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The Politics of Self-Care as Seen Through the Spider-Verse Franchise

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I’m not sure I’ve ever felt angstier than I did on the ride home from seeing “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.” I was all in: forehead resting against the car window, staring through tree branches at a moon that hangs over us all.

Mourning the stories that don’t get told because of racism, sexism, ableism… all the isms, really. Because if this particular “Spider-Man” had any single message, it was that “anyone can wear the mask.” Anyone can be the hero in a story: the scrappy Black kid with Puerto Rican roots, the punk chick who struggles to let people in, me. You.

Anyone can be a hero, but we don’t see that in a white, male-dominated entertainment industry. Just like we don’t see it reflected in the stories taught in high school English and history classes or in our political representation.

Yeah, yeah, society isn’t fair. Everything is political, it doesn’t matter what you know but who you know, etc. etc. #Canon-typical millennial angst.

Cue: self-care.

When you think of self-care, what comes to mind? Is it a pumpkin-spiced latte after a difficult exam? A soak in a bubble bath while your partner watches the kids? Maybe you focus self-care on hygiene and exercise.

As long as there has been a sense of self, there has been a sense of self-care. And if you think the performative self-care shown on social media is just a little bit whitewashed… well. You might be catching onto the source of my Spider-Man-induced angst.

Clip on your webspinners, because we’re traveling back in time to thwip through some of the many ways self-care has been understood in the Western world.

Self-care is knowing the self.

Ancient Greece has been referred to as the cradle of Western civilization. Whether or not you agree with this characterization, we can look to Socrates for some of our earlier teachings on the concept of self-care. Socrates himself left few written works but his student, Plato, kept record of his life and teachings. Plato’s work Alcibiades I reveals that Socrates’ vision of self-care came about in relation to the question “What is the self that the self must care for?” He defines self as a reflection of one’s actions, relationships, and attitudes. Socrates’ teachings explored “care of self” – his term for self-care – as necessary for achieving one’s full potential. #KnowThyself

In the Spider-Verse movies each time a new Spider-Person is introduced, there is a refrain:  “Alright, let’s do this one more time.” So, on we go to our next understanding of self-care.

Self-care is self-improvement.

Socrates’ “care of self” perhaps more closely aligns with later philosophers’ idea of enlightenment than a publically held view of self-care. Throughout history, self-care has largely focused on easing your ability to meet your basic needs. This definition of self-care is largely reflected in the labor movements of the 19th and 20th centuries. In 1827, a group of Philadelphia carpenters went on strike to demand working hours be reduced to 10 per day. They cited that “All men have a just right, derived from their Creator, to have sufficient time each day for the cultivation of their mind and for self-improvement.” Put another way? People wanted to have time in their lives for more than just surviving — working, sleeping, maintaining a household. In parallel with improvements in working conditions, we see an increase in the number of community libraries, museums, parks, and sports-centers for the enjoyment and betterment of peoples’ minds and bodies.

“Alright, let’s do this one more time.”

Self-care is health care.

The actual term “self-care” has its origins in 1950s medicine and the rise of patient-centered approaches to health. “Person or patient-centered” medicine focused on the autonomy of the patient and the actions they could take to maintain their health outside of a clinical setting. Self-care was first prescribed in mental hospitals for institutionalized patients to gain increased independence and sense of self-worth. Self-care at this point in history included exercise and personal hygiene.

“Alright, let’s do this one more time.”

Self-care is activism.

“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

It’s not uncommon for people to be ignored or condescended to by Western medicine, especially members of marginalized groups. Self-care became a part of community-care in the 1960s civil rights movement. Specifically, self-care was seen as a response to systemic racism in medicine and a sense that you had to depend on yourself for your health. In the 1980s, feminist organizer and poet Audre Lorde took up the self-care mantel for Black LGBTQ voices. She approached self-care as a form of activism, noting that self-care could help reduce organizer burnout. Of self-care, Lorde wrote, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

“Alright, let’s do this one last time.”

Self-care is leisure.

This timeline of self-care does little to reflect the self-care of our timelines. On social media, self-care is largely white-washed, commercialized, and performative. There is often a focus on indulgence based on white beauty standards — makeups, bath bombs, and fad diets all come to mind. “Treat yourself,” and all that. Not that there isn’t a place for indulgence as a form of mental health care, but a definite shift has occurred from focusing on self-improvement to promoting self-confidence by rewarding yourself for the things you already do well.

The self-care of today seems far removed from its role in promoting Black activism, that’s for sure, but I think it is this discrepancy that was at the heart of my original Spider-Verse angst. I had to recognize that there is more to every idea than what we are presented. A masked hero doesn’t always have to be a certain type of person, and self-care doesn’t only have one meaning or purpose. Self-care can be about self-improvement, and activism, and leisure. It can, and likely one day will, be something else entirely, but it is always to our detriment to forget diverse voices.

The real villain was Black erasure all along….

Thwips into the sunset.

Originally published: August 17, 2023
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