Self-care is important – but we shouldn’t mistake it for feminist action | Zoya Patel

As long as there is a big gap between the women who have the most freedoms, and those with the least, our work as feminists is not over

My social media has been filled with young women of a similar age and background to me, sharing their “feminist actions” for the coming year. Among these have been commitments to set boundaries in relationships to improve their mental health, keep time for self-care, challenge their internalised beauty standards and set aside daily meditation time to improve their emotional energy.

I found myself scratching my head. These are valuable goals to prioritise as individuals, absolutely – but is this really what passes for feminist action now? We’re just going to each toil away at our own wellbeing and forget about collectivising to challenge systemic inequality?

Of course, the reality is that for the women who were sharing these goals, and indeed for myself, the most entrenched systemic gender inequality is something we can largely bypass thanks to our wealth and education levels. Yes, the gender pay gap exists – but it primarily affects women in highly feminised, lower paid industries, and even where other factors like time out of the workforce to have children might come into play in my life, I have a high enough base income that the biggest impact will be to my ego when my male partner becomes the higher earner in our family.

Similarly the impact of shouldering the biggest burden of caring responsibilities, facing unconscious bias in the workplace, accessing affordable childcare and managing the impacts of gender norms on my social and cultural life are lessened thanks to the resources I have available to me.

I can afford to hire help, access legal advice when I need it, curate the content I absorb, and live my life in a socio-cultural context that is defined by progressive values, high levels of educational attainment and middle-class incomes. If I stayed within my bubble, it would be easy to forget that there are women and gender-diverse people out there who are still struggling to access the rights and privileges that I have enjoyed my whole life.

I get it – when the biggest issues you face day to day are the icky feelings you might experience in your relationships or from the media, these can dominate your thinking to the point where you feel they have the same impact as the women before us once experienced their inability to vote, or access the workforce, or their lack of sexual and reproductive rights.

But that’s a trick of the patriarchy and, I’m sorry to say, it’s evidence that we’re doing things all wrong.

The whole point of women collectivising to fight for our rights is that the trickledown impact of the majority of us gaining access to privileges like educational and economic freedom should result in us using these new advantages to turn our attention to addressing the ongoing barriers that exist for minorities within our community.

If we’re willing to accept entirely insular actions as our feminist priorities, when will we get to the important stuff, the stuff that’s preventing those with the least capital to enjoy the same freedoms they fought with us to win?

But why can’t we do both, you might ask? What’s wrong with women prioritising their mental health and self-care, to better equip themselves to then take action for others?

My response is: are we doing both? Because I don’t see the women I watch making grand statements about their feminist commitment to self-care speaking up when First Nations women are calling for action against the rates of Indigenous women incarcerated over unpaid fines; or standing with trans women fighting for better access to the healthcare they need to live their lives as they deserve. Indeed, I watched these women rush to buy earrings and tea towels bearing quotes from Julia Gillard’s misogyny speech, in celebration of the 10-year anniversary last year, without reflecting on the lasting detrimental impact Gillard moving single mothers on to Newstart (a decision made on the same day as the speech) has had on the economic wellbeing of women across the country.

If we make the price of entry to feminism so low that we can feel the positive self-regard of feminist action for doing things that only benefit ourselves, where’s the impetus to take action for others?

It might be uncomfortable to read this and reflect on your own actions. You might think I’m being unnecessarily combative, that feminism can’t be defined by any one person, that it can and should hold multitudes within it. If that’s your reaction, I would ask you to consider one last thing.

While you focus on the self-care habits and attitudes you know will improve your mental health and wellbeing, how likely is it that poor women, gender-diverse people, trans women, those living with disability and other marginalised cohorts, have the time, energy and resources to do the same?

As long as there is a big gap between the women who have the most freedoms, and those with the least, our work as feminists is not yet over. It’s too soon to turn inwards – our own feminist principles should demand better of us.

• Zoya Patel is an author and editor based in Canberra


Zoya Patel

The GuardianTramp

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