Self-Care is Subversive

By Kris De Welde

Disclaimer: I have no business preaching to you, readers of Skirt, about self-care. In fact, it is with great irony that I am writing about this topic as someone who is overworked, under-rested, and perpetually deprived of down time. This is no badge of honor; I’m not seeking pity or empathy. It just is.

So, I should be reading and practicing self-care, not writing about it, right? Maybe.

Because it would be grossly hypocritical, I will spare you a laundry list of ways to self-care. You have countless ways to access information about what this is, how to do it, why to do it and so on. There are self-care websites, blogs, vlogs, songs, podcasts, books, gurus, phone apps, medical pamphlets, magazine articles … no shortage of resources on this topic!

What many of us are missing is an understanding of self-care as a political act, as something deeply and unmistakably subversive.

Historically, those who wrestled with an unequal society through the women’s movement and civil rights movement came to understand that their own good health was imperative for the broader struggle, including the struggle against an inequitable health care system. As Aisha Harris writes in a 2017 Slate magazine article, “Women and people of color viewed controlling their health as a corrective to the failures of a white, patriarchal medical system to properly tend to their needs.”

Of course, eating properly and taking time for social interaction cannot compensate for unbiased, accessible medical care, particularly for chronic illnesses that are plaguing so many of us.

And as access to institutionalized health care – as fraught as it may be – becomes increasingly inaccessible for millions and millions of Americans, alternative approaches to health and well-being become increasingly important.

Take as an example LGBTQ+ individuals’ health care needs, which, distinctive from non-LGBTQ+ individuals, are marginalized and pathologized in mainstream medicine. As a result, specialized clinics and uniquely trained medical staff are needed to address the gaps. The good news: These are increasingly available. The bad news: They are underfunded, under-resourced and under attack. No amount of self-care is going to address that. Let’s be clear.

However, there is a strong link between activism and caring for oneself. In her Slate article, Aisha provides a brief history of self-care as a radical act and brings us into present day with an understanding of how contemporary activists in movements for social justice have embraced the importance of caring for oneself in a socio-political climate that is toxic and harmful. A poignant example she draws on is the need for self-care in black communities while media outlets release video after video of police shootings of unarmed black people.

Aisha and many others have quoted the righteously radical Audre Lorde, whose writing provides solace and validation for those resisting their oppressors and oppressions: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

Those experiencing oppression have always created strategies to survive, even to thrive in spite of relentless inequities, violence, erasure and harm. Acts of resistance from the power-less toward the power-full are worth studying if only because they correct historical accounts of, well, just about everything. But understanding resistance as not just outright rebellion against the status quo, but as equally important acts of self-preservation, of self-defense, can be inspiring, healing even.

In my work as a professor of women’s and gender studies and sociology, I regularly support students and colleagues who need encouragement because they find themselves experiencing the weight of an unequal society. Oftentimes I listen, I validate, I wring my hands and cry with them. And sometimes we scheme. We devise ways to navigate the system, or upend the system, make change happen so that others fare better or get their justice.

This is part of why I am overworked and spread too thin. But for me, laboring for social change becomes self-care (especially when the outcome is progress). If my time and energy investment results in change, I am recharged. My resistance alongside others heals me from my own experiences of injustice in ways that a yoga class cannot.

So, does the rose quartz hydrating botanical facial at an upscale spa have the capacity to catalyze a revolution? Umm, no, probably not, particularly if the staff working at that spa are underpaid, have no benefits and are unable to practice meaningful self-care themselves.

But if a temporary indulgence at the spa provides a space to recharge, unplug from incessant demands and practice stillness so that you are able to re-enter into a life of constant challenges where you work on behalf of and alongside others, then it just might be an act of rebellion.

Self-care can be a political act in the face of oppression and absence of care from broader social institutions and interactions. But, as Jordan Kisner writes in a New Yorker March 2017 article, “The irony of the grand online #selfcare-as-politics movement of 2016 is that it was powered by straight, affluent white women, who, although apparently feeling a new vulnerability in the wake of the election, are not traditionally the segment of American society in the greatest need of affirmation.”

Indeed, self-care-as-politics has been somewhat hijacked from its radical origins, especially in mainstream depictions. But, if through this process self-care is being normalized as a necessary aspect of hectic lives for the rest of us, then bring it on. But, they (You? We?) also have to hold the door open for others who do not normally benefit from “indulgences” and temporary respites. That means straight, white, affluent women must defend with ferocity others’ claim to their own self-care, without judgment or grumblings or gratuitous opinions.

When the spaces you navigate daily are harmful or toxic or depleting, self-care is survival. When the self-care you practice refills your cup from which others can drink, self-care is radical. When the work you are doing is on behalf of more justice for more people, self-care is political.


Kris De Welde, Ph.D., is the director of women’s and gender studies and professor of women’s and gender studies and sociology at College of Charleston. She specializes in the study of intersectional inequalities and feminist leadership in higher education, reproductive justice and the scholarship of teaching and learning. Kris was awarded the 2016-2017 Sociologists for Women in Society Feminist Activism Award for her sustained commitments to social justice within and beyond the academy. As a recent transplant from Florida, she is happily making her way through the Charleston food scene. She also enjoys cycling, yoga, the beer her husband makes and her ridiculous cats.