The capitalist co-option of self-care

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[Written by Sophie Cassel (she/her)]

[Image Credits: Amara Coelho (she/her)]

The idea of resistance tends to conjure up an image of movements—of protesters and crowds, chaos and action. What we often overlook is that resistance is equally present in our everyday lives. First used by Audre Lorde, the concept of self-care began as the idea that caring for the self is a radical act. Far from being an act of self-indulgence, she argued that self-care “is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare”. This rings especially true for women, people of colour, LGBTQ+ individuals and communities who have historically been rendered invisible by a system built upon the pillars of their oppression. Learning to love our bodies in their natural state, or resting when we are tired may seem like inconsequential acts, but they are acts of resistance against a system which incessantly pushes us to increase and optimise our productivity. They offer us the chance to confront the commercialised paths and identities that are forcefully drawn out for us.

But capitalism is a system which evolves by continuously seeking out new spaces to colonise. As soon as an idea becomes popular, it gains market value and becomes ripe for co-option. The market’s co-option of self-care practices transforms these into the antithesis of their original purpose. They become products which mirror the perfection-driven superficiality of the market, further forcing commercialisation into our lifestyles, our values and our desires.

The commodification of our relationship to our bodies is an important example. Our bodies, women’s bodies in particular, have long been terrorized by capitalist beauty ideals. As capitalism and patriarchal rule are inherently linked, the current ideal female body (white, skinny and tall) was born out of a male determined image of perfection and has been promoted expansively across borders and cultures by the market. In response to such inaccessible beauty ideals, women have found resistance through the practice of the once deeply political and radical concept of body-positivity. This movement places focus on learning self-acceptance for the bodies we have rather than seeking an idealised perfection which sets us up for failure. But as these ideas spread, they became an opportune space for capitalist co-option. Body-positivity is now an extremely profitable approach for corporations and businesses to market products from a positive angle. As a commodity, it is visible everywhere: featured in corporate ad campaigns, promoted by Instagram influencers and on self-improvement apps. But its meaning is no longer at all clear or defined. The faces of market body-positivity are the cisgender, thin, white women whose ideal self-care originally intended to resist. Their performance of self-care comes with a price-tag attached. It promises to help us learn to love our bodies through tightly regimented and restrictive exercise and diet routines along with unaffordable beauty treatments.

In order to maintain demand for commodified self-care, the presence of shame and self-criticism are, paradoxically, crucial. These ensure that as we consistently fail to reach perfection, we become more disapproving of ourselves, and of course, increasingly obsessed with finding new and better ways to be happy.

The capitalist co-option of meditation—now mindfulness—is another example. An ancient and sacred practice, meditation is believed to have originated in the traditions of Vedantism in India but has its roots in various ancient religions, including Taoism and Buddhism. Although varying across contexts, meditation can be understood as the practice of reaching a state of heightened consciousness, where awareness of the self and surroundings is increased. But in its marketed form, “Buddhist meditation without the Buddhism” is an act stripped of its religious and cultural history. Underpinning Buddhism is the purpose to promote interconnectedness and universal compassion and to let go of the fixed and unchanging self. Under capitalism however, no such moral values exist. Mindfulness becomes inherently selfish and disconnected, promoting a monitored optimisation of the self. The point is that self-care is not meant to work under capitalism, because at its core, it is a violent system. Modern capitalism operates by stripping society of welfare and collapsing support systems, whilst simultaneously pressing us to work harder, longer and more efficiently. The 15-minute mindfulness routine that it sells us simply suggests that we must sometimes take a break from the 40-hour work week, in order to more effectively return to it.

Once commodified, varied forms of self-care become strangely similar to each other. Reshaped and repackaged by the market, they acquire a glossy packaging which, once opened, reveals very little substance. Ideas rooted in resistance to capitalism now more closely resemble a fashionable accessory than any form of political act. Gradually, the possibilities that radical self-care offered for resistance to market-reign are washed away. As that purpose recedes, so does the notion of needing to resist the market in the first place.

Under capitalism, self-care practices become spaces of exclusion. Materialistic self-care is best understood as a form of neo-colonial exploitation. By co-opting movements rooted in deeply historical and cultural traditions, the market erases these histories and creates its own. Through its invasion of those small spaces marginalised people carve out for themselves, capitalism makes it harder and harder for them to live within its exclusionary, patriarchal and neo-colonial boundaries. Those who gave life to radical self-care are thereby rendered invisible and the concept is painted over by a commodified, whitewashed version for those who have the money to buy it.

That the market gives ideas born out of resistance to capitalism space at all seems strangely contradictory at first thought. But capitalist logic is in no way linear or simplistic. It is a system which operates through constant contradictions – promising us one thing but giving us another. This is why the market is able to pick up resistance-driven practices, swallow them up, and trim them until they are only recognisable by their name. This stealth of meaning is in itself a form of knowledge production. Self-care can thus continue to exist under capitalism; because in its new form it does not offer resistance, but adherence.

However, we must not lose faith in the idea that caring for ourselves can still be radical and meaningful. Self-care does not have to be a word emptied of meaning and we do not have to submit ourselves to a world where capitalism takes up every space.  While it may seem incredibly hard to untangle our sense of self-worth and indeed our consciousness from the clutches of market society, we must continually seek out spaces of resistance, no matter how small. If we want to break free from a system built on exploitation, we must reclaim what it takes from us.


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