How can cultural studies help us approach some of the issues brought up by the current pandemic?
By Alexandra Bacalu
The Covid-19 pandemic that we have been facing for the past few months has forced a wealth of issues to (re)enter public debate. The much-disputed need to create or strengthen public healthcare systems is only one key example, which had already been on the table for some time. But apart from the large-scale healthcare debates that we’ve been having on and off, a topic that is more closely related to the private and personal has also received a surge of interest: self-care. As we have witnessed in the past few years, the privileged locus in which current discussions about self-care take place is none other than the virtual sphere created by social media. Since March, content-creators on a variety of social media platforms, from the now more traditional Facebook to… TikTok, have been stressing the importance of self-care and adapting their content to cater to this crucial need. The argument is simply that we need to engage in self-care now more than ever in order to appease our pandemic-related anxieties and, perhaps, boost our immunity in the process. Doesn’t sound too bad, right?
However, for all this recent burst of energy surrounding self-care on social media, the broad phenomenon is in no way new. Various cultures built around the care of the self have attracted the distinct, yet concerted efforts of cultural theorists, cultural historians and intellectual historians ever since the two closely-related seminal studies by Pierre Hadot and Michel Foucault, Philosophy as a Way of Life and The History of Sexuality, respectively. And that’s just looking at a handful of Western traditions. But this is precisely what makes the #selfcare and #selflove tags that clutter social media nowadays so intriguing! Knowing that self-care has a long-standing history across a myriad of cultures and contexts, the new directions that the phenomenon is taking, the way in which it mingles its sources and the particular issues that it raises all beg our attention. What is more, many questions stem from the apparent rift that seems to separate the online presence of today’s commodified and often wishy-washy concept of self-care from related historical notions and practices that stressed the laborious task of ethical and spiritual self-transformation. Let’s have a look at the main contours of self-care today, exploring its more problematic side, and address some of the key questions that emerge from the dialogue between old and new.
Regulating the (Female) Body
To quote a 2017 article by Arwa Mahdawi published in The Guardian, “there are more than 1.4m photos hashtagged #selfcare on Instagram. Many of these seem to consist of skinny women doing yoga poses, legs in bubble baths, non-caffeinated-non-dairy hot drinks, gluten-free berry-based desserts, green juice in mason jars, that sort of thing.” Indeed, self-care today overwhelmingly translates as caring for the body, grooming and beautifying it into oblivion. While no one is above the simple benefits of a hot bath and glass of wine (even during a pandemic), nor is there any room here for simplistic mind-over-body hierarchies, such a focus is dangerous for a number of reasons. Firstly, it is a particularly productive way of creating needs no one ever knew they had, which does little more than place the practice of self-care in the midst of a host of already-established consumerist impulses. Have you exfoliated and deep treated your right pinky today? If not, there’s a product that does precisely that. Secondly, for all its self-love and body positivity associations, it goes without saying that the visual culture surrounding self-care continues to reinforce artificial beauty standards in a particularly insidious manner, since it starts off by claiming to do the very opposite. That women are the first to be targeted should be no surprise. British model and body-positivity advocate, Iskra Lawrence, who has recently given birth to her first child, has been using her social media platforms to address the vulnerability of pregnant women during the Covid-19 crisis and has often framed this issue within larger discussions of self-care.
However, despite the undeniable good that she and others have done within the body positivity movement, such efforts become questionable as soon as they are used to sell cosmetic products like oils for post-partum stretch marks. There’s nothing bad in caring for marks you’d rather not have, but how can anyone advertise a product aimed at effacing what is conventionally deemed a physical defect whilst crying out #LoveYourMarks?
Privilege, Privilege and… Privilege
At the onset of lockdowns and social-distancing regulations around the globe, many content-creators like Iskra took to their social media platforms and began setting up intimate online spaces to share self-care tips with their viewers and build supportive online communities. Another notable and very entertaining example is Canadian vlogger, Valeria Lipovetsky, who has started an entire series of Instagram live chats addressing anything from immunity-boosting tips to gratitude journaling, from home decluttering skills to meditation. While such efforts are valuable in that they reveal the powerful potential of the virtual sphere and many may find the self-care practices promoted on such platforms legitimate and helpful, we cannot ignore the issue of privilege. Not everyone can work from home during a pandemic and meditate in between Zoom meetings. Not everyone has been able to keep their jobs and spend time and money on gua sha tools and copies of the 5-minute journal. Not all women have unbiased partners who are willing to share the burden of currently-increasing domestic responsibilities–few women can even fathom the idea of self-care in the midst of skyrocketing domestic abuse. Not everyone has been able to stay healthy in the first place. Not everyone is still alive. This is not to say that such efforts are not to be celebrated–on the contrary–but we should never lose sight of the realities of privilege and inequality that are all too readily neglected.
Carefully Curating the Private
And then there’s the issue of how the process of self-care itself is conducted. Perhaps surprisingly, some interest in ancient Stoic self-care can be encountered on a variety of social media platforms. On Instagram and Goodreads, Valeria has shared with her followers that she has started reading Seneca and Marcus Aurelius and attempted to incorporate Stoic exercises among other self-care habits.
The place of Stoicism in today’s self-care culture is a complicated topic that we cannot even begin to address here. (For more comprehensive discussions about Stoicism in the context of the current pandemic, you can watch the recent online debates organised by our colleagues at the Faculty of Philosophy or read this recent article by Donald Robertson.) Nevertheless, a quick comparison between past and present does yield several questions. Whether ancient or modern, Stoic self-care has a significant private dimension. Many Stoics kept private journals that allowed them to examine and correct their false impressions before they produced irregular passions and actions. The most famous modern English Stoic, Lord Shaftesbury, could not stress this enough. For instance, in Soliloquy, or Advice to an Author (1710), he argues that authors should engage in a private self-disciplining practice of self-dialogue before they introduce their writings into the public sphere. Is self-care today founded on a similar principle? The quick answer is no. Not at all. Private acts of caring for oneself are only legitimated as #selfcare after they have been made public, posted and flaunted on social media. Only then, it seems, does self-care take full effect. What initially belonged to the private sphere and allowed for messiness and accident has become, to quote Mahdawi once again, a “carefully curated lifestyle choice” that is to be scrutinized and legitimated by the public eye. This aestheticization of the private that we have been witnessing ever since the rise of social media works in such a way as to uphold unrealistic expectations of any kind and strengthen inherently problematic humanist narratives of unlimited individual potential and constant individual progress. Our status as fully-fledged and all-rounded individuals who “have it all” is validated only when we can demonstrate how perfectly cosmeticized everything in our privacy is. And don’t even get me started on how today’s commodification and monetisation of self-care practices and products fare against earlier emphases on relentless self-discipline!
This is not to ultimately suggest that past self-care equals good, today’s self-care equals bad. That is by no means a legitimate way of putting it. But the point is to be able to easily identify the problematic features of the cultural practices we engage in while at the same time celebrating the otherwise valuable and exciting new dimensions of the very dynamic phenomenon of #selfcare today. But more on that next time.