Emma Dowling examines the mantras of self-care and what they tell us about our anxieties

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“Take Care of You!” A smiling woman gestures from an advert on the tube. She is dressed in natural-looking clothes, white teeth gleaming, blond hair tied up in a ponytail, promoting what looks like a cookbook. As the care crisis intensifies, we are repeatedly urged to take care of ourselves. Ubiquitous, too, is the talk of ‘wellbeing’ to which, as we know, a whole industry of products, apps, advice and therapies is devoted, piling into the gap created by the dismantling of societal responsibility. There are two sides to this self-care fix that together articulate an outlook on the world that is congruent with the logic of financialised capitalism. First of all: take care of you, because you are your own most valuable asset – a form of human capital that will yield high economic returns if you look after it. Second: take care of you, because nobody else will. Public services continue to be squeezed, collective solidarity undermined and labour markets deregulated. Since the Global Financial Crisis of 2008, the global economy has failed to really get back on track, that is, to return (as if it had ever been so stable) to steady accumulation and growth. The ensuing anxiety has engulfed society, as worries about economic growth impinge on everyday working environments and the people that inhabit them. As the process unfolds, we become more and more fearful of what might happen should we individually no longer be able to be productive or earn a living.

Clean Eating

In a bold pink font, the front cover of a magazine tells readers to ‘eat clean’ against the backdrop of a woman in a yellow, figure-hugging dress sunnily adorning the top right-hand corner of the page. A brief search on my smartphone quickly yields masses of material: clean eating blogs, clean eating cookbooks, clean eating diet plans, clean eating basic rules, clean eating magazines. To its proponents, clean eating is the very essence of care: it is all about caring for and about oneself. Ostensibly about what to put into or do to one’s body, it is an entire way to engage with the world. If someone is a ‘clean’ eater, it doesn’t mean that she is especially adept at eating a meal without spilling it down the front of her t-shirt.

It means that the food she eats is exceptionally healthy and nutritious. ‘Clean’ food contains few to no chemicals, pesticides or refined substances. Clean eating has taken the middle classes by storm. Scrolling down the feed of a #cleaneating Twitter hashtag gives a feel for what’s at stake: ‘Five mistakes you are making that are ruining your salad’, ‘Five surprising snacks that actually are making you hungrier’, ‘Six superfoods your grandmother ate – and you should eat too’, ‘Six foods your gut wants you to eat’, ‘Six dangerous food prep mistakes that make you sick’. Endless lists of pitfalls and top tips. The matter of what – and what not – to put in your body has spawned a host of services, produce and products that promise to help consumers be healthy, have the energy and clarity to perform well in their jobs, lead a happy life on every front and be a better person. 

The language of cleanliness signals a shift from a concern solely with looking attractive, that is, with appearance – the surface value of how we represent ourselves to the outside world. The shift is towards a concern with the condition of our very being. In other words, it is not about how you are on the ‘outside’, but how you are on the ‘inside’. Moreover, being healthy does not replace looking attractive, for it is supposed to enhance your attractiveness from deeper within. Now, the aim is not to be the best there can be, as an external ideal to aspire to, but to be as good as you can be: to take care of yourself. In Britain, like in so many countries of the Global North, some people have the privilege of worrying about toxins in their food while others struggle to put food on the table at all, dependent on charitable donations at food banks to survive.

There is something eerie about the new language of cleanliness. It has a kind of compulsive echo to it, redolent of a neurotic or even paranoid need to eliminate dirt and any kind of disorder from one’s surroundings, fervently seeking protection from the dangers of contamination. The drive to be clean suggests wanting to purge the mess inside, while keeping the world’s harmful dirt out. The quest for purity or purification interlocks with a tremendous fear of the toxic chemicals or heavy metals lurking in clothes, cookware, packaging or even tap water; the additives and pesticides in food, the dire consequences of eating anything processed or refined. Clean living becomes a form of protection against a terrible fate, one that syncs with attempts to take refuge in the sanctuary of ethical consumption and a sense of doing good. These are strategies to feel secure in an era of rapid social upheaval and technological innovation. Of course there is heightened insecurity and loneliness, now that healthcare and care in old age are no longer a certainty. There is a search going on for control. There is a busyness with self-care here, underscored by hyper-vigilance.

Psychotherapists Miguel Benasayag and Gérard Schmidt also point to the ways  in which feelings of disempowerment can yield a paranoid drive to gain a sense of safety. In a world that feels increasingly chaotic, we look for an anchoring point in ourselves and in the stability – real or perceived – of the materiality of our bodies. Following such paths of inquiry, it is illuminating to probe what the rise of clean eating tells us about the ways in which fear, insecurity and feelings of disempowerment are channelled into existential concerns about the demise of mind and body due to the dangers that loom in the outside world. Perhaps you have found yourself in the supermarket, peering at the ingredients of a jar of something or other, not quite understanding what it all means, unsure whether to buy the jar or not? You might not have resorted to looking up obscure chemical compounds on the internet, but maybe an uneasiness crossed your mind. Perhaps you wondered how food certifications work, who regulates them, who funds them, and whether what they say is really true.

Cleaning up Capitalism

Who does not want to be able to flourish in life? Who does not want to be able to eat nutritious food? Who does not want to be able to use safe products? The calamities of corporate, profit-driven, industrialised mass production are wreaking havoc with our lives and with the planet. Our air is polluted, our oceans full of plastic and anthropogenic climate change threatens the survival of humans and the other species with whom we share the earth. Clean care is a response to the excesses of capitalist industrial production and to an overwhelming sense of peril and precariousness. However, it is a response that inserts itself into the common sense of financialised capitalism and funnels solutions to the very real problems we face through individual consumption or conduct. The new clean living renders criticism of industrial production productive by channelling it into personalised, entrepreneurial solutions centred on the development of consumer products and services. It is part and parcel of a movement with an entrepreneurial conception of social change. Repeated ideological attacks on the very idea of regulation have merged with a belief in its futility in this age of corporate power.

Instead of fighting for better regulation or even a transformation of capitalist production, instead of joining forces with other social and political movements seeking systemic change, what is on offer are personalised, market remedies that do not call consumption itself into question. The responsibility for change lies, once again, with individuals, while the ability to strategise and implement that change lies with people with money to invest, or who can attract investors and start-up capital. Power resides in the strategic alliance between consumer demand and entrepreneurial drive. However, congruent consumption is not the same thing as acting together. Endless commodification, where problems and their solutions pop up on an ever-accelerating conveyor belt of lotions and potions, does little to tackle the underlying problems of dirty production, exploitation and alienation. The structural conditions of capitalism that led to these problems in the first place are virtually ignored. Continued commodification serves simply as a perpetuum mobile of a socially and environmentally unsustainable economic system. The price mechanism in and of itself cannot tell us what is good and what is bad, right or wrong: it is not an ethical barometer.

As an endless proliferation of more and more products and services compete for attention, those who do not have money are excluded. The profit logic still reigns supreme, and the crisis management strategies and critiques end up pushing capitalist logics deeper into the social fabric. here is an attempt to fuse self-care with asset management – ‘take care of you; you are your own best asset!’ – and with solicitude for the world – ‘if you care about the planet, buy “cruelty-free” cosmetics!’ 

While there are many positive impulses to live healthy lives, an obsessive absolutism seems to threaten to take over at any point. People drink too much alcohol, so a teetotal movement develops. Eating too much fat is unhealthy, so people try to banish all fat from their diets. Little thought is given to the question of why people drink too much or eat unhealthily. What are the causes of loneliness? Why are people burned out and stressed? There’s always a symptom and a solution, but never a cause. The horizon of change is limited and so the turn is inward, while the consumption of products and lifestyles promise a care fix.

In a world of competing knowledges, you have to become your own expert in order to make sense of so much conflicting and confusing information. Who can you trust? If you do not know who to trust, you trust in yourself. Indeed your ‘self’ – body, mind and spirit – becomes the bulwark against multiple dangers, so you desperately try to fashion this self accordingly. You become your own scientist, doctor, nutritionist, and the body and its symptoms become your monitoring device. Nevertheless, it is hard to find peace of mind amidst the endless array of products, services and advice that keep you busy forever researching things, comparing them, finding out what the best or cheapest products are or who might be taking you for a ride. The body becomes both the container of anxiety and the tool for providing certainty. Fitbits, calorie counting, bodymass index measures, blood tests: all of these quantify how we should or should not be caring for our bodies. Being able to measure and count things is supposed to generate certainty. The body becomes its own truth system and performance data speak our truth for us.

With the proliferation of measurement and the intensification of control, there is also a sense in which a feeling of control becomes ever more elusive. Hence we allow ourselves to be drawn deeper into a world which promises to help us (re)gain it. This is especially so when fuelled by lifestyle reporting that suggests eating or not eating certain foods, behaving in particular ways, or having a particular mindset will cause personal harm: one day it was fine to put a spoonful of sugar in your tea, the next day sugar is destroying your gut from the inside. Sugar, fat, carbohydrates, coffee and even negative thinking have all had their moment as affective containers for anxieties over health. While not everything that is reported is wrong, it is certainly not all right either. Often medical evidence that is cited is based on experiments that make statistical inferences, such as the calculation of probabilities or the establishment of correlations. These are all too quickly elevated to the status of truth by headline-grabbing styles of media reporting. Here is yet another way we become governed by metrics as well as by statistics.

Discourses of self care often explore how to create more time and more balance, how to be more mindful, caring and compassionate towards ourselves and others. The imperative to take care of oneself is a response to the experience of a growing care deficit in society. There are a number of understandable and interlocking social and economic reasons for the turn to self-care in attempts to find coping mechanisms for the present predicament. First – and most simply – people cannot keep going forever without the chance to replenish their physical and mental resources. Second, the very caring resources required to replenish are being constantly drained. Third, the neoliberal promise that hard work and investment in the project will yield fruit has been dramatically undermined for large swathes of the population, if indeed it ever held. Self-care casts problems as just another opportunity for personal growth. It suggests that if you help yourself, then everyone will be helped.

Against Self-Care Solutionism

It is evident that the rise of self-care has created a huge consumer market, another facet of the wellness syndrome and the prerogative of privilege, thereby easily delinked from the social relations individuals exist within. Nonetheless, the idea of self-care really stems from progressive and radical impulses. Within professions that involve care for others, such as nursing, therapy or social work, self-care practices are crucial to avoiding compassion fatigue, burnout and exhaustion. Self-care practices redirect care away from the sole focus on others and towards protecting oneself so as not to be used up in the attempts to help others – whether one wants to help, has an obligation to help or is paid to help. Providing care under duress or in particularly difficult or precarious working conditions necessarily impacts on a person’s ability to care, but also on their ability to maintain positive perceptions of self-worth. For example, someone experiencing compassion fatigue will start to feel overwhelmed and overexposed, like they are running on empty. This intensifies when they have been working under conditions that do not provide them with support and respite in order to replenish their caring capacities. They start to feel drained, are tired all the time and the smallest of tasks feels overwhelming. They feel they cannot cope and they start to blame themselves. The more someone blames themselves and the more it feels like there’s no change in sight, the more despair they feel. 

When the situation seems hopeless, insomnia and depression can result. Care workers need stable and nurturing conditions from within which to provide care. This means maintaining physical health, having stability in one’s life and the social support of companionship, encouragement, advice, and aid within a safe and secure working environment. Clearly, self-care has to be embedded in adequate structural conditions for caring and not be instrumentalised as a substitute for them. Self-care practices don’t have to be reduced to detached or marketised self-orientated practices; they can involve setting up supportive networks that are not separate from the endeavour of making sense of the social structures and unequal power relations that we exist within. Linking our personal situations to the broader context, we can make connections between our experiences that are located within the political and economic structures that produce the problems as social problems.

When, in 1988, Black feminist Audre Lorde penned the much-quoted line ‘caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation and that is an act of political warfare’, she was insisting that self-care was profoundly political in the struggle for both survival and to bring about real social change. When you regularly experience violence and degradation, attacks on your self-esteem and your sense of self-worth, taking care of yourself is an act of resistance. It is about valuing yourself in the face of repeated societal messages that who you are, what you do or how you wish to live, has no value. It is a way of pushing the internalised oppression back out, and it is a way of supporting yourself and others facing similar injustices when there is very little outside support. At a time when precarious employment seeks to demand more and more flexibility and the logic of profit and competition demands our permanent strive to improve, accepting ourselves as who we are, just as we are, is an act of political resistance.

Thus, self-care is not simply privilege and self-indulgence, especially to those who have less social privilege and whose self-esteem is constantly undermined by society. Self-care actually has more radical roots in approaches that seek to protect the welfare of those on whom a disproportionate burden of care is placed, have to care for others or for whom society does not care adequately. 

This is an edited extract from The Care Crisis: What Caused It and How Can We End It? by Emma Dowling.

Emma Dowling teaches at the University of Vienna. She has written for the New Humanist, Red Pepper, LuXemburg and OpenDemocracy.

What is care and who is paying for it?

Valuing care and care work does not simply mean attributing care work more monetary value. To really achieve change, we must go so much further. 

The Care Crisis enquires into the ways in which the continued off-loading of the cost of care onto the shoulders of underpaid and unpaid realms of society, untangling how this off-loading combines with commodification, marketisation and financialisation to produce the mess we are living in. The Care Crisis charts the current experiments in short-term fixes to the care crisis that are taking place within Britain, with austerity as the backdrop. It maps the economy of abandonment, raising the question: to whom care is afforded? What would it mean to seriously value care?

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