We said last time that somehow, while we weren’t looking, the pedicure got appointed emblem of all things self-care. And I admit it’s a handy symbol. I would for sure use that nail-polish emoji if I were to text my girl gang, tongue in cheek, about taking a mental health day.
But what the world calls self-care, so easily reduced to toe-painting rituals, misses the point. We saw this in the comments. When pedicures are made to stand for the whole of self-care, we reduce a mindset to a treat or an indulgence. It means equating the necessary and essential outlook of the adult with something many people regard as a pampering ritual, and almost exclusively female.
Which is too bad, because
1. Seriously, what kind of sense does it make to ridicule taking care of your feet? FEET DO ALL THE WORK, Y’ALL and
2. If you give self-care a coat of optional, frivolous and selfish (and let’s not forget “exclusively female”) it gets pretty hard to justify, especially in times like we’re living through right now.
Not Optional At All
Instead, I suggest that self-care is not optional at all. Not for adults.
That’s one of the basic differences between self-care and treats. A treat is, by definition, something a little extra. A little unexpected perhaps, and certainly not routine.
Self-care is bedrock. It’s a foundational way of being. Self-care is a frame of mind.
For me, it’s this way of thinking: I will look after myself, treat myself with kindness, energetically try not to adopt a hostile position even when the whole world encourages me to hate on myself, and I will keep in mind that as an adult, my wellbeing is no one else’s primary responsibility. It’s not ALL on me, but it’s ultimately on me.
The Difference Between Self-Care and Treats
Another way I think about the difference is that any act of self-care must be nourishing before, during and after. To be self-care, it can’t leave me in some kind of hole, the way one too many fancy cocktails will. Self-care is more like a bowl of green chile: good to cook, good to eat, good to digest. I’ll never regret it, and I’ll never forget about it, leaving it to go bad in the back of the fridge.
Treats, on the other hand, come at a cost. Self-care may need to be paid for, like an annual physical, but there’s no downside.
Now, I do like me a fancy cocktail. (Have you had that pink one with mezcal, Lillet and rosewater? Dear Heaven.) Pleasure is a hugely necessary part of life. A self-caring person is likely to supply treats from time to time, because everyone needs things to look forward to.
Especially self-caring persons like me, who got saddled with the belief that life on earth = a solid program of chore execution.
Not a Reward for Good Behavior
By the way, I don’t think you need to do anything to deserve either self-care or treats. Being alive on this earth is enough.
But if there were no other case to be made for self-care, I want to argue this: Self-care is a very fine way to take care of others. In her recent Baffler piece, Life-Hacks of the Poor and Aimless, Laurie Penny writes about activists who refuse “to do the basic work of self-care and mutual care that keeps hope alive and health possible, because that work is women’s work, undignified in comparison to watching your life fall apart while you wait for the revolution or for some girl to pick up the pieces, whichever comes first.”
(Plus knit them a sweater, we might add.)
We all know men like that. Men who have a reduced need of self-care, because they’ve got women around taking care of them.
But if those women are not first taking care of themselves, that work will one day roll downhill on someone else. Most likely other women. I can either care for myself, or leave my children (most likely the females), neighbors and sister and fellow taxpayers with a brokedown mess to pick up.
I don’t want to leave that kind of mess for my children. And I don’t want them to defer their own self-care until the world says Oh my yes, no argument – you’ve got a real issue there, better attend to that!
And while it’s true that we are all ultimately responsible for our own care, and as adults it really isn’t anyone else’s job or moral obligation, I must tell you that I need a ton of support to choose self-care. I read about it, I get intermittent coaching on it, and I talk and scheme about it with my friends. Especially the latter. Because just as treats are often more pleasurable when shared, self-care in community, in the company of your girl gang, has even more power.
(Image credit: National Gallery of Art / Ailsa Mellon Bruce Collection, Women on the Beach at Berck, Eugène Boudin, 1881.)
Your Neck Needs a Treat, Too
As always, the comments are open on this article. For ease of discussion, we’ve also posted this article over in The Lounge.–Kay and Ann