On Monday, New York congresswoman-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez announced on Twitter she was taking time off to practice “self-care” before she takes office in January.
She added she would take her social media followers along for the ride as she figured out the importance of the concept.
“I’m taking a few days to take care of myself before what is sure to be an eventful term,” the congresswoman-elect wrote. “For working people, immigrants, and the poor, self-care is political—not because we want it to be, but [because] of the inevitable shaming of someone doing a face mask while financially stressed.”
More than just a millennial trend for facemasks and bubble baths, the roots of self-care go back thousands of years. The ancient Greeks, for example, believed self-care was crucial to proper political leadership. As Athenian philosopher Plato wrote in his Alcibiades dialogues, those interested in politics must attend to themselves before they can lead.
Buoyed by citations in French thinker Michel Foucault’s four-volume tour-de-force The History of Sexuality —specifically 1984’s Vol. 3: The Care of the Self —this ancient concept resurfaced in the political discourse of the late twentieth century.
For those marginalized by society, self-care offers an opportunity to assert one’s value and one’s importance. “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare,” wrote the late black feminist poet Audre Lorde in 1988’s A Burst of Light.
As The New Yorker noted in 2017, displays of self-care become performative online. For some, self-care social media posts are indeed a statement of consumerism. But for others, they are an act of defiance.
As Ocasio-Cortez writes, the simple act of using a face mask becomes a political statement for those with limited resources, if they expect to face a backlash online.
“We’ve all heard of self-care but it is a poorly understood concept and there is great confusion as to what truly constitutes an act of self-care,” Suzy Reading, psychologist and author of The Self Care Revolution told Newsweek. Beyond social media shots of spa days, she said, “self-care is health care… nourishment for the head, the heart and the body.”
Although consumer bands have jumped on the self-care bandwagon, self-care doesn’t have to cost money or time, Reading added. “It’s as much skills based as it is activities. Develop the skills of compassion, kindness, gratitude, savoring and mindfulness and this changes the lens through which you see life.”
Acts of self-care should nourish you in the moment and nurture your future self, she explained. One glass of wine might be self-care, but an evening of binging likely not.
Like many of Ocasio-Cortez’s followers on Twitter, Reading suggested performing yoga poses, watching a sunset or simply listening to music to practise self-care for free.
Such small actions, she said, can help you cope with and recover from loss and stress, as well as develop tools for resilience. “Self-care also is the means by which we become the kind of people we aspire to be,” she added.
“Look for ways that you can imbue everyday actions with greater tenderness and care… Bringing mindfulness and appreciation to activities [like eating and showering] and they can become deeply nourishing,” Reading said. Or “dot your day with calming and soothing moments.
“It needn’t take much time but it can be so powerful.”