What the Fuck Is Self-Care?

We talk to author Erin Klassen about one of the most buzzed about terms of 2016.

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Nov 29 2016, 6:13pm


Photo via Flickr user Michael Mayer

It's nearly impossible these days to avoid the words "self-care" on the internet. Whether it's Goop-sanctioned vaginal steaming or some kind of crazy Moon Juice smoothie filled with unpronounceable ingredients, the notion that treating ourselves well is an essential part of preserving mental and physical health has come out of the hippy shadows and been fully embraced by all. But it's no longer enough to just do a face mask or go for a walk, the act of self-care has become yet another thing women are expected to be good at. Did you use the right filter for that 'gram of your impeccably prepared acai bowl? Are the candles you just lit in your Snap story made from organic hand-poured soy or are they that mass-produced factory shit? And how can we stem the inevitable capitalist tide from turning something as simple as self-care into yet another thing to be bought and sold? These are all things I wrestle with as I order Dominos in sweatpants under the guise of "being good to myself."

Author and publisher Erin Klassen also struggles with these ideas, and she's attempted to challenge our most surface notions of self-care in her new book, You Care Too Much. A collection of photographs, essays and illustrations, the publication asks creative women from a variety of disciplines to explore what lies beneath our desire to 'treat yo'self.' I met up with her in Toronto to talk about why women feel selfish when they take care of themselves and why everything is so shitty right now.

Image via 'You Care Too Much'

VICE: So, I read your essay that kinda leads off the book and it's very touching, very personal. Talk to me a bit about the essay and what self-care means to you now?
Erin Klassen:
Sure, yeah. I think, growing up, I saw my mother as like the example of what caring meant, right? So she was very caring to her children and to her husband and she was a really important part of her community at church and in volunteering and stuff like that. And so I have kind of this complicated relationship with what it is to be a woman, and I think—I often feel guilty when I spend too much time by myself and not enough time caring for others and making sure everybody else is happy. I think for me this book started out of thinking about—what did it mean to take care of yourself? And self-care has kind of been a buzzword that's like 'oh if you go and get a manicure and go and, you know, turn off your phone for an hour and go for a walk then that's great.' And it is great but I think it maybe runs a little bit deeper for a lot of people and so what does it mean to kind of thinking about self-care holistically, emotionally and not just physically.

I'm glad that you brought up the kind of idea that is has become a buzzword, because it is everywhere and it's almost lost some of that meaning of a deeper, kind of care for yourself. So you go and you buy something nice for yourself, or you go and you buy products to take care of yourself, you know? How do people get away from that notion that is it something that you just consume?
And also something that you have to be good at. It's like another thing on my list of like, if I'm not taking care of myself in this very like list-oriented way, I'm somehow behind and I can't Instagram it or I can't brag about it or something like that. I don't know if I have any of the answers. I think for me what helps is talking to other women that feel the same way and kind of, finding that community and being able to kind of talk it out. So that is something that is always worthwhile for me. Relationships have alway been really important to me. And as I get older, relationships with women are feeding that piece. It's like, is it hard or is it just me and they're like 'no, it's hard.' So let's talk about that.

Even just communicating with a friend is self-care?

I think so. And I think this book—there are 17 different contributors and 15 different pieces. And the thing that we're all doing, the thing that we're connected on is just the sharing.

Why do you think it's become so popular? Like why do you think suddenly Gwyneth Paltrow and every Instagram account is talking about self-care?
There's a hunger for feeling better. Everyone feels so shitty all the time. Like, the world is a really hard place. So there's a lot of external factors that are making us feel really badly. And then I think there's a lot of confusion about who we should be and how much we should give and how much we should care. So again, I don't know if I can speak on behalf of everybody, but for me I think, yeah, there's like a definite hunger to find that balance between some severe trauma, to be honest, and just finding ways to kind of cope, get through.

Why did you decide to do a book on self-care?
I was kind of thinking about these subjects and really, what it was to be a good woman, or a good person. And it lead me to a lot of articles and lists and you know, Gwyneth Paltrow vehicles that were talking about self-care. Before I actually used that term, I think I did some research and I was like OK, people are talking about this but it's in this very surface way. So the idea for the book came out of a conversation that I had with one of the photographers who actually did the cover photos and a photo series within the book about her nonna and her mother's relationship. We just had a friend coffee. I didn't know her but I knew her work and I kinda asked her on a friend date and we we just chatting about what self-care meant and was it selfish? Which is, I think, part of the conversation that you're hearing a lot right now, right? Is self-care selfish, no it isn't, and why.

I guess I've never thought about it in a selfish way. Like—but maybe I'm a selfish person I don't know. But can you just talk about that push and pull?
I think I was just raised by, you know, a family where you give to receive love. So that's kind of a heavy subject, but I find that I'm a really emotional person and very sensitive, so I'm constantly like—so if there were, you know, if we had more people here, we'd be talking but I'd be like 'OK, have I made sure that everybody has a drink?' You know? So I think it's maybe just my personality where I felt hyper conscious of that all the time, and it felt exhausting. So yeah, it's not that I don't do all the things on the list. I definitely take walks and have baths and get pedicures like everyone else, but I didn't feel like it was working. So for me that's where it came from. I was like these things don't work to make me feel good, so what will? And then when I sort of talked to other women who ended up being in the book, there were a lot of different perspectives on it. It wasn't just one perspective. So there are women in—who have contributed to the book who are like 'oh nope, I know what makes me feel better. It's cleaning my house and taking care of my plants.' Cool. Great, you know? But I think the idea is that, it's a different experience for everyone, but the feelings that we're all having are kind of the same.

Do you still think it's selfish to take care of your own self?
Not that kind of self-care that I think that I've started learning about through this process. The kind of self-care I'm talking about now is really like how do you be a human in the world? That can never be selfish. Because if you can't be happy, how are you gonna be useful to anybody else?

So what're some of those things moving beyond the surface of like, taking a bath, taking a walk, that you found work, through this experience?
My number one favourite thing is definitely hangout with friends on this couch or on their couch. And just, talking. I kind of day like jokingly, but it's not a joke at all, crying. I find that I always feel so much better. So, if there's nothing happening in your life and you wanna cry just like watch a really shitty romantic comedy.

Which one?
The Notebook, obviously.

I've actually never seen the film.
Do you like crying?

I love to cry.

Follow Amil Niazi on Twitter.

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