Words by Reetaza Chatterjee. Illustration by Sayantani Mahapatra.
I remember sitting in a bath, my Lush bath bomb fizzing out and everything slowly starting to smell like Japanese cherry blossoms.
Things had been difficult lately – I had been spontaneously bursting into tears on public transport, which has always been a good indicator of my being on the brink of breaking point. And thus, I’d imposed self-care on myself. I went out and bought myself a bath bomb, I prepared a Spotify playlist with a lot of Solange and I scheduled in time to sit in my own wet filth. This was supposed to be it – all the lifestyle articles and Instagram #selflove hashtags had promised me that I would emerge out of this self-care routine reborn, radiant, and ready to take on the world again. Yet, I still felt absolutely awful. What made me feel even worse was that I’d taken this time, precious time I could have used to catch up on work, to try and make myself feel better but now, I’d gone and wasted it.
Growing up, I was sold this idea that I was supposed to be constantly running, sleep-deprived, drugged up on caffeine, and yet looking immaculate. I saw powerful working women on TV – stiletto-clad warriors with “perfect” bodies, women who invoked fear because they knew what they were worth and were audacious enough to demand it. Their success lay in the idea that they knew what they wanted and would give up anything to get it. The girl who has it all, who not only manages to juggle the roles she plays for the people around her (mother, wife, daughter, sister, employee, boss), but executes them to perfection.
We live in a society where we are taught from young that our worth is dependent on our performance, which starts out as a linear function of our academic grades and is subsequently measured through our economic productivity in the workplace. Our well-being is seldom considered a variable within that function, and, as a result, prioritising our well-being often seems unnecessary and self-indulgent.
Yet, simultaneously, we are constantly reminded that our health is our individual responsibility, that we are in charge of our own happiness. The Health Promotion Board “seeks to empower the Singapore public with knowledge and skills to take ownership of their own health and live a healthy lifestyle” (HPB website, 2018). “Singaporeans need to take responsibility of their own health”, said Minister Heng Swee Keat in 2013. Our leaders are always emphasising the “burden” that the imminent ageing population will be posing on our healthcare system and re-emphasising the need for 3Ms (Medishield, Medicare and Medisave) so that individuals can save up for medical emergencies in order to reduce their reliance on the State. This rhetoric of health primarily being an individual’s responsibility means that achieving less-than-good health is seen as a personal moral failing.
Modern life has made it such that our emotional and psychological needs are increasingly being left unmet. The act of asking for time to take care of ourselves is seen as a sign of personal weakness. Identifying this gap, capitalism has swiftly swept in to sell us quick-fix products and experiences that are advertised as being able to fix our lives. Stressed out at work? Book in a spa day. Bad breakup? Sign up for a spin class to burn off all those excess bulges to achieve your post break-up glo-up. Not feeling very confident about the way you look? Now, you can pay for skincare products that claim to reverse the process of ageing! Treat yourself, you deserve it. And, remember, Instagram it, so everyone else knows it happened.
Somehow, self care has turned into an indulgent, yet necessary maintenance to fix the wear and tear in our systems. We do it so that, eventually, we can squeeze a little more onto our plates or, even better, make our plates a little bigger. Taking time out to do “nothing” in the present can only be justified if it’s a means to an end of doing more in the future. As if our wellbeing, health, and, dare I say, happiness (how frivolous!) aren’t an end in themselves.
The commodification of self care has reduced it to individual acts of indulgence, often within the capitalist framework of consumption – a luxury that only the rich can afford. The provision of self care then becomes inextricably linked with the question: whose needs are worth meeting? What about those of us who can’t afford a monthly Netflix subscription, scented candles or nice meals? Or the ones among us whose time and energy are taken up trying to balance wage work and caregiving responsibilities? And how about those of us who are disabled, chronically ill, or have sensory issues so a yoga class is literally not even an option? Who, among us, deserves to treat themselves?
The truth, in fact, is that self care can be about pampering ourselves but not all self care needs to be glamorous. Sometimes, it looks like a phone call with a friend at 3am and a good, long cry. Sometimes, it’s as boring as tidying up our rooms or running errands to create a life that we don’t regularly have to run away from. Sometimes, it’s as thrilling as finding a new hobby or finding joy in an old one again. For some people, self care is more than the self - it’s about reaching out to their communities, being in places where they feel safe, and being reminded that they are loved and cared for and that they have people to love and care for. Most times, self care is more painful and messy than a one-stop solution.
To me, self care has been about giving myself the space to breathe, to cry, to heal. Reaching out, asking for help when I’m struggling to stay afloat. Acknowledging and processing the trauma of my past, in the safe space provided by my therapist who I trust. Allowing myself to feel pain, to sit in it, to realise that it doesn’t have the power to consume me. Nourishing myself with “bad foods” that I’d restricted myself from when I had anorexia, letting them fill up my belly and my heart. Allowing myself to feel full without restraint, to feel joy without restraint. Listening to my body, slowing down when I have to. Setting boundaries, saying no to committing my time and energy to projects when I do not have the capacity to commit. Crafting safety plans for the times when I still, inevitably, sink into The Pit. Listening to my grandma’s stories about the badass women of my family who came before me, who fought like hell for their survival, knowing that my pain is not unprecedented or unique to me, and that I’m not alone. Dogs, always. Sitting in a toilet cubicle at work and taking a few minutes to let myself breathe, calm the chaos in my head.
But most importantly, self care to me is taking comfort in the fact that learning to take care of myself is a work in progress. It is knowing that there are going to be times where I will make mistakes, but, more importantly, also knowing that it’s okay. It’ll be okay. Self care has been unlearning the idea that my worth is dependent on how functional I am. That I deserve to show myself love and care even when everything feels terrible and I believe I am terrible.
Self-care isn’t a stop-gap measure to prevent us from burning out. Neither is it a quick fix to all our problems, as capitalism would like us to believe, in order to make us consume more and more in an attempt to fill up The Void inside. It’s about finding out how best to meet our needs in a world that makes it so hard to admit that we have these needs in the first place. Taking care of ourselves isn’t procrastination or indulgence – it’s simply a tool for survival.
There’s nothing wrong if you enjoy bath bombs – in fact, it’s great that you’ve found something that works for you. Putting the ‘self’ back in self-care is the key bit – taking the time to figure out what you need and what works for you (and what doesn’t, that’s equally important too!).
Don’t do it for the gram, do it for you.
Reetaza is an intersectional feminist interested in collective healing work. When not eating ice-cream and drunk-crying at dog memes, she can be found squishing the people she loves.