By Sarah Swenson, assistant news editor
I’m sure you’ve heard it before: self-care is not selfish! But, you’ve probably never stopped to think about what it really means. I don’t mean charcoal masks and honey-sweetened teas—though that can certainly be part of it—I mean sleeping, eating, showering, and drinking water. These should be the first level of self-care, and as beings that basically want to survive, we should all want to do these things. But instead, we have romanticized not caring for ourselves. As a society, we have made it seem cool and desirable to be the person who doesn’t sleep or eat, who ignores their injuries and just keeps going. We have misread insomnia for dedication, called starving an inevitable consequence of being a committed employee or student. The standards that have been built up are caused by several compounding factors including capitalism and the ideal of a tortured genius or artist figure.
It’s something you’ve probably been told, that the greatest minds are also the most troubled ones. Some of the brightest artistic minds in history—Jackson Pollock, Michelangelo, Beethoven, Mozart— all succumbed to alcoholism, periods of intense depression, and wild mood swings. Famously, Vincent Van Goh cut off his own ear, and some speculate that he even took his own life, joining Jim Morrison, Kurt Kobain, Sylvia Plath, and Mark Rothko. It has become a stereotype—almost a checklist item—of being brilliant that you are also troubled, and who doesn’t want to be brilliant? The fact is that not all great artists have killed themselves, or even struggled with mental illness. Igor Stravinsky, Harper Lee, and Langston Hughes, just to name a few, are known as great artistic minds who lived full lives, with their own difficulties of course, but free of depression or alcoholism. An artist does not have to be depressed to have depth or authenticity to their work. This is a harmful standard that young people hoping to make their way as artists are forced to face.
These stereotypes are mirrored in the media, although more notably in geniuses. They are so intelligent, so single-mindedly focused, that they will find themselves working on a new idea, or solving some puzzle, and neglect to take care of themselves. They go for days without sleeping, forget to eat, and emerge unkempt but victorious, with their new invention or solution held high. While other characters in the piece of media may appear concerned, the fictional Einstein is not dissuaded from their efforts, and will eagerly sequester themselves away to do the same thing the next time the situation calls for it. The scary thing is, these characters’ periods of hyper-focused work are portrayed as appealing and alluring, not dangerous and alarming.
And it’s not just the media that encourages you to work through time when you should be sleeping, eating, or just relaxing; crazy, I know, but in order to lead a fulfilling life you need to have time that you can spend on yourself. The very structure of our country, of our economy—capitalism— is at fault for much of this obsession with working without pause. Capitalism is an inherently exploitative system, in that those who have little money and are therefore forced to work in the less desirable jobs—usually menial, or service jobs—are at the utter mercy of their employers. If they find the working conditions unfair and try to quit, they lose their wages, without which they cannot buy food or pay for housing, but the employers have lost only one worker, and can keep going, unphased until the worker is forced to crawl back. They will find themselves with a worse job, or less pay than before, but they are unable to complain because the alternative is to once again become jobless and broke.
Workers unions have made tremendous progress in this area, allowing workers to protest unfair working conditions, but many jobs, especially in small towns like Nantucket, still don’t have unions. Companies have also found workarounds for this though, by allowing weekends and lunch-breaks, restricting working hours to human levels, but incentivizing working through them, and when the minimum wage is hardly liveable, workers must work overtime just to have enough money to survive.
To make this inhumane work less revolting to the people, capitalist propaganda twists exploited, overworked employees into devoted, hard-working patriots, and demonizes taking stands against it. If you vie for your hard-won weekends and lunch breaks, your vacations, you are seen as lazy. This doesn’t just apply in the workplace, but rather, the indoctrination starts in the very beginnings of our lives in school. Staying up all night to study, working through lunch-breaks, giving up recess—which has been proven to increase productivity—all become normalized and even idealized, which is where we run into the problem of people running themselves into the ground because they think it’s what they are supposed to do.
With all of these thoughts present in our lives—in school, in the workplace, in the back of our minds influencing us as we form habits—it can be hard to tell where the line is between someone who is simply caught up in our culture of romanticizing neglect and someone who has a legitimate disorder. What separates someone with an eating disorder from someone who doesn’t eat because they are pretending that they don’t remember to? An eating disorder is, at its most basic, a mental condition defined by disordered eating habits, and skipping meals to fulfill the ideal of suffering that society has created and you have dedicated yourself to, is a disordered eating habit. What separates forcing yourself to stay up all night from a sleeping disorder, like insomnia? They both deprive you of something essential that you need to function. The difference here is that you chose to go into the next day without rest, while the person with insomnia wishes that they didn’t have to.
But these “choices” build up and claw their way deep into your psyche until over time you realize that when you bragged to your friend that you forgot to eat today, it was actually true. You did forget. And last night, when you stayed up, it was because you really couldn’t fall asleep. So you try to sleep tonight—you listen to music, read a book, turn off all your electronics—but your body refuses to bend from its habit. It’s gotten used to spending nights awake. You have trained your body and mind to ignore cues that tell you when to sleep and when to eat. It is a prevalent, slow form of self-harm, and it is lasting, because over time it can become involuntary.
I have heard too many “funny stories” to count where the joke is just how far someone went in ignoring their own needs; I’m sure I’ve even told them myself. The problem with these jokes is that every time they are told and garner a response, it drives the idea further into all of our minds that forgetting to take care of our basic needs is normal, humorous even. If you do it, you could be telling the next story, and people will laugh at your jokes. Sometimes the story is relatively harmless, sometimes the harm is more overt. A story about a cousin who cut a finger off on the job but taped it back on and kept working. Or their sibling who gave birth, and was back at work the next day.
Of course, the root cause of these problems is capitalism—did you know that in the US, maternity leave is only guaranteed for 12 weeks, even then only if you are in a company with more than 50 employees? In Canada, it’s 15 weeks, in the UK, the new mother is required to take 2 weeks maternity leave, with 26 actually being the standard, and 26 more considered additional. In Sweden, parents of both sexes are entitled to 16 months, during which they will be paid about 80 percent of their salary, and dads are required to take at least some of this time.
But despite the root of this issue, we are each responsible for the impact we have on this culture. Normalizing this behavior is dangerous, especially when you hold a position of power. Children’s brains are sponges, and they will absorb the ideas you share and the actions that you take. They look to the adults in their lives to model healthy behavior. When the adults don’t take care of themselves when they are sick, injured, or just exhausted, it becomes what the children think they should do as well. Adults must lead by example, even if that does mean—the horror—that they have to learn to take care of their own bodies and minds.
Each one of us is responsible for the impact that we have on this culture, and we must try to regulate what we say, and how we treat ourselves. The jokes we tell, though they may seem harmless to us, are not. Taking care of yourself is not, as capitalism will lead you to believe, a sign of laziness. Getting enough sleep, eating regularly, and making sure to pay attention to medical issues, are not optional, they are necessities. If not for yourself, practice healthy habits for your peers. Model the behavior you want your friends to reflect. Now at the end of this piece, I say it again, and hopefully you have a different understanding of it than you did before: self-care is not selfish.