When Audre Lorde wrote ‘self-care is warfare’, she declared that when an African-American woman takes care of herself, she fights back against a system that says black female bodies should be slaves and servants who serve others, or who could be disposed of through neglect, mass-incarceration or systemic oppression. [My favourite work on this is by Sara Ahmed: ‘Selfcare as warfare‘. Lorde actually wrote “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” A Burst of Light]
For this reason, the recent popularised version of ‘self-care’, which often involves getting a manicure or cutting negativity out of your social media bubble, is hugely problematic. [Not linking to these many sites, they are toxic]. Where I live, a massage, a clean house or a pedicure is usually provided by an immigrant woman with limited English—my pampering happens through the labour of other women. I’m obviously not saying don’t pay immigrants to do labour—I’ve been an immigrant who liked having a job! Just, remember they are doing labour, not caring about you.
During a PhD, we can spend long hours on campus, hunched over computers or staring at data. We often travel long distances: for field work, conferences or because we live a long way away from loved ones. We also work in an academic culture that prizes overwork, brains over bodies, and expects you to make ‘sacrifices’ for research. This means that self-care is important for academics: our health, families, mental health and well-being are also important, and worth working for!
At the same time, the people in academia are often people with privilege (or at least relative privilege). We have the benefits of education, of academic freedoms, of access to information, and often we have scholarships, grants or subsidies. What’s more, we are more likely than the average population to be middle class, to have parents who are highly educated, and to graduate into a better-paying and more interesting job when we graduate.
So how can we practice self-care that can be both life-saving and ethical? And how can self-care be practiced by white men, white women and other privileged groups without exploitation?
Obviously these recommendations are going to be broad brush strokes! And if you feel attacked… stop feeling attacked and look after yourselves.
- Self-care for white dudes
OMG—dudes, just take care of yourselves for a change. Feel sick? Go to the doctor or the pharmacist! Feel sad? Go for a run or meditate or write in your journal! Feel lonely? Pick up the phone and text your mates, make a plan to meet up and hang out! Learn to do the things that make you feel cared for (whether that is fresh bedsheets, fun social events or a comforting dinner).
Privileged people in our society have got used to off-loading the responsibility for their wellbeing onto others. It is not your girlfriend/wife/female co-worker’s job to care for you, so taking responsibility and getting your care done by yourself is a blow for their freedom.
Also—join in collective bargaining, informally or formally. Your voice at the table is likely to be heard, so speaking up for systemic supports like living wages, carer’s leave and decent superannuation make it easier for everyone to look after themselves in turn.
- White women
This one is tricky, because white women are both privileged and oppressed—and both are real and significant. Society, and academic workplaces, often require emotional labour of white women, which includes having to always be pleasant and quiet–and this makes it hard to look after themselves or to advocate for change alone. White women also get cared for (if in a limiting and problematic way) by patriarchal systems—a lot of terrible things have been done in the name of ‘protecting’ white women (from media pile-ons to lynchings).
It can be tempting to quietly get on with being the secretary (especially when that’s not the official job title) and keep your job and avoid any fuss. It can also be tempting to make any ‘fuss’ the responsibility of other people who are less privileged than you. These are both temptations you should resist.
Instead, solidarity among women has historically been an effective way to create change–mothers and childfree women, women across class, and women across race. When women band together, we are safer and we can push back, and other women can also push back.
Once you have stopped being the secretary on top of your actual job, you will have time to care for yourself, and you should take time—not to buy things to look beautiful but just to be well and flourishing. (It might also mean that the department actually has to hire and pay an administrator, which would also be good.)
- People who ‘pass’
Because higher ed is a lot about optics, people who don’t ‘look’ diverse, get many privileges, even though though their identities traditionally excluded them from these benefits. This ‘not looking diverse’ problem can impact LGBQ+ people, passing-white people, working class people who have middle class accents, people with invisible disabilities, and many others.
In a limiting and problematic way, this ‘passing‘ can work for you. In situations where people are making decisions about ‘fit’ for jobs, at conferences, at networking events and when choosing graduate students–then ‘looking like you belong’ makes a massive difference.
At the same time, important parts of your identity are made invisible, perhaps have to be made invisible, in order for you to fit in. If that thing became visible, then you are in danger of being stigmatised. Many people with mental illnesses, for example, keep them quiet for this reason. Keeping it invisible also means that you are unlikely to get the support or care you need within the institution. And micro-aggressions and wider structural issues are still going to be significant.
So, you may need to care for yourself, and you should, in a way that doesn’t feed the beast. At the same time, solidarity with other members of marginalised groups is more likely to be ethical and enable you to be in a community of care, rather than trying to protect your status of ‘insider’ by kicking down.
4. Nearly everyone else
You will probably be much more of an expert on this than I am. Lorde, and Ahmed, and hooks and Crenshaw have said things much better than I could. Online communities give lived advice, like @chron_ac on Twitter about studying for a PhD with a chronic illness, or @IndigenousX about flourishing as an Indigenous person in Australia. My colleagues over on the Thesis Whisperer and Research Whisperer blog often include articles from people talking about how they negotiate universities from complex or marginalised positions (I’ve linked to some posts about disability, and about self-reflection and going slow here).
Hopefully this post encourages other people to take on more of their own emotional and physical labour, so you can get on with flourishing.
So the basic thing here is—the emphasis in self-care for people with (some) privilege is not to take care OF yourself, but to take care YOURSELF. The onus is on you. Don’t tangle your well-being up in the mess of the patriarchy (predicated on men taking care of women in one way, and women taking care of men in another; and immigrant women doing everything else)—be your own love and health and strength.
The emphasis is also on self-CARE, rather than buying into industrialised labour systems that replace care with cash, time and products. Care is not easily metricised, you can’t necessarily measure it, track it, quantify it, so workplace audit regimes often ignore it.
Workplaces also often exploit ‘well-being’ initiatives for worker productivity. Meditation is great to connect to a deeper spiritual level, and getting enough sleep is amazing, and exercise is awesome—but you shouldn’t be paying fees to yoga studios and gyms so that your manager can extract ever greater levels of productivity from you.
The purpose of self-care is human flourishing. You deserve to flourish because you are a human, not because of your h-index or grant track record.
And everyone around you also deserves to flourish. Sometimes we develop flourishing in others by helping other people, and sometimes we enable flourishing in others by not expecting them to help us.
I’m not sure if this is actually helpful. Blogging is a weird space for self-help, because I am speaking to an audience of one—an audience who needs agency and advice navigating a difficult space. So part of my job is giving you permission and information to make changes in your own life.
But systemic care also matters, and we should all work for it. The part of my job that doesn’t happen on this blog is often taken up sitting in meetings advocating for systemic changes, or contributing to policy around inclusion, or chivvying about accessibility for eLearning resources.
However, you won’t see much of it on the blog because the audience here is mostly candidates not policy makers, students not governments. If Vice Chancellors were regularly reading these posts, I’d be giving different advice! But for you—individual reader trying to make higher ed and writing work for you—take care of yourself and make it through. May you write beautiful prose, have world-changing ideas, and be well.
Usually I would offer a lot of citations for all my claims, but in the context of the kinds of things I discuss in this blog post, either you will be like ‘yes, I already know a lot about this’, or you’ll want to get into a nit-picky flame war with me because you hate the whole premise of what I’m writing. Because citation is political, though, I do link to some philosophers and communities that readers might like to explore further. I learned a lot from reading them, and I hope you might too!