No movement survives on self-care alone

Opinion by Lily Zheng
Feb. 9, 2017, 2:15 a.m.

In hindsight, it doesn’t seem all too surprising that the concept of “self-care” caught on the way it did.

The draw lies most likely in its ambiguity – self-care refers broadly to any activity or practice an individual can do that benefits their physical, mental, emotional and/or spiritual health. Said practices can range between suggestions to “goof around for a bit” or “get rid of your news app” to “cooking a pot of beans.” The idea’s been spotlighted in TEDtalks, espoused in The New York Times, and, of course, taken over and monetized by the capitalistic powers that be.

At Stanford, self-care is prescribed as a solution to almost all of our problems. Too many units? Self-care. Tough breakup? Self-care. Not sure if that impulse buy from Amazon is a good idea with $13.57 left in your bank account? Go for it, it’s self-care. Snark aside, self-care is generally prescribed with good intentions. We remind our friends to take their meds, go to class, get out of bed, eat breakfast and try their best to get a reasonable amount of sleep. In activist circles, self-care takes on an additional mythos (spurred, no doubt, by an oft-repeated quote by Audre Lorde): Self-care means survival, survival means resistance and resistance – someday – means liberation.

The activism/self-care relationship is not without conflict. Activism – particularly activism contextualized within organized movements and campaigns – requires constant, sustained effort. Activism takes enormous concentration, effort, time and energy; it is often draining to build coalitions, plan direct actions, generate resources and otherwise do the hard work of impacting social change, especially as students. Self-care, given this paradigm, often looks like disengagement. Self-care in the movement is about doing less activism: taking breaks, stepping back or stepping out. “Take care of yourselves first,” we say. “The movement comes second.”

In November of 2015, around the time of the Paris attacks, Planned Parenthood shooting and Transgender Day of Remembrance, I called for “intentional cycles of rest and action” as a necessary step for activist sustainability. The idea at the time was that there would always be a consistent, well-defined activist body we could unplug from and replug into when needed, and that we could each find our own balance between activism and self-care.

With this balance in mind I told myself at the beginning of senior year that this year would be my “break” from activism. I loaded up on units, backed out of student activist groups and set myself up to have a relatively activism-free quarter. (Look what happened instead.) The world is unpredictable: Crisis happens, and before we know it we’re a part of a public movement to oppose our Cheeto-in-Chief. Many of us now feel like a certain degree of self-care – the ability to disengage – has been taken away from us. The movement calls, and the penalty for self-care in the face of crisis is guilt.

I want to propose an amendment to our concept of “self-care” on campus. For too long we have relied on self-care as an extension of our society’s overwhelming individuality and self-sufficiency and pushed a message of self-care as individual health, individual well-being and individual reliance.

Why can’t we take care of each other, too?

A paradigm shift from self-care to community-care means that we need to re-envision the way we interact, whether or not we call ourselves activists. The questions change from “how can I take care of myself?” and “how are other people taking care of themselves?” to “how can the community take care of me?” and “how can I help take care of others?” This forces us to rethink too the work we do: Can activism look like group prayer, massages, sleepovers or movie nights? Can organizational work look like free food, sleeping space and 24/7 building access?
If the work of organizing, advocacy and activism is to become more caring, the first step must of course be to validate people’s self-care. But what comes after this bare minimum is the harder work of creating community infrastructure (outside of Facebook and email listservs) that support communities and allow community members to support each other. We need to encourage community norms of not just asking for help but also offering help ourselves. We need to encourage community trust and open communication that allows people to be vulnerable with each other. And lastly, we need to expand our idea of what “community” means beyond narrow identities, beyond physical houses, beyond our departments or campaigns or even Stanford itself, to something bigger. No movement survives on self-care alone.


Contact Lily Zheng at lilyz8 ‘at’ 

Lily Zheng '17, is a weekly columnist for The Stanford Daily, a Social Psychology major and co-president of the student group Kardinal Kink. Her weekly column revolves around consent culture, queer and trans identity, social justice and activism. In her spare time, she enjoys wearing too much black clothing, accidentally sleeping in her makeup and spending quality time with her partners. Contact her at lilyz8 'at' – she loves messages!

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