There’s a new word on the internet. It appears to have started, as many of these things do, on American university campuses, and has spread to the UK like wildfire – bringing with it a host of strange new problems. I’m not talking about intersectionality. I’m not talking about cultural Marxism. I’m not even talking about the word ‘kyriarchy’.
This post is about self-care. And, in a way, I’m a pretty staunch advocate. Looking after yourself is vital. Vulnerable people must be able to defend themselves. It’s important to realise that you may always have your detractors, and running after them with flowers won’t make anybody happier. Trying to make reality kinder, and safer, is no bad thing: to say otherwise is at best a dick move, and at worst both selfish and dangerous.
But there’s a difference between trying to make reality kinder and burying your head in the sand. And the massive growth of self-care culture is getting weird. There’s the harmless and good, like the Oxford Women Self-Care Facebook group, where women post their feelings and things they need cheering up about, and other women oblige. It’s actually very lovely. But there are also other things.
The thing is, sometimes we should beat ourselves up. Not the constant, vicious self-flagellation that comes with low self-esteem and other problems, but human, moral guilt. When we hurt others, we should feel bad about it. Fucking up doesn’t mean you’re a bad person; it means you did something wrong. Perspective is vital. But this urgent, reactionary desire for mutual absolution has a sinister side. Cheap pronouncements of forgiveness from strangers don’t fix anything. They just make us feel better about our own failings.
And the better we feel, the more we deny responsibility, the less likely we are to change. The more likely we are to fuck up again. So we’ll be back to the internet begging for pictures of cute animals, for positive vibes from well-meaning people who don’t have a clue. It’s the kind of escapism seen in America’s terrifying new fetish for adult play centres.
And, as women, it’s trampling all over our own progress. How do we expect to be taken seriously if our idea of ‘looking after ourselves’ is finger-painting? Refusing to see the world as it is means refusing to change it. Constantly retreating to ‘safe spaces’ filled with facile platitudes and flowers is about as mature as covering your ears and humming in the face of criticism.
There is absolutely a time and a place for relaxing, for being kind to yourself, for escaping the tedium of being a woman on the internet (or anywhere else for that matter) and blocking out the noise. But it shouldn’t be the default option. It shouldn’t be normal.
Because, shock horror, we can’t develop if we’re not challenged. We can’t grow if we don’t listen to criticism. And we certainly can’t change the world through writing ourselves love-letters(!) and painting hearts everywhere. Infantilisation isn’t revolutionary; obsessive self-love isn’t radical, and curling up in a ball with Disney films isn’t going to fix the gender pay gap.
‘Safe space’ is a synonym for ‘comfort zone’. It is right to be proud of what you’ve achieved – even if it doesn’t look like much to others; even when, some days, getting out of bed or eating a meal is an achievement. But setting up camp in your current situation and refusing to move, claiming that it’s ‘just who you are’ and that sticking there is somehow radical or empowering – what’s that about? Take some responsibility. Society isn’t to blame for everything. Or, as a friend phrased it more cynically, “Society invents standards? Well it also invents jobs and money, so accept it.”
If you want to talk about solidarity and self-care, talk about the change you’re making in the real world. Tell me how great you felt after producing that play, or asking that person out, or getting that First. Tell me how proud you are of the tangible things you’ve achieved.
Finger-painting? Group hugs, and puppy rooms? Is being nice to ourselves really the pinnacle of female achievement? Is that really what you want our generation’s legacy to be?
Whatever our struggles, we’re extremely privileged to be here. Many would die to have our lives. For God’s sake, aim higher.