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Article Covers (Roundtable) Self-care

What does your self-care routine have to do with the end of the world?

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Article Covers (Roundtable) Self-care

What does your self-care routine have to do with the end of the world?

Ideas of self-care resonated more than ever in an isolated year – but how can we cultivate a kind of self-care that is a form of communal resistance?

Welcome to A Future World – Dazed's network, community, and platform focusing on the intersection of science, technology and pop culture. Throughout April, we're featuring conversations and mission statements from the people paving new pathways for our planet: activists, inventors, fashion pioneers, technologists, AI scientists, and global youth movements, alongside in-depth editorial exploring the new realities for our future world.

Self-care is a concept we’ve been ruminating on for decades. In his 1976 study The History of Sexuality, philosopher Michel Foucault concluded that self-care is key to ‘self-knowledge’, positing it is a foundational principle of moral and societal systems going back to the Greeks and Romans. Writer, poet, and feminist Audre Lorde’s 1998 essay collection A Burst of Light offers a proclamation on self-care after her second cancer diagnosis, and has become the roots from which ideas of self-care for feminist and activist movements have stemmed. “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence,” she wrote. “It is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” Today, it has expanded to include any activity, purchase, or practice that an individual finds calming or self-preserving in times of adversity, pressure, and strife. 

Skinned of its politics and historical context, self-care, within capitalism, can feel like an unsatisfying and unsettling simulacrum. It has been made palatable for the mass market, with an entire industry schilling facemasks and bolstered by Instagram hashtags and guerilla marketing campaigns. Leigh Stein’s 2020 novel self-care centres on ‘inclusive community platform’ Richual, “a pioneer in the wellness space, using social technology to connect, cure, and catalyze women to be global change-makers through the simple act of self-care.” It’s a skewering of the industrial wellness complex and all things Goop-like, a phenomenon that has developed to become a dubious stand-in for adequate healthcare or social systems. 

Caring for ourselves cannot be a distraction from what we must challenge in ourselves, and in the system. Self-care is a part of our armoury for imagining and enacting more radical worlds. The pandemic has only deepened capitalism’s means to ends and encouraged gulfs between the rich and poor, worsening already precarious housing situations, the right to resist, mental health, workplace issues, and our personal relationships. We’re currently approaching climate disaster, and self-preservation is all the more vital. So how do we deviate from this norm? How do we divorce self-care from the neoliberal ideals of constant self improvement for the capitalist system’s gain? 

It is a frustrating concept to navigate, in a world that feels like it wishes us the worst. Naomi Klein, the author and academic who captured the ‘disaster capitalism’ that proliferates and profits from world-shocking crises in her book The Shock Doctrine, writes astutely on our current era: “something resembling a coherent pandemic shock doctrine is beginning to emerge. Call it the Screen New Deal. Far more hi-tech than anything we have seen during previous disasters, the future that is being rushed into being, as the bodies still pile up, treats our past weeks of physical isolation not as a painful necessity to save lives, but as a living laboratory for a permanent – and highly profitable – no-touch future.” 

Lorde also wrote how “sometimes it feels like anger keeps me alive”, but that a rageful emotional state is an “incomplete human knowledge”, of oneself and the wider world. In the last year, we’ve seen protests against racism, sexual violence, and climate injustice grow. Activist burnout is very real. Our mental health runs parallel to the climate emergency, and eco-anxiety is on the rise. The forces that disregard Black life, women, disabled people, and our planet are entangled – and so we must reclaim self-care to steel us in the steps we have to take to cultivate ourselves, our communities, and our planet. It’s a shift that will require compassion, love, and self-reflection.

To strip it back, writer Danielle Henderson intimately described self-care in the Rookie Life Skills podcast as the act of “putting a needle on the record of your soul and seeing what’s playing”. There aren’t any products that can pacify your terse house-share dynamics, or five-minute meditations to staunch the injustices we witness week in, week out, but building personal and communal resilience is an imperative.

Voices across creative and social practices came together to speak about the idea and future of self-care in this roundtable, including how to make self-care a tool with which to confront capitalism and inequality, as well as a community and planet-saving endeavour. 

“The forces that disregard Black life, women, disabled people, and our planet are entangled – and so we must reclaim self-care to steel us in the steps we have to take to cultivate ourselves, our communities, and our planet”


ANNE BOYER  is a writer, poet, lecturer, and essayist. She is the author of The Undying: Pain, Vulnerability, Mortality, Medicine, Art, Time, Dreams, Data, Exhaustion, Cancer, and Care, a profound, genre-rejecting memoir and excavation of her own battle with triple negative breast cancer and illness under capitalism. In 2020, she won the Pulitzer prize for general non-fiction for The Undying. She is also the author of 2015’s Garments Against Women, a searing book of lyrical prose on the economics of literature and life, and 2018’s A Handbook of Disappointed Fate.

SALLY WEINTROBE  is a psychoanalyst, founding member of the Climate Psychology Alliance, and author of The Psychological Roots of the Climate Crisis, a much-needed call-to-arms to care for ourselves and our planet in tandem, confronting society’s rigid psychological mindset that propels the climate crisis forward. In 2021, she won an award from the IPA for her work on climate.

EMILY BARKER is an artist and disability activist, whose recent work Built To Scale deftly questions ‘accessibility’ and the narrowing default ‘self’ the world has been built for. They use their Instagram and social platforms to share their life as a paraplegic with complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS), a painful chronic disease, advocating fiercely for the rights of disabled people in an able-bodied focused society.

EBINEHITA IYERE is a therapeutic youth practitioner working with young people who come into contact with the youth justice system using holistic, relational, and creative methods to support their needs. In 2017 she founded Milk Honey Bees, a creative and expressive safe space for young Black women. She is currently undergoing her Professional Doctorate in Children and Young People’s Services, and recently spoke at TedxLondonWomen 2021. 

Thinking of the last 12 months – pandemic, protest, political upheaval – has your idea of self-care been changed or challenged?

Ebinehita Iyere: I think that self-care has been a form of resistance for a lot of us, especially in the Black community – whether it’s being able to say no, or today, I want to do some colouring. I’m helping young women understand how they want to care for themselves, before they start caring for others. But self-care is more than just a bath bomb. How do I support young women to create, and to also create an environment that your emotional wellbeing is cared for and supported? Self-care is a form of nurturing on the outside as well as the inside. Sometimes you have to do it when you’re unhappy or distressed. The journey might not be pleasant. Going back to stillness – this year has been COVID, Black Lives Matter, the glossing over of the deaths of young Black girls and women. I teach girls that sometimes the best way to look after yourself is to be still. 

Emily Barker: I find it amazing that despite the death (rate) in the US, I could have predicted everything that happened. I’m chronically ill, I’ve been disabled for 10 years, I was thousands of dollars in debt before I was 20, I don’t have health insurance. I’ve navigated a lot on my own – my parents don’t understand these systems and were unavailable because they’re poor and struggling themselves. It has been interesting to see how people before this didn’t really want to recognise these real horrors. Despite having COVID, I started up a mutual aid network to get people medications and basic needs who don’t have health insurance. Mutual aid to me cultivates self-care – and still, the lack of discussion around medicare in the US is so unjust. It replicates a lack of care for ourselves and the collective. I spend six hours on the phone with insurance every week, eight hours managing my wheelchair to make sure I’m not bedbound. The brutality is so mundane, so bureaucratic. We need a huge cultural shift in caring for ourselves and others. 

I do think there will be an emerging new consciousness, birthed out of this moment. I appreciated the solitude of quarantine. Looking forward, I want to see more people – privileged, able-bodied – being productive out of the parameters of capitalism to help others escape society’s failings.

Sally Weintrobe: My bloke and I have been in pretty much isolation for the last year in London. I’m older than everyone here, and COVID is a very real threat. I have been noticing things more – a single flower, having a bit of chocolate with my coffee in the morning. I am measuring up my life in these little moments that can get routinised or taken for granted, to connect nature to caring for myself. 

“Mutual aid to me cultivates self-care – the lack of discussion around medicare in the US is so unjust. It replicates a lack of care for ourselves and the collective” – Emily Barker

Emily Barker: It’s nice you say that. I grew up on a farm and really took for granted the lush abundance – I wanted to run away to a city like LA, but now I would be right at home among the massive tomato plants. I try to create little pockets of that everywhere I am. My spirituality is so linked to plants and the earth now. I’ve been watching a lot of Geoff Lawton (permaculture practitioner) – his documentary Greening the Desert really affected me. It gave me a lot of hope. He shows how modern day farming practices completely deplete the earth over time, but we could really easily rebuild that soil over months into luscious, Eden-like gardens again. Seeing that abundance at work helps me so much. If I was able-bodied I’d leave my art for the gardens! In the context of climate catastrophe and a world pandemic, we need a reevaluation of what’s important and cool. Plants are sexy! Plants are cool! The western dialogue of farming is brutal – we’ve been doing it wrong. We don’t tell the soil or use pesticides. You inoculate it. I think it’s an analogy for how we should be rethinking ourselves and the collective right now.

Sally Weintrobe: In my book, I write about the ‘culture of uncare’ – I don’t mean we’re in an uncaring culture, but more that it’s a culture that actively plans to disassociate us from the part that cares. We’re in a climate bubble of denial, but it’s starting to burst. People are anxious. My grandchildren show anxieties about the earth – children rightly understand the model that we’re living under has deprived them of a future. We’re also getting to a place of awareness about who benefits, who is exploited: nature, women, people of colour. We’re just on the edge of getting a better handle on this and wanting to change culture, and we have to support the next generation to do that. 

Anne Boyer: I think capitalism, which is a system of crises, is facing the most extraordinary crises. I think that we should not act as if its power is unchallengeable. Right now, I think it is. It pushes back so strongly against life, as a system of death. It depends on devouring the disarrayed.

Sally Weintrobe: It is also strange that for the last 15 years I have felt frantic. I have studied the catastrophe, read the news, and had to find ways to protect my heart. I never read anything about politics or the environment before bed because I won’t sleep. I won’t give into denial, but there are people working in climate – especially in the neoliberal model of deregulated capitalism – that find everything unbearable. We’re living in a dominant culture that cannot afford to listen to us, and it manipulates us as if it is.

The very locution of self-care is about the individual, but the work of Audre Lorde and activists since has been about cultivating self-care that is community-focused. How do we give self-care that expansiveness? 

Anne Boyer: Which self? The contradiction within capitalism is that the optimum self is an atomized, alienated, self interested, competitive creature that doesn’t resemble us at our best. Or, is it the self that is the thing made by others, and that is made through interaction with others – not just other humans, but animals, the plant world, the fungal world? Are the delicate systems that sustain life the self we should be centring? We are always in the process of making who we are, what we are in the world that we live in. Real choices: that aren’t just laundry detergents, but how we arrange how human life is lived. There’s the self-care that insults the intelligence, the advertising technique that switches most people onto it. Then there’s what Audre Lorde meant – the pull between resting, and taking what you need to sustain a life that’s open, loving, vulnerable, and active. There is the self and self-care situated in a very precise struggle – like Lorde’s Black, queer feminist struggle. We have to look at our own struggles and ask, what does self-care mean inside my particular set of circumstances? As a cancer survivor and person with chronic illness mine looks different to my students. Audre Lorde struggled with the same exhaustion from cancer, but also the endless, pervasive exhaustion of systemic racism, homophobia, and misogyny. So, which self?

Sally Weintrobe: A big focus of my work is on the conflict model of different selves, the competing selves that largely form society. Our selves don’t just exist as ideas or words, they inhabit whole worlds. In my book, I’ve got one chapter called, ‘Living on Planet Lala’, and another one ‘Living on Planet Earth’. There’s a power struggle between two different imaginations, and in between them we have to find reality-based thinking and empathy. Self-care is all the work that I have to do on myself and with others that keeps an imaginary alive. We’re faced with a huge amount of mental and emotional work at the moment, and so we have to be in a position to take care of ourselves in order that we can do the work that needs to be done.

“There’s the self-care that insults the intelligence, the advertising technique that switches most people onto it. Then there’s what Audre Lorde meant – the pull between resting and taking what you need to sustain a life that’s open, loving, vulnerable, and active” – Anne Boyer

Ebinehita Iyere: Society has put Black girls in a position where they feel like they have to do this mobilising. They have to be strong, nurturing, on the go, at all times. But as Lauryn Hill says, ‘if you can't love yourself, how will you love somebody else?’ I created Milk Honey Bees for Black girls to be able to put the ‘her’ first. It doesn’t mean sidelining everyone else, they can parallel. Right now, it feels unbalanced. So how can communities do better by Black women? By listening to Black girls. Right now, Black women are going through it, and growing through it. We need to allow Black women and girls the space to feel a spectrum of emotion. We need to prioritise them having a girlhood without rushing them into adulthood. I believe the biggest self-care that you can give a girl is allowing her to be a girl. Personally, reconnecting with my inner child was something I didn’t know I needed. We are not always pursuing a social justice issue. It is a personal justice.

Self-care can be inherently linked to the physical, and beauty ideals. How do we swerve these narrow societal beauty standards?

Ebinehita Iyere: I prioritise the Black girl aesthetic. Self-care has been centred on whiteness – look at salons opening up again in the UK, they’re told they have to do ‘quick treatments’, and that’s totally ignoring the time needed for Black hair treatments. The whitewashing of self-care means self-care for Black women and girls becomes a form of resistance. We have to hone in to inclusive wellness practices that celebrate us. In recent years we’ve seen Black women reclaiming their identities, making their own groups, championing Black-owned brands, getting their credit. Working with young women wasn’t always my intention. But doing the inner child work that I mentioned before broke down some barriers for me. I’m passionate about changing the education system for Black girls – it emboldens how society sees and addresses us holistically. It takes so long to heal from that trauma, and you’re constantly living through it. I had to access therapy, but it took me time. Self-care, I believe, is in knowing the right time to do something. 

How do we bring these ideals into our education systems, our healthcare, our protest demands?

Ebinehita Iyere: We have to co-design and co-produce what we’re building for young people with them. Projects need to have longevity and generations that will keep them going, especially after this pandemic. Every individual public system needs to be imbued with nurturing all needs. 

Emily Barker: I hope that the burden of change, as it usually has done, doesn’t just fall on those who have been experiencing the brunt of the realities of these crises. When the fires happen, disabled people die. When the power shuts off during a winter ice storm, disabled people die. Disabled people struggle so hard on the daily just to survive, and then to mobilise? The energy it requires just to fight for human rights. I hope when people feel at their most hopeless and nihilistic, that it’s a motivating factor for contributing to the abolition of oppressive structures. I’ve definitely used this time to work very hard towards imagining new futures. The project that I’m working on is for disabled people to not die in case of emergencies, to imagine housing that is self sustainable and affordable. We need to have conversations about responsibility for the most marginalised who bear the brunt.

Sally Weintrobe: We have to have frameworks of political understanding that highlight our problems as systemic, wider than our being. I believe that to establish a law of ecocide is a mental health measure. It’s actually gaining momentum. It would allow people to see we are all implicated. It would name corporations and hold governments accountable. My idea of a future with self-care would have a law on ecocide with teeth in place. It would provide a framework of care, and locate our selves in something like the climate crisis that can feel existential and vast. 

“The whitewashing of self-care means self-care for Black women and girls becomes a form of resistance. We have to hone in to inclusive wellness practices that celebrate us” – Ebinehita Iyere

Emily Barker: I have a neighbour who brings me lemons, and I give her cacao and mushroom powder. Sometimes those small things can mean so much. It makes me think that, in order to survive, as much as it’s about breaking out of capitalist systems, it’s about finding joy and beauty within the chaos and struggles of the now. We can be so self-critical and self-loathing, and if we deprive ourselves of joy and love, we cannot give that to anyone else.

Sally Weintrobe: Yes. And we cannot divorce caring for the planet from our concept of self-care. A healthier future is vital. On a social level, there is repair work that has to be done in dismantling privilege and confronting the strugglings of communities around the world. This work on a community level, should people engage, helps people restrain their narcissism and entitlement to the earth. 

Emily Barker: Do think that that can happen within the confines of capitalism and the current workday that most people experience?

Sally Weintrobe: I think that it’s very difficult. We are all coming from long terrains of trauma, and this is why collective thinking over individual is going to be so important, and nurturing children with this framework. Intergenerational lack of justice is a hugely important area. Between generations, we have to have empathy and sympathy – love and care can be mobilised into collective change.

Anne Boyer: I think self-indulgence is self-recrimination, right? We can individualise systemic problems. When I find myself doing this, I ask: what good am I doing? What is the best use of my energy? That’s a journey. When I was working through abuse and domestic violence I had to recognise it was not because something is wrong with me, but that I’m a victim of a larger structure of oppression. I find a lot of comfort in reading histories of struggles. And there’s actually not a time on earth when there weren’t people fighting back against those who would organise according to violence and profit, as opposed to organise around the needs of human life. We are part of an ongoing human effort. In the United States, we’re seeing corporations given full personhood and rights, but no criminal responsibility. It’s terrifying. We have to keep making demands of a state that values corporations and wealth over us as individuals and communities.

What is the role of art and creativity in our self-care, and how we imagine a future world?

Anne Boyer: Young artists always come to me and ask, ‘why should I make art in this burning world?’ I always have the same advice – you desperately want to help people, right? You desperately want to make the world you live in better? The creation of new worlds resonates with you, its new ideas. Is that going to nursing school then instead, or learning permaculture? I think it’s interesting to explore the art of a combined practice, without abandoning one set of gifts or imagination for another. Is there a world where one can be the nurse who is also an artist? Art will always be necessary, but it will never fulfil itself until it abolishes itself and becomes life – right? I feel good that my students now have this quandary. I both hate and don’t hate this crisis. The heroism of my students over the past year, from protesting in Kansas City and helping people out in the pandemic, supporting the Renters Union. It’s intrinsic to their practices now.

Emily Barker: Some of my favourite artists infiltrated the consciousness of our culture in times of crisis. Felix González-Torres captured the AIDS epidemic and gave humanity, weight, and tenderness to that experience that people who were privileged enough to not have that experience could feel. I do think, though, that a lot of art is obsessed with self-image and self-gain. Art gives my life meaning and purpose. I’m an artist who does organising and activism work, because I have to, I have no choice because few others will have this conversation about capitalism and disability. If we re-evaluate and create the care culture that we need, we could all be artists and care for that artistic purpose in all of us. Then we can all make art and do the beautiful things, while having food and housing and healthcare.

How hopeful do you feel for the future, and how do you cultivate hope and optimism in yourself?

Ebinehita Iyere: I’m really positive about what’s next. We recently set up the Black Girl Global Justice Initiative – it’s a partnership with an American organisation called Justice For Black Girls. Girls are becoming their own teachers, learning about intersectionality and colourism from all aspects of the world. We can’t dictate to this next generation what their needs and wants are – we have to give young people the chance to form and manage their own self-care tools.

Anne Boyer: I’m a fatalist to an extent, but I believe in the many good things about us as a species. We all need love, care, and connection, and we all have the means to give it. I look at my cats and see that in their faces. It might be my cat’s last week on Earth, but he still wants to sing and play with a moth. Capitalism has to go to such lengths to turn us into cold, self-interested, alienated, monstrously a-social creatures who are deadened to our own and others’ real wants and needs. We need to take it back to our most basic rights and needs. It takes so much social control for us to be bad, I believe. They spend trillions doing it. We have to connect with ourselves. 

Sally Weintrobe: I do think it’s more complicated. We’re all divided creatures – we can’t live in a utopia, we all struggle with love and destruction. How can we organise a society that contains our hatred and supports our love for ourselves, our planet, and each other?

Anne Boyer: You’re absolutely right. This year’s been terrible for us, it has been easy to intensify paranoia, competition, atomisation, despair, nihilism, when you can't go out with your own eyes. How do we keep a grasp on a society so filled with aggressive dissonance and death? I know so many people who have detached from reality over the past year, who have fallen into conspiracy theories. 

Emily Barker: I’ve had to work back from that. My mother sees my disability and the pain I go through but won’t engage with the brutal politics that enacts it.

“We cannot divorce caring for the planet from our concept of self-care. A healthier future is vital” – Sally Weintrobe

Anne Boyer: I learned to shut down and block things out to protect myself when growing up in a place full of hatred and prejudice. At times I’m just happy I was able to care for myself in that way. I’m in a different place now, I can facilitate different ways of confronting and caring. You know, thank god for early mornings with sunrise, and saffron sometimes!

Emily Baker: I think we have to recognise that people in society have such little self-worth, and that’s where the most reactionary ideas can come from. Ableism really stems from the economic systems that devalue my life. We earn our healthcare, we don’t deserve it, and so on.

Anne Boyer: And I don’t think we ever really escape the threats and the hatred. I wrestle a lot with feelings about my own weaknesses of wanting to shut down, versus my own sense of obligation to the world. But really, what is the one thing I can do which never fails? It’s behaving like a loving person. What if climate change intensifies as it will do tomorrow? I can still behave with love. Our own egos and psyche – even plants – need a thing called love, right? There’s always something to absorb it and reflect it back on me. That has recently felt like a secret weapon to get through the grimmest moods.

Sally Weintrobe: We have to be in a position of safety and of empathy that means we’re up for the challenge. Self-care is in education, politics, and science, as well as ordinary rituals of life that help us appreciate nature, time, life, and death. I remain optimistic – I think we’re up to it.

Emily Barker: It is brutal, but I take that and I put it into a freaking oven. I use it for fuel, instead of letting it burn me.