American culture, with its typical anything-worth-doing-is-worth-overdoing attitude, has reduced self-care to buying stuff and, even more counter-intuitively, to trying to become a more productive employee. In other words, active self-care was originally considered necessary to be a philosopher, typically for elite white men who had the luxury to sit and think. Now, America has democratized it by making it seemingly available to all—at least, for a price.
The advertising industry has nudged self-care away from introspection and towards reflexive consumerism…The implication is clear: Consumers who fail to purchase such treats are depriving themselves, failing to meet their own needs.
In a recent article on The Atlantic (is this the only thing I read these days?), Ester Bloom considers (way too briefly, by Ta-Nehisi Coates’ standards, at least) the increasingly capitalistic appropriation of self-care. What formerly was a call to mindful introspection (reserved for old white men, namely philosophers) is now a call to entitled consumerism (sold to everyone, but really still reserved for white men, namely the wealthy). She argues, more or less, that America’s overinflated and about-to-burst market culture urges us toward self-consumption more than self-care.
In this paradigm of oblivious self-destruction masquerading boldly as capitalistic triumph, what we believe about ourselves is an externalized, ever elusive ideal that we kneel before. In our twisted gratitude and corrupted prayer, we arrive at an altar at which we make financial (conflating with emotional, physical, and spiritual) sacrifice in the hopes of appeasing a god that we didn’t create, were coerced into buying, and are now in service to. In the process, we internalize the idea that this gross worship is a form of self-care.
We are at the altar, we believe, because we deserve it, and indeed, if we are too dumb to realize our folly, we deserve what we’re getting: nothing. We don’t realize that if we’re at this altar, there is no self for which we might care anymore. We aren’t treating ourselves, we’re tricking ourselves. We’re treating a system that devours our selves. Self-care has nothing to do with filling a personal void, that deliberately gnawing “you’re not good enough so buy this” feeling. Stuff won’t save us. If we’re really in touch with ourselves, taking care of who we are, we’d realize that we don’t need stuff. We don’t need saving.
And yet, here we are – let’s take Black Friday and Cyber Monday as examples – bloodthirsty for not only saving, but savings. We deserve discounts on stuff, and we deserve stuff. We deserve jobs that “demand ever-increasing amounts of time, energy, and creativity” in order to pay for this stuff that we deserve. This self-reflexive entitlement, ruthlessly focused on the individual and at the intentional expense of community, is a terrifying prison that seems to only be growing in size and strength. A single trip through any department store, or to any commercial website, should be sufficient proof that we’re wandering through an unsustainable, unhealthy ecosystem. What we deserve then are the inevitable consequences of our unquestioned gluttony.
You get what you pay for, and what continue to insist on paying for is a bunch of junk that we don’t need, and worse, junk that causes suffering to so many. We’re running toward savings, away from saving. We could say that lemmings take “care” of themselves, in the sense that a mob boss takes “care” of his enemies. Will we finally wake up only to realize that we’ve already thrown ourselves off the cliff?