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Self-Care and Healthism

Brynn Fitzsimmons //

In the 1980s, Black lesbian feminist Audre Lorde wrote about self-care as both self-preservation and “political warfare.” However, as Sarah Taylor writes in “Self-care, Audre Lorde and Black Radical Activism,” Lorde’s politically conscious, Black feminist position has since been deradicalized. “Self-care has become synonymous with Treat Yourself,” Taylor writes; “Self-care nowadays has been co-opted by the capitalist state and by the white wellness movement.”

We see this in the individualization of self-care, such as Elizabeth Scott writing for VeryWell Mind that “An effective self-care plan should be tailored to your life and your needs. It needs to be something created by you, for you.” Although social and community aspects of self-care are at least acknowledged in the WHO’s definition of the term, popular discussions of self-care tend to ignore the political implications and struggles tied up in health. It’s about “how we can all better cope with daily stressors” and “taking care of yourself so that you can be healthy, you can be well, you can do your job, you can help and care for others, and you can do all the things you need to and want to accomplish in a day,” per Moira Lawler for Everyday Health. This is a far cry from Lorde’s “political warfare.”

Health humanities scholars—particularly in feminist health humanities—have a distinct obligation to intervene in these discourses. The deradicalization of concepts like self-care is tied up in broader trends within feminist health activism and feminist health studies—trends that should be carefully identified and called out, particularly in public discourse. Amanda J. Grigg and Anna Kirkland observe the rise in recent years of a highly individualized, neoliberal model of women’s health: “The feminist ideal of women as self-empowered caretakers of their own health and as experts in knowing and defining health has given way to a form of women-centered healthism that shares some features with feminism, but lacks its structural critique and politicized edge” (341). As health humanities scholars, particularly in feminist health humanities, what are we doing to “loosen (the) foundations” (Banner 47) of structural racism within health discourses?

Feminist Health Activism and Feminist Healthism

While women of color feminist health studies, and Black feminist health studies in particular, have offered different interventions in the field (as will be discussed later), the dominant idea of health that has been exported from feminist health studies in recent years has been “healthism,” which Grigg and Kirkland describes as an “ideology of private self-betterment, often pursued through holistic and alternative approaches to traditional medicine but nonetheless individualized and commercialized” (341).

Two important moves of feminist health thought also form the cornerstone of feminist health activism: the politicization of the idea of health and the prioritization of structural, rather than individual/psychological, determinants of health. Per Grigg and Kirkland, while feminist health activism started from a foundation of structural critique and sense of connectedness with other facets of liberation work, it has now shifted toward an individualized, moralistic idea of women’s health (332-339).

While some authors like Olivia Banner, Ruha Benjamin, Natalia Molina, and Nadine Ehlers and Shiloh Krupar critique the ways in which health is a point of intersection for many different systems of oppression, Grigg and Kirkland note that, generally, the focus of feminist health scholarship comprises “exhortations about health” that “come from women, focus on women, and address women as mothers and responsible caretakers” (340). White, affluent women in particular have been held up as models of health, the perfect patients who do all the (morally) right things for their own health and wellness, that of their families, and that of greater society. In this way, popular feminist health discourse has fallen prey to neoliberal and racist ideologies, abandoning the structural critique of several decades prior.

Self-Care and Healthism     

Mainstream feminist activism and feminist health scholars need to understand that, as Moya Bailey and Izetta Autumn Mobley explain in “Work in the Intersections: A Black Feminist Disability Framework,” “racism, sexism, and ableism share a eugenic impulse that needs to be uncovered and felled” (21). Seeing these phenomena as essentially one phenomenon is the critical first step. That is, “health” for feminists should mean masks and treatment and mental health care, but it just as directly means Indigenous land rights, antiracism, and abolition.

To give a more specific example, consider this self-care checklist, a fairly typical example of the self-care-branded posts that circulated around the start of the pandemic (right). The recommendations here, as is typical of this type of post, focus on individual action around mental and physical health—and on the individual benefits to come.

Terms like “resilient” often get attached to these types of lists, and, as seen in the example above, “staying resilient” or achieving resiliency is positioned as a chief goal to be (individually) attained. Bailey and Mobley discuss the combination of ableism and racism that underlie this type of framing in their discussion of broader issues within feminist health and disability studies as they relate to Black bodies: “Resilience is praised while trauma, violence, and pain are too common to actually be interrogated for very long. The logic of Black hypervisibility produces subjects that are barred from weakness—and disability in Western thought as figured through non-normative bodies is the ultimate sign of unsuitability” (21-22). By making resiliency an individual achievement, posts like “7 Tips” ignores the ways in which resiliency—like a “healthy lifestyle” and other such implicitly moralistic markers of “good health”—is reserved for certain bodies, even though it claims to be equally accessible to all.

Bailey and Mobley call for a “scholarship that can inform better direct services and actions for those living daily with and through social death,” asking, “When the material body is centered, how do our theoretical arguments and subsequent activism and organizing need to change?” (34). Their answers depart from the performative, individualistic tendencies of current feminist health discourse and instead propose a feminist health/disability studies that can address not just individual health, but also the material conditions that dictate ideas, performances, and access to health on an interconnected, global scale—that is, exactly the type of discourse we should have seen from feminist health activism all along.

Image: Maddi Bacozzo, Unsplash.

Works Cited

Bailey, Moya, and Izetta Autumn Mobley. “Work in the Intersections: A Black Feminist Disability Framework:” Gender & Society, Oct. 2018. Sage CA: Los Angeles, CA, journals-sagepub-com.www2.lib.ku.edu, doi:10.1177/0891243218801523.

Banner, Olivia. “Structural Racism and Practices of Reading in the Medical Humanities.” Literature and Medicine, vol. 34, no. 1, 2016, pp. 25–52. Project MUSE, https://doi.org/10.1353/lm.2016.0001.

Benjamin, Ruha. People’s Science: Bodies and Rights on the Stem Cell Frontier. Stanford University Press, 2013.

Ehlers, Nadine, and Shiloh Krupar. Deadly Biocultures: The Ethics of Life-Making. U of Minnesota Press, 2019.

Grigg, Amanda J. and Anna Kirkland. The Oxford Handbook of Feminist Theory, edited by Lisa Disch, and Mary Hawkesworth, Oxford University Press USA – OSO, 2016. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/unh/detail.action?docID=4310788.

Lawler, Moira. “What Is Self-Care and Why Is It Critical for Your Health?” Everyday Health, May 2021, https://www.everydayhealth.com/self-care/.

Lorde, Audre. “A Burst of Light: Living with Cancer.” A Burst of Light: and Other Essays, AK Press, 2017.

Molina, Natalia. Fit to Be Citizens?: Public Health and Race in Los Angeles, 1879-1939. University of California Press, 2006.

Scott, Elizabeth. “5 Self-Care Practices for Every Area of Your Life.” Verywell Mind, Dec. 2021, https://www.verywellmind.com/self-care-strategies-overall-stress-reduction-3144729.

Taylor, Sarah. “Self-care, Audre Lorde and Black Radical Activism.” Dissolving Margins (blog), 13 July 2020, https://www.dissolvingmargins.co/post/self-care-audre-lorde-and-black-radical-activism.

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