I don’t do performative femininity. I have a very female-appearing body but for most of my adult life, I haven’t wanted to present that for the male gaze, or do any of the things that feel like performance. As a consequence, I’m not going to be uplifted by a make-over. I don’t want a new hairstyle, I am not cheered by new shoes (unless those shoes are practical). The kinds of things that are often pedalled as self care and feelgood options aren’t going to work for me. I also worry about the way adverts pitch performative femininity as self-care so much of the time.
We’re in the season when the diet industry doubles down on the message that to be happy you have to be thin, and that being thin will solve all of your problems. The fashion industry, which is greatly harmful to the planet, tells us that happiness, confidence and a better life are available if we buy new clothes. The car industry shows us how a new car will make us feel better. Psychologists however are pretty clear that once your basic needs are met, material wealth doesn’t do much to improve your happiness.
I’ve been thinking a lot about what actual self care might mean. Being warm enough is important – I’m fortunate in that I can afford at the moment to heat my home to a reasonable temperature in winter. I grew up in cold houses with ice on the windows, I’ve lived in badly insulated, badly heated places, I’ve had plenty of years when money was tight. If I’m not warm, my body gets stiff and sore more easily. I’m a big fan of snugly blankets and hot water bottles too – these feel like self-care. There are days when it takes some effort to remember that I am allowed to be comfortable.
Self care is one of the things you aren’t allowed to do properly when you live with an abusive person. One way or another, you won’t be allowed to be comfortable. Being warm enough may cost too much and not be worth it if you’re dealing with someone who is financially controlling. Your bodily wellbeing may be constantly framed as something that doesn’t matter. Feeling ok can become being selfish and unreasonable when you are being gaslit. Learning how to feel like I matter has not been easy, but self care is nigh on impossible without that basic assumption in place.
One of the mental shifts I needed was to start seeing my feeling good as something that mattered. I’ve had a lot of years in my life under pressure to treat myself as the least important thing, and even in kinder circumstances, those habits are hard to break. It is no longer the case that self care might actually put me at risk. I can say no to things, I can ask for nice things – if I can work out what those are. I can ask for care, support, help and time off without risking wrath or ridicule. It’s taken a while to get here and I suspect I still have a lot to learn.
I see a lot of other folk online who clearly find it hard to look after themselves. Not because they’re daft, or incompetent, or masochistic, but because they too do not know when it is ok to treat that like it matters. This is hard stuff to figure out on your own, and easier to do collectively. How do we meet our own needs? What even are those needs? Because they probably aren’t the ones we’re being encouraged to imagine by the adverts we encounter every day. What can we do to feel safer, be well, be comfortable, be happy? That may call for some uncomfortable poking around in the reasons that we don’t feel entitled to those basic things in the first place.
Self care can be really hard. Feeling good can seem transgressive, even dangerous. Sometimes it is – which is a sure sign that you need to get the hell out as soon as you can. Everyone should have the time and resources for a life with gentleness, peace, rest and restorative things in it.