“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation and that is an act of political warfare,” wrote Audre Lorde, a self-described “Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet” and radical activist, in 1988. Carving out time to “[treat her] body,” she maintained was “political work.”
Lorde wrote these words toward the end of her life, in a collection of essays titled “A Burst of Light.” She was fighting to survive not only a cancer diagnosis but also the hostility she faced from society as a Black lesbian: “Battling racism and battling heterosexism and battling apartheid share the same urgency inside me as battling cancer. None of these struggles are ever easy, and even the smallest victory is never to be taken for granted.” Lorde’s struggle catalyzed and motivated her “self-care” — tenderly caring for herself was radical in a society that would’ve readily discarded her.
Since then, the idea of self-care has been co-opted by beauty corporations, “wellness” gurus, and social media influencers to the point where it now resembles self-indulgence. Public, consumable demonstrations of self-care are endemic to visual platforms: videos tagged with #selfcare on TikTok collectively boast almost 20 billion views; on Instagram, #selfcare posts number over 60 million. These posts and videos often offer detailed morning and nighttime routines; influencers catalog the numerous products they use to achieve their immaculate looks and document their rituals with soothing, lush visuals. The posts are often in the style of daily vlogs depicting an idealized self: one with a disciplined physique, blemish-free face, hyperproductive work life and thriving social life.
This optimized image is an infinitely marketable notion. Idealized “routine” videos send an implicit message that if we do the same things as the person on the screen, we can look and be like them too: flawless. If we use the same face creams, our skin will clear and glow. If we just take out the time every morning to write out our intentions for the day, our productivity will skyrocket. And don’t we want that? Don’t we want to be the most optimized versions of ourselves?
The sad irony, though, is that these images of a “day in the life” constitute something very, very far from an average day — not just for the viewer but also for the influencer, who expertly curates their content to strike just the right chord. The tacit instructions of these videos are that you should emulate (the image of) the influencer who makes them. Sure enough, the comments sections are filled with viewers begging for the names of the products they use. These reactions point to a sense of inferiority — when we compare ourselves against the idealized influencer, we come out feeling lacking. Of course, this is the goal of influencer marketing, a growing strategy in which brands pay influencers to promote their products.. The desire to emulate the influencer image and buy the products they hawk, stems from this intentionally generated sense of not being good enough.
Perhaps in a society where burnout from overwork is so commonplace that it triggers mass resignation, where real wages in the US have stagnated or declined each year since at least the late ’70s, and where long work hours at the expense of sleep are seen as an accomplishment, the popularity of self-soothing routines is unsurprising. Becoming the influencer doesn’t just mean succeeding according to societal standards: it means escaping the daily grind. It means being able to make involved recipes every day, to start mornings with sunrise yoga, to have a “job” that seemingly involves very little other than being your own hot, successful self and having tons of fun doing it. It means having the societal power to even have influence, and the confidence (the narcissism, really) to believe that you have the right to tell others how to live their lives.
This is an alluring goal in a society where most people have to spend the majority of their time working or caring for others, with little time to devote to the activities that influencers seem to spend their entire lives doing. That’s why the promise of self-care content — that by going through the same routines they do, we can succeed at capitalism, too — is so compelling. But it's all a lie. Emulating influencers might make us better workers and consumers, but copying their routines or buying their products does not translate to success or happiness. Instead, it translates to profit for the people who have actually succeeded at capitalism: not the influencers putting their lives on display but the executives of the companies advertising through them. We are being told, in other words, to aspire to be profitable.
Lorde practiced self-care as a tender thing to do in a time carved out of the day — an action that went against the capitalist status quo. Self-care has now been co-opted into something to reinforce that status quo. Lorde’s self-love and self-care was radical. She asserted her worth in a society that was intent on destroying it. By striving to become the influencer, we do the opposite.
So how do we move forward, and how do we care for ourselves in a way that isn’t so harmful to others? In Lorde’s words: “I want to live the rest of my life, however long or short, with as much sweetness as I can decently manage, loving all the people I love, and doing as much as I can of the work I still have to do ... I’m going to go out like a fucking meteor!”
The “work” she was referring to was radical self-expression and activism, a life-long calling that her self-care supported. Perhaps the greatest act of self-care we can practice, then, is to reject the status quo that pushes us to keep optimizing towards an empty goal. The unfortunate truth is that our society doesn’t reward true self-care. We need a revolution of values if we’re to prize the nourishment of the soul, not just the skin.