By Emma Turner
I am not sure when I first heard the term ‘self-care’.
Most probably it came from the depths of the internet in my early teens, in mental health positive circles I feel lucky to have stumbled upon now in hindsight, and it was probably with relation to things like doing fun, healthy things to help you feel good in times of stress.
My definition of self-care has since come to be something much broader. In Parks and Recreation, something I merrily binge-watched in Lent Term last year for its quirky, feminist explosion in the form of Leslie Knope, her co-workers Donna and Tom have an annual ‘treat yo self’ day. They save up and then go on a shopping spree once a year (the 11th of October, if you’re interested). This is maybe the most commercialised, capitalist sense of what self-care is: one-off occasions involving extravagant (expensive) activities to make up for any stresses in your life. I’ll admit that being extra kind to yourself is certainly a good practice, but self-care should also encompass the small things, the everyday, necessary tasks which are about looking after yourself on the most basic level. It can be celebrating the wins which are often taken as ‘boring’ yet which can be momentous chores for anyone suffering with mental illness(es), or can even just be improving an overall sense of wellbeing and productivity. It is not just for those who are struggling – it is for everyone, in good times and bad, and its definition varies depending on the situation.
I accept that eating a good breakfast, drinking more water and doing my laundry when I really don’t feel like it isn’t going to make the enormous essay deadline staring at me from the pages of my planner go away, or my cold symptoms magically clear up. Actually, I’m often tempted to think that skipping simple things to give myself more time to write an essay is the best idea, and I can have time for self-care later, another day, when I’m less busy. I’ll do all of that boring stuff tomorrow. I’ll start that hobby I’ve been dreaming of next term. I’ll catch up on sleep some other night…
This term I’ve been experimenting with doing it a little differently. My work still needs doing – I can’t spend all my time being kind to myself and avoiding the scary things, because that’s not what self-care is either. But having less time to do work might be not so bad if I’m already feeling rested and calm when I sit down in the library, and I’ve spent some time doing something I want to do. Doing nice things can make the more difficult things go more smoothly. There isn’t a ‘right’ way to do it, it’s not always easy, and it’s certainly not an instant cure-all for a lot of people… but with a little (or a lot of) practice I think it can become a subtle form of self-empowerment.
Of course, it’s not just about what you incorporate into your day, but who. Search for ‘self-care’ on social media and you’ll likely find at least one tweet along the lines of “self-care is cutting negative people out of your life”. However, I’d also argue that it’s about finding safe spaces and spending time with people who can aid in your self-empowerment. There has been political debate over women-only and non-binary spaces, with some people arguing that it is ‘sexist’ and not the way to overcome gender inequality. However, it is also important to remember that many parts of society were – and in many countries, still are – male-only spaces. Important institutions were Old Boys’ Clubs for centuries, something which is particularly tangible in Cambridge where you will find predominantly white male portraits staring down at you from the walls of almost any college hall. While female and non-binary spaces don’t directly solve this ongoing problem, they provide what can feel like a more accepting and safe space. They also eradicate the intersection of gender stereotypes with hierarchy: asking questions in a whole year/college group, or in an employment context, can spark fears of being perceived as not just a confused newbie, but the confused new girl. It is also about providing an implied common experience, lessening the fear of having male voices negate or belittle sensitive experiences of issues like sexism.
Of course, nothing is perfect. These spaces can also be elitist and invite-only, or else they can be so large that the fear of posting or asking for help can continue. However, they can still be essential in providing women with the tools to self-empowerment – and they are just one example of why we must expand our definition of self-care to more than just buying yourself something nice every now and then.