Over the last couple of years, I've been hearing the term self-care a lot, and it's clear to me that its usage falls on a spectrum. On one end, it's used earnestly in the context of self-preservation and healing from trauma, and on the other end it's used as a marketing label slapped on bath bombs, face masks, and body lotions.
Curious about its roots, I did some research.
First I wanted to see if my intuition was right. Are people really using self-care more now than they were a few years ago? A quick search on Google Trends confirms that it's not just me, and that there's something to this.
Early 20th Century Self-Care
The Oxford English Dictionary's earliest citation of self-care is from the 1904 edition of Webster's International Dictionary of the English Language. The OED's definition covers both the health aspect of self-care as well as the self-interest aspect of it:
I hadn't realized that the word had been around since the early 1900s. It's likely to be from even earlier—that's just the first recorded citation, which I'm sure will be antedated by someone soon (but not by me in this post because I want to focus on some of the more recent uses).
The term self-care also pops up in the poetry of W. H. Auden, as you can see from the second citation. Here he uses it in a tongue-in-cheek way in the poem "Journal of an Airman" from his 1932 book Orators.
Self-Care as Self-Preservation
One person who has discussed the nuances of self-care in detail is the writer Jenna Wortham. In general, she's incredibly insightful, and in her writing she frames pop-culture in ways that highlight deeper significance. In an essay on the Bon Appétit vertical Healthyish, Wortham reflects on when she dug into the Audre Lorde quote that had become a mantra of self-care enthusiasts on the internet: “caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare”:
Wellness, I came to realize, will not happen by accident. It must be a daily practice, especially for those of us who are more susceptible to the oppressiveness of the world. I began to understand why [Lorde] described the practice of self-care as a means of political warfare, how even getting more rest or drinking more water could be viewed as an act of defiance—radical, even. Simply surviving in New York was not enough. I needed to make decisions that would enable my queer, black, and femme body to thrive in a world that has little room for any of those things.
Over the last year, there have been a few notable occasions when the term self-care has surged in usage within the vocabularies of people I know or follow on social media: the Orlando nighclub shooting in June, the presidential election in November, and the inauguration in January. The Google Trends graph above suggests that searches for the term have become even more popular since the inauguration, and I don't think that's a coincidence. Self-care seems to be especially embraced by marginalized groups, including the ones that Wortham identifies as: queer, black, and femme.
Self-care, in this sense, is doing the things for yourself that will enable you to thrive in the world, even in light of systemic injustices and other difficulties. It's the little acts of kindness you do for yourself that will help you keep going and avoid burnout.
Hygge and Resistance Fatigue
I think the rise of the term hygge is directly related to the rise of self-care. In times of trauma, in times of distress, the coziness that hygge promises is a cold-weather iteration of self-care.
Another related word I've learned in the past year is resistance fatigue. On Word Spy Paul McFedries defines resistance fatigue as "mental exhaustion brought on by the constant protesting of unpopular government policies."
As with anything in life, there is a balance between self-care and self-indulgence. This tweet from writer and poet Eve Ewing gets at that balance:
Pizza as Self-Care
Self-care can refer to a wide range of things from physical products to activities to abstract sentiments. No wonder it's used so much. It can be applied to almost anything, so long as it makes someone—somewhere, somehow—feel good.
Look up #selfcare on Instagram and you'll see a variety of sun-drenched visual definitions. Self-care could mean making a nice meal, taking a bath, buying makeup, buying soap, loving your body just the way you are, exercising (usually yoga), painting your nails, wearing a cute outfit, staying in, going out, posting inspirational quotes, drinking tea, drinking wine, or not being hungover in the morning, just to name a few themes emerging in that hashtag.
According to Nylon Magazine, eating a pizza is a form of self-care. (I think I might have actually been tempted to buy the shirt they're selling above if they had spelled "peace" as "piece.")
I recently spoke to my friend John about what self-care means to him. He said that he mostly uses it as an excuse to buy things for himself. More specifically, he thinks of it as self-care when he uses money to reduce stress or make his life easier. For him, buying a new pair of jeans wouldn't be self-care, however buying a new pillow that would help him sleep better would be. In some cases, self-care is evoked in the same context as the phrase treat yo' self, which was famously used on the show Parks and Recreation.
The Self-Care Spectrum
Clearly self-care, as a concept, exists on spectrum. All the uses I've seen so far fall somewhere between Audre Lorde and marketing jargon. As the term self-care becomes more widespread, will that impact its current senses? Will self-care lose its political connotations if more and more brands adopt this terminology to sell products?
I personally hope the more earnest sense of self-care thrives in English. It's a powerful thing for those who are marginalized, who feel their very existence is at odds with the power structure of society, to feel that they can take time to do kind things for themselves.