clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Self-care at the end of the world

Pop culture is America’s subconscious. Right now, with major releases including The Home Edit on Netflix, Anne Helen Petersen’s Can’t Even, and a reissue of Audre Lorde’s Cancer Diaries, it’s worried about work.

Clea Shearer rainbows a bookshelf on Netflix’s Get Organized With the Home Edit.
Christopher Patey/Netflix
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Being alive in this moment has a way of making the days feel empty and work feel pointless.

But capitalism has a way of making work feel like the only thing that matters.

Like all good middle-class millennials, I was raised to embrace work for its own sake. It’s as though I can hear a voice in the back of my mind: “This could be better, this could be better, you could really make this better, so that means you have a moral duty to be making it better.”

Sometimes this is the way I organize my workday. Sometimes it’s the way I fold my T-shirts. Sometimes it’s the way my living room looks, or my exercise routine. But it’s always there: the feeling that I need to be doing more, better, faster, more beautifully. The compulsion to, as Jia Tolentino put it, always be optimizing.

The need to optimize ebbs and flows during extended quarantine.

On the one hand: We are in the middle of a deadly pandemic and a massively consequential presidential election. Surely anything I can do right now that is not literally fabricating a Covid-19 vaccine or performing hard-hitting political journalism that will sway the minds of voters across the country is absolutely pointless?

On the other hand: I am not qualified to do any of those things, and I have to do something to fill up my time. Why don’t I at least fill these long, empty days with self-improvement, with optimizing, with making my life more orderly and beautiful and productive?

And then again: I am so tired. I have been very lucky in my quarantine; I have easy access to outdoor space, and no one close to me has gotten sick; and still I am so tired. All of my emotional energy is tied up in dealing with what is happening. I have none left with which to make myself more productive.

But then again: What on earth am I doing with these empty, arid days if I am not making myself more productive?

I’ve had versions of this inner debate every day for months. And I am perhaps an unusually Type A person, but I don’t think I’m so unusual that I am the only person repeating this cycle over and over again.

America is the country that loves work. We love it so much that even our richest men, those with the most capacity to take time off from work and enjoy their leisure, spend their spare time doing more work, because what could be a more valuable use of their time?

We have made a fetish of work. We luxuriate in it.

We turn our hobbies into more work, into side hustles or fodder for Instagram. We work on ourselves. We make flawless skin mandatory for women, and then declare that the maintenance that flawless skin demands is self-care. We schedule our self-care in our bullet journals, make self-care, too, an achievable and quantifiable goal whose progress we can track, so that it, too, becomes work: Drink this much water, sleep this many hours, exercise this much, give yourself a sticker when you’re done. Now, have you organized your pantry and put everything in rainbow order yet? That would be self-care.

This is one of the deep cultural anxieties of our time: We work so much, and yet we are rewarded so little, and for what? What is it all for? Why do we do this? Where are the protections our parents and grandparents were granted, the ones we were promised too?

Because promises were made. We were made to believe that if we worked hard enough and long enough, we could have a stable life. We would never be a victim to the kind of immense emotional exhaustion that the pandemic has brought to life in so many of us because we could work it all away. That’s the idea the millennial middle class was sold as children, and rarely has it been more clear that what we were sold was a lie.

The place where we work out our cultural anxieties is our popular culture. That’s where we project them, make them big, and try to squash them. So to try to tease out why I feel so conflicted about my own unsteady desire to work, I turned to three of this fall’s big releases.

There’s Get Organized With The Home Edit, Netflix’s latest organizing show, which preaches the gospel of organizing made beautiful: all of your belongings nestled together just so in rainbow order, protected by acrylic bins in an expansive walk-in closet. There’s Anne Helen Petersen’s new book Can’t Even, which traces the rise and crescendo of what Petersen has dubbed “millennial burnout.”

And like a message in a bottle, there’s Audre Lorde’s Cancer Journals, now celebrating their 40th anniversary. It was in The Cancer Journals that Lorde developed the ideas that modern self-care culture would later appropriate, as she tried to find a way to survive emotionally after her cancer diagnosis and single mastectomy.

And although The Cancer Journals are an intimate, individual text, they help explain something fundamental and systemic: why I find The Home Edit at once so compelling and so infuriating; what a solution to the problems Petersen outlines might look like.

It might look something like Lorde’s radical definition of self-care.

The genius of The Home Edit is the way it engenders at once a desire to optimize and a deep sense of failure that you haven’t

Get Organized With The Home Edit centers on two women, Clea Shearer and Joanna Templin. Clea is tall and redheaded and sarcastic, Joanna short and blonde and bubbly. Together, they built the rainbow-hued empire that is the Home Edit organizing business, product line, how-to books, and now TV show. The Home Edit abbreviates to THE, and it is successful enough on social media that the search engine optimization problems this acronym might ordinarily pose don’t seem to be an issue.

In every episode of The Home Edit, Clea and Joanna take on two projects. One involves a celebrity house (Reese Witherspoon, who also an executive producer on the show, wants a display set up for her Legally Blonde memorabilia). The other involves a normal person’s house (a family with a new foster child needs to reorganize their sons’ room for two kids rather than one). Everyone involved is wealthy enough that even the normal houses have walk-in closets or an expansive array of kitchen cabinets, the better to show off the visuals-heavy color coding that is the Home Edit specialty.

The Home Edit is not attempting any of the quasi-spiritual work that last year’s Tidying Up With Marie Kondo was centered on. There is nothing on the show about “sparking joy,” or “life-changing magic,” although the hosts do tend to remark approvingly that certain perfectly arranged objects “could not be more happy.” What the Home Edit’s show is about is rigorously containing and arranging your stuff, ideally by purchasing “product” designed explicitly for this purpose from the Home Edit’s line at the Container Store.

The process of the Home Edit is this: First you get rid of old stuff you no longer want or use. What’s left, you sort into categories, which you then organize according to the colors of the rainbow. To maintain your categories, you put everything into containers, mostly clear plastic acrylic containers that will show off your color coding, and then you label each one. The Home Edit offers custom labels in a font based on Clea’s handwriting for just $7 each.

This system works best if you have a lot of stuff of the same category, which can be placed together in a pleasingly regular formation. It is an affluent bulk shopper’s system, suited for showing off an ample stock of colorful LaCroix flavors purchased by the case in an elegant swath of orange-and-pink pamplemousse cans on a designated shelf in the pantry. It would fail utterly the kind of shopper who cannot afford brand-name LaCroix but just buys generic products, with their ugly generic labels. But when it works, it is astonishingly satisfying to look at.

There are parts of The Home Edit that feel so mind-numbingly soothing as to be nearly meditative. These are the big reveal moments, when the camera pans across a space whose contents were once disorderly, and which have now been arranged precisely by color and meticulously lined up and exhibited. Pantry, closet, children’s bedroom, home office: It doesn’t matter what used to be there, because what is there now is a perfect rainbow of organization, all confined just so within the boundaries of clear acrylic boxes that you, too, can buy from the Container Store.

Life is uncontrollable — especially, good god, right now — but this, this you can control. You can put your stuff in rainbow order. You can make it all beautiful. That is a profoundly seductive idea.

So when I watched Get Organized With the Home Edit, I felt such an overwhelming urge to put my life in order that I found myself ROYGBIV-ing my clothes. I ROYGBIV’d a little bookshelf I don’t use that often, so that I could look at it and be soothed by the colors but wouldn’t find myself too confused by the methodology. (I became disproportionately upset that shelving by spine color meant splitting up all three volumes of a trilogy onto different shelves.)

What The Home Edit offers is the fantasy that you can make your life orderly. Which in turn becomes a commandment: You should make your life orderly. Why isn’t your life orderly enough? Why aren’t you posting pictures of your color-coded refrigerator on Instagram? Why doesn’t every drawer you open in your home look like a rainbow and cause you to cry out, “It could not be more happy!” Don’t you want to be at the absolute superlative upper limit of happiness? Don’t you want your life to be both as beautiful and as efficient as possible?

When organizing my clothes and books didn’t provide quite enough of the order I witnessed on The Home Edit and felt physically compelled to import into my own life, I started a bullet journal. I am still using it.

There is nothing that brings quite so much satisfaction to my day as turning one of the little bullets into a checkmark, to signify that I have completed a task. And there is nothing that makes me feel I have fallen short quite like turning it into an arrow, to signify that I will have to try again tomorrow.

Can’t Even tells us why we feel like we’ve failed if we’re not optimizing. But it doesn’t tell us how to stop feeling it.

Can’t Even is Anne Helen Petersen’s attempt to work out why it is, exactly, that middle-class millennials have so thoroughly internalized this immense need to be productive, this sense that to fail to optimize your life is cause for shame. Based on Petersen’s viral 2019 article on millennial burnout, Can’t Even catalogs the long and steady deconstruction of protections for American workers, and the rise of a culture that teaches workers to bury themselves in work, to the point that, as Petersen puts it, “unionized protections of the 40-hour workweek became not only old fashioned and out of touch, but distinctly uncool.”

So by the time millennials came of age, Petersen argues, they had inherited a broken economic system. The 2008 economic crash would only confirm what had come to be the truth in the decades since the recessions of the ’70s hit: The American workforce was being asked to do more work for less, and the resultant profits were going to only a very, very few.

But millennials had also spent our entire childhoods being diligently trained by their parents and teachers to pretend that the system still functioned, and to behave as though any failures we might experience were personal problems, not systemic failures. If you can’t get a job, try harder. If you can’t afford housing on your salary, try harder. If you feel exhausted all the time, try harder.

And as a result, Petersen argues, millennials have become the burnout generation. We struggle to complete basic tasks like mailing out important documents or doing laundry because the basic grind of being alive has become so overwhelming we’re left with no spare energy for the middle of the to-do list. Hence the rise of the term “adulting” to describe the medium-effort, low-reward work that needs to be done but is so unpleasant to do. We fail to do the work, and then we feel guilty for the failure, and the guilt takes up more energy, and the cycle begins again.

Petersen gestures toward inclusive cross-class, cross-racial analysis. She features case studies of people of color and people who work service jobs, and she argues convincingly that all of them are suffering from the burnout of working in a broken capitalist system. But she is at her most specific and compelling when she directly confronts the burnout experienced by white middle-class millennial women who work in the media (not coincidentally, the group that both she and I belong to), so that when she turns to other groups, there’s a sense that she’s sort of gesturing and saying, “And, well, probably it’s even harder for you guys, right?”

And while Petersen is very good at outlining exactly how our system fell apart — her chapter “How Work Got So Shitty” should be required reading for everyone who thinks with nostalgia about the idea of a 40-hour workweek — she becomes intentionally vague when it comes to the question of how to put it back together again.

“This project, from its original conception as an article to now, has never been about telling you what to do,” she writes. Any suggestions she might make, from day-to-day self-help tips to a detailed policy proposal, would become “just another way, in the end, for me to fail myself and the world.” Instead, she calls for all millennial workers to unite in our dissatisfaction with the way things currently are, and to vote for politicians who will make a change.

It is understandable, given how many of the problems that Petersen is chronicling can be described as “unrealistic expectations everywhere, all the time, in every goddamn aspect of your life” that she would want to avoid burdening her readers with more things to do. But I finished the book unsatisfied with the fuzziness of her call to action through voting. Sure, once I have voted and donated my time or money or skills to my preferred causes, there’s not much else I can do to change the rest of the world — but how do I make it through my life in the meantime? How do any of us?

How do we try to make ourselves feel okay when the world is crumbling to pieces and all any of us were taught to do about it is blame ourselves and decide to rainbow our pantries to make ourselves feel better? And then blame ourselves some more when the rainbow organization system inevitably falls apart?

40 years ago, The Cancer Journals asked a revolutionary question: What if we’re not the ones who are failing?

There’s a moment on The Home Edit where the actor and comedian Retta describes scrolling through the Home Edit’s Instagram and its lovely rainbows of organization as therapeutic for her, “like ASMR.” The idea of this kind of personal maintenance as therapeutic is something Netflix’s reality shows are very into. On Queer Eye, grooming expert Jonathan Van Ness is always explaining to his makeover subjects that there’s a difference between being selfish and making time for self-care, and that creating a dedicated grooming system unquestionably qualifies as the second. Skin care is consistently sold as self-care now, and so are diet programs, which have been rebranded as wellness programs.

It’s true that fussy bits of daily maintenance can simultaneously bring comfort and calm: sorting and stacking your folded laundry into patterns that please your eye, smoothing your skin with acids and soothing it with oils, taking the time to select and prepare food that you think will nourish you best. These are all pleasurable and even rewarding activities — when they are optional.

But increasingly, they are not optional. Increasingly, these fundamentally capitalist small luxuries have collapsed themselves into the category of self-care; to care for one’s self now means to buy stuff and to mold oneself into the Instagram ideal of the week. And it is not optional. It is hegemonic. So when we do not make time for self-care, we have failed.

Self-care advocates like to quote Audre Lorde on the subject to show that the idea of caring for oneself is in fact radical. “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence,” Lorde wrote in A Burst of Light and Other Essays, in the phrase Van Ness would go on to paraphrase for Queer Eye. “It is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

And self-care as Lorde describes it is an act of political warfare. But she means something different when she emphasizes that idea than developing a 10-step skin care routine and organizing your bookshelves by color.

Lorde was a Black woman, a lesbian, and a poet. All of those groups are taught, in our culture, that they are not particularly worth caring for. And in The Cancer Journals, now celebrating their 40th anniversary, Lorde describes being diagnosed with breast cancer and undergoing a single mastectomy. She became a Black woman lesbian poet with one breast — an alien creature not worth anyone’s care, according to our cultural hierarchies of compassion — and the story of The Cancer Journals is the story of Lorde finding ways to care for herself anyway.

Of particular interest to Lorde is the process of coming to care for her own one-breastedness. She decides before her operation that she doesn’t want to get plastic surgery after her operation is done: She must either learn to love her body one-breasted, she writes, or be an alien to herself. But when the hospital sends her home after the procedure, a recovery worker hands her a false breast to wear under her shirt.

Lorde likes the worker just fine, she writes, but she takes issue with that false bra. “Her message was, you are just as good as you were before because you can look exactly the same,” she summarizes, which is recognizably the same ideology as the one that tells us today that we are just as good as Reese Witherspoon because we can organize our closets in exactly the same way she does: If you can make something look the way you’ve been taught it’s supposed to look, then you have succeeded.

But Lorde remains unconvinced by this nice lady and her fake breast. “What she said was, ‘You’ll never know the difference,’” Lorde writes, “and she lost me right there, because I knew sure as hell I’d know the difference.”

Lorde decides not to wear the false breast and not to get a prosthetic because they are designed for appearance, to make other people feel more comfortable. They don’t actually change the reality of Lorde’s life, which is that she used to have two breasts and now she only has one. So despite heavy pressure from the nurses she works with, she refuses every opportunity to have a false breast surgically implanted.

The system that teaches us to aspire to a specific social (and often Instagram-friendly) aesthetic and treat that aspiration as one of self-care — to devote our spare hours and cash toward shrinking our pores and cooking elaborate organic meals and containing our belongings in plastic, and to believe that if we are unsuccessful, then we have failed — would also teach Lorde to get that prosthetic breast no matter how she felt about it. But this is how Lorde presents herself instead, as an act of self-care:

A friend had washed my hair for me and it was black and shining, with my new gray hairs glistening in the sun. Color was starting to come back into my face and around my eyes. I wore the most opalescent of my moonstones, and a single floating bird dangling from my right ear in the name of grand asymmetry. With an African kente cloth tunic and new leather boots, I knew I looked fine, with that brave new-born security of a beautiful woman having come through a very hard time and being very glad to be alive.

Lorde rejoices in the luxuries of grooming and beauty, but only where she sees fit to participate in them. She presents herself as someone beautiful, and also as someone Black, with gray hairs, and only one breast. She refuses to treat those categories as unbeautiful, in need of intensive time and correction.

According to the strictures laid upon us by the systems in which we live, Audre Lorde is a failure. She is a poet, which means she has failed capitalism, which tells us to be tangibly productive and to work without ceasing. She is Black, so she has failed white supremacy. She is a woman, so she has failed the patriarchy, and a lesbian, so she has failed the heteropatriarchy. And she lost a breast, which means she has failed biopolitics, too.

What makes Lorde revolutionary is that she showed she had not failed these systems. They had failed her. They should never have existed. She should not be forced to live under them, and neither should we. Our culture failed to adequately care for Lorde, and so she did it herself, on her own terms. That is what self-care means — or at least that is what it meant 40 years ago, when Lorde wrote The Cancer Journals.

And then capitalism absorbed Lorde’s idea of self-care, carefully filed away its rebellious angles, made it hegemonic instead of subversive, and sold it back to us.

So now, when we talk about self-care, we mean color-coding our belongings. We mean investing in a good toner and biohacking our diets and diverting our money and our energy to the ideals capitalism has sold us, as an antidote to the ideas of overwork that capitalism has instilled in us. They become the same thing.

We need structural change to get out of this trap. But in the meantime, self-care can help.

The connective tissue that joins The Home Edit, Can’t Even, and The Cancer Journals is the idea of optimizing. These three texts are concerned with the desire to make our homes, our work, and our bodies the best, most beautiful, and most productive versions of themselves that they can possibly be — a desire which no one could blame anyone for harboring, because after all, what’s wrong with things being pretty? What’s wrong with them working smoothly and efficiently?

But the other theme these texts are concerned with is the deep fear lurking below that desire that if we don’t optimize as much as we possibly can, to reach exactly the goals we have been taught to aspire to, then we have failed. The desires stop being reasonable and start becoming obligatory, all the more so because we enforce them ourselves.

The Home Edit inflames the desire: Make your house look like this; make your life more efficient; get your closet ready to showcase on Instagram or suffer the shame that is the consequence. Can’t Even diagnoses the sickness lying below it, the deep corrosive yearnings developed by a generation trained to optimize for a reward and then unleashed into an economic system with no true rewards left to pay out, so that we are left spinning our wheels, helpless.

As Petersen writes, the solutions to such problems, the salving of these desires, must be systemic. The way we regulate work must change in order for the way we think and feel about our productivity to shift, too.

But while we work (and vote) for those systemic changes, we still have to survive in the system as it is right now. And there are few better manuals to show us how to do that than The Cancer Journals. Lorde’s book is a reminder that it is possible to push past the knee-jerk self-hatred and despair and buying of more stuff that our current system teaches us to feel.

It’s possible to look outside of the strictures of capitalism for both our values and our comforts. It is possible to find a way to love ourselves anyway, in spite of everything. Even now.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.