In the past month, a number of powerful men, particularly in Hollywood, have been caught up in what media have called the “Weinstein Effect.” In the month since reports of Harvey Weinstein’s routine on-the-job sexual abuse surfaced, many others have come forward with their own allegations. Kevin Spacey lost House of Cards. Hamilton Fish V, publisher of The New Republic, took a leave of absence. Michael Oreskes, a top editor at NPR, resigned. Chris Savino, creator of Nickelodian’s The Loud House, was fired. NBC News, MSNBC, and HBO all dropped Mark Halerpin. The number of Weinstein’s accusers has risen to 78. And in early November, the NYPD announced that rape allegations against Weinstein stemming from a 2010 incident were “credible.”
As uplifting as it is to watch these men tumble from power, it’s also exhausting. It feels like things might at last be changing, that abusive men might, at last, be exposed and face significant consequences. But it also seems as if the list of such men is endless — and as allegations mounted, I found I wasn’t alone in wanting to turn it all off, just for a break. Many women in my circles and elsewhere revealed that they also felt a strange mix of hope and heartbreak. It can feel like trauma overload.
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In response to this, many survivors and commentators are preaching self-care. Though the term has been popularized on magazine covers, on Instagram and Tumblr accounts, in beauty newsletters, and yes, even in feminists essays, its roots are in health. One of the earliest definitions of self-care comes from the World Health Organization, which in 1983 defined it as “the activities individuals, families and communities undertake with the intention of enhancing health, preventing disease, limiting illness, and restoring health.” The WHO has since updated its definition, but the general principle remains intact: self-care is the care we give ourselves, our families, and our communities, outside the medical system.
Long before it appeared as a hashtag next to artsy candles and millennial-pink towels, however, it was promoted as a means for counsellors, therapists, teachers, and other caretakers to prevent vicarious trauma. That is, as the American Counseling Association puts it, “the emotional residue of exposure that counsellors have from working with people as they are hearing their trauma stories and become witnesses to the pain, fear, and terror.” According to researchers, vicarious trauma may be exacerbated by, and perhaps is grounded in, practising empathy. I know the term has clear applications, and they’re not meant to explain what it’s been like to watch #MeToo and the so-called Weinstein Effect unfold, but it feels right all the same.
And yet, what does self-care even look like these days? Its transformation from a health term to a pop culture one has come with a significant dose of commodification. In other words, these days it often feels like self-care is just another way to sell us stuff. It’s modelled more after shopping and selfies than it is after community and, well, care. That’s not to say that taking a bubble bath or buying that new skirt is doing self-care wrong, that it’s a less valid way of reminding yourself that you matter. The challenge with the capitalization of wellbeing is that it adds yet another layer of class and privilege to the care system, cementing the idea that (a) there’s a way to do self-care right, and (b) the right way is available only to the few who can afford it.
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These criticisms of self-care aren’t new. As the phrase became trendy, women started to (rightly) criticize the concept for being too expensive, too unattainable, and too white. Self-care became associated with those who had the time and money to do it. Such criticisms aren’t misplaced, either. But, if anything, the events of the past month have also reinforced the idea that self-care can be a powerful, radical tool for many survivors, for many women. Because the Weinstein allegations have also shown us that women too often put themselves last: we don’t want to rock the boat, we don’t want to embarrass our abusers, we don’t want to embarrass ourselves. And so we carry these things with us and the burden becomes heavier and heavier still. We give too much of ourselves and demand too little in return.
In this context, creating the time and space in our lives to do something for ourselves can be revolutionary. It’s a way to tell the world that, while it may not care about you, you care about yourself. You are worth this care. You are worth this walk in the park, or this time out to read or meditate or go to the gym. You are worth this time. You matter.
For survivors especially, self-care is a way to reassert our value in the world — and, let me tell you, it can be scary as hell. Removed from the commodification narrative, self-care means confronting the lies you’ve told yourself and that others have told you: that you don’t matter, that your abuse doesn’t matter. It means having to sit with yourself, demand time for yourself, and shut out the voices that say you’re being selfish. It means having to recognize burnout, and limitations, and when you cannot give any more of yourself to a movement. It means acknowledging your and others’ pain, and knowing that all of you are perhaps not healthy, but healing. And this is how you do it.
Lauren McKeon is the digital editor of The Walrus. She's the author of F-Bomb: Dispatches from the War on Feminism, published by Goose Lane Editions.