working arrangements to juggle caring responsibilities and professional duties, and they need days off to focus on their mental health.
The ability to exercise real self-care is especially important for women who take on the bulk of caring duties and are more likely to suffer from stress caused by the ‘mental load’. It’s not surprising that it is majority women who are striking in the healthcare, teaching and childcare industries to demand better working conditions to combat burn out.
True wellness is when the whole community is cared for, regardless of socio-economic status.
Joining your union is one of the most tangible ways to ensure that no one is left behind in the quest for a world where workers are rested and well – that’s what makes a real healthy society.