Radical self-care in America: beyond the myth

Audre Lorde fundamentally understood self-care as counter cultural

Audre Lorde said in 1988 that, ‘Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.‘ As a civil rights activist, woman of color, and lesbian, her words capture the essence of self-care as a radical feminist concept, highlighting how caring for oneself can be a form of resistance against oppressive systems. Today, self-care is folded into a multibillion-dollar wellness industry targeted at just about everyone. But the actual social structure is failing Americans and emergently, it’s as radical as ever. 

Americans are burnt out

The US Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy, just declared an epidemic of isolation and loneliness. In 1964, the surgeon general issued a warning on the dangers of cigarette smoking. Today, it is loneliness, contextualising the issue as a national concern. Murthy says loneliness is more dangerous than obesity and as deadly as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Clearly this epidemic requires more than some flash marketing.  

A recent article by David Brooks in The Atlantic dissects why and how Americans got so mean. 

Not surprising, our meanness blossoms from loneliness and depression and he rightly obviates that the ‘words that define our age reek of menace: conspiracy, polarization, mass shootings, trauma, safe spaces.‘ Brooks incites a self-proclaimed stuffy phrase, ‘moral formation’ as the answer to our terror, which essentially requires Americans to stop being so selfish, learn social and ethical skills, and help people find purpose (previously facilitated by institutions before they became so terribly mistrusted). 

Back in 2016, Sebastian Junger’s Tribe explored how humanity’s primal tribal connection has been largely lost, and how regaining it may be the key to our psychological survival. Bari Weiss interviewed him last year on her episode Why Men Seek Danger, where he noted that community — a word with a severely diluted meaning today — used to mean a group of people for whom you would die. He posits that combat PTSD is caused largely from the loss of meaning ascribed to daily life upon re-entry into ‘normal’ society. 

Pooja Lakshmin’s 2023 book, Real Self Care, challenges the overinflated wellness industry and redefines it as a series of transformative, paradigm-shifting practices. ‘Real self-care is an internal, self-reflective process that involves making difficult decisions in line with our values,‘ in effect saying no. When we practice this robust adulting, ‘we shift our relationships, our workplaces, and even the broken systems.’

It highlights the need for care to be more than skin-deep and it’s not comfortable.

Pepsico’s Pure Leaf tea launched its No Is Beautiful platform in 2020 to encourage people to say no more often (echoing the brand’s “no” to artificial ingredients). Their No grants, aimed specifically at ‘mothers who feel they can’t afford to say ‘no’ to the ‘immense pressure of doing it all’, is in its second year. Recipients are awarded $2,000 USD to support their well-being. It’s a small sum in the face of economic turmoil but this initiative demonstrates the value of community support that brands can undertake. It also openly acknowledges that care extends beyond individual practices.

The quintessential American spirit of self-sufficiency and independence can come with a sacrifice

While Japan appointed a Minister Of Loneliness and Britain’s impressive community efforts align with their ‘stay calm and carry on‘ ethos, Americans have very little support from above. Some states are addressing mental health at a local level, wrapping it into health care (if you’re lucky enough to have health care). TREAT California is rallying to legalise psychedelic–assisted therapy to treat mental health, which could have incredibly progressive consequences across the United States. 

But this is a competitive, fierce market where individualism reigns supreme.

Audre Lorde fundamentally understood self-care as counter cultural, as an act of political warfare. Past the wine time and matcha lattes, emergent expressions of self-care require systemic shifts that unite people and I question if America has what it takes. Are we destined to be goopifying bootstrappers, or can we trust in each other?

Featured image: Brandy Kennedy / Unsplash

Hannah Hoel, Semiotician, Cultural Analyst and Mum

Hannah is a semiotician and cultural analyst with an extensive background in marketing, visual arts, and cultural criticism. She has worked both in-house and as an independent analyst with some of the world’s leading semiotics agencies, decoding culture and developing brand strategy for major consumer brands including Lego, Google, and Lean Cuisine. Hannah currently freelances from New Zealand with her three Kiwi kids. Her writing has been published in Huffington Post, Adobe Airstream, THE Magazine, Art Slant, Visual Art Source and others.

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