More than Mere Consumption: On Pursuing Radical Self-Care

At Swarthmore, we often hear the phrase ‘self-care’ or are asked, “How are you taking care of yourself?” If we seriously consider the answer to that question, many of us would have to say that we aren’t. In the commercialized society that we live in, self-care has been portrayed as face masks, Netflix, and eating chocolate after a break-up. While these activities can be fun and relaxing, they aren’t replacements for therapy, meaningful self-reflection, and other techniques for taking care of our mental health and wellbeing. Self-care is challenging yourself to improve — it’s hard work. It’s embracing the community to heal together. Our current model of self-care is not sustainable, nor is it truly productive.

Buying something to treat yourself won’t help you develop healthy relationships or work on your insecurities, but therapy might. Therapy is difficult and can force us to think about painful experiences and traumas. Yet, it is an integral component in holding ourselves accountable for improvement. We acknowledge that access to affordable and quality mental health care is not afforded to everyone equally. Low-income individuals working full time to provide for their families — including families of many Swarthmore students — may not be able to dedicate time in their week for therapy sessions. However, at Swarthmore, we are lucky enough to have access to CAPS, a service that requires systemic improvement and more diverse counselors but that is available to the campus as a whole.

Improving ourselves requires consistent and long-term effort that at times can feel impossible. Sometimes self-care means doing your homework and preparing for class, even though it’s hard, draining, or time-consuming. Sometimes self-care means prioritizing physical wellness in whatever form is best for you. It’s about finding a balance between letting yourself rest and taking care of your classwork, commitments, and relationships. If we want to actually help ourselves, we need to dedicate time to discovering and working on the roots of our problems.

We have to start doing this difficult labor, as individuals and as a community. We need to see that the hard work means something — it improves our relationships and ourselves. It’s time that we revert to what self-care was meant to be: a tool the LGBTQ+ rights, civil rights, and women’s rights movements employed while fighting systems of oppression. During the 1960s and 70s, when many of these movements were at their height, self-care was a radical form of survival and self-ownership. It was notably referenced in Audre Lorde’s book “A Burst of Light.” Lorde wrote, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

The commodification of self-care is yet another example of the co-opting of the hard work of marginalized individuals, especially Black women. In reimagining our conception of self-care, we are obligated to acknowledge their labor. On this campus, and most campuses around the country, we need to sustain ourselves in our academics, activism, and social life. Let’s care for ourselves in the way that the phrase was intended — meaningfully, radically, and unapologetically.

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