CN: Mental health, bulimia
Failure and the self
We exist in a moment where threats are immediate, physical and existential. Lives are often materially precarious, and all of us have a precarious hold on the continuation of life itself. And yet in this moment, it is the self that we are fixated by. From climate change to mental and physical health, it is on the individual to alter its self, to change. Be it bamboo toothbrushes or facemasks or calorie deficits, solutions are sought in individual acts of self-conduct, discipline or care. This narrative operates on a particular conception of self, which imagines us to be isolated and autonomous. Atomized projects of unrelenting self-improvement, always facing expectation, and so always, at some level, failing.
How is it that we decontextualize a proliferation in mental health issues from the individualisation and aggrandisation of the self? What if it is the self, or rather a particular conceptualising of the self, that aggravates rather than soothes anxieties and sadness in the first instance?
A particular understanding of what self is, as independent, and closed, denies us our spongy realities. Social, historical, and political impressions or violences are woven into our-selves as if they are our own failures. We are thought of as without history, moving only forward: we exist only in the immediate term, and in an (imagined) future, where we must be better.
My own eating disorder was very much tied to a visceral fear of failing: failure to be thin, failure to be feminine, failure to be acceptable, likeable, loveable. A care of the self, an obsession with the self, that destroyed My Self, physically and emotionally.
And yet, this is not really my own fault. These failures coalesce with modes of femininity and acceptability, external to myself, that I felt I could not reproduce, at least not in Acceptable ways. A crushing and simultaneous weight of gaze and isolation. Caught, enwrapped, in an isolated existence, a bounded one, it’s walls growing thicker as I grew thinner. Alone, and yet always before a cruel kaleidoscope of expectations, set externally, without my consent. A sad, perverted course of self-care, desperate to reproduce something palatable, something pretty.
What does it mean to be not enough. To who do we owe our not-enoughness. What gender demands, what capitalism demands, is pretty, productive, and small. A slimmed down, simmered down, streamlined Me. I am a project for continuous improvement.
Not the messy scribbly thing which spills out and into the world, horizontally rather than forward. Which affects and is affected by others in ways that are leaky and chaotic. Which has histories, that are entangled in other histories.
Who and what demands that I be better, look better. And who and what told me that this was a plan of my own making.
I do not want to be in the business, and it is a business, of believing that I am never quite enough. That I am always falling short of being the best version of my self. That I am always, somehow, failing.
Within a collective chaos, we are enchanted by the Individual, by the Self, by competition between selves. And then blame the self, who must be both source and cure for its own downfall.
The constant shaping of ourselves as definitive individuals, as On Our Own, binds us to our own shortcomings, attaches us to a climbing wall with no support equipment. No one there to catch your fall. And you got yourself up there, anyway.
It is not oneself, but The Self, as an idea uttered into absolute centrality, that I think agitates particular expressions of illness.*
It is not selfish, to be caught up in the self. We are products of an ideology that told us to do so, and then blames us for getting stuck.
It is no small thing that in 1987, British prime minister Margaret Thatcher declared that “there’s no such thing as society.” Uttered into existence, and forcefully enacted through policy, our interdependence was (and continues to be) denied.
And what is left but oneself, a Self, which must locate itself as the cause of, and solution to, its problems.
There are material facts: the neoliberalisation of the world has increased inequality globally, and poverty is a significant risk factor for mental ill health. But we are also left with an ontological isolation, and a sometimes maddening introspection. What are the effects (and affects) of atomisation, on mental health day-to-day? We are governed by expectation, yet imagined as autonomous and isolated. Disciplining ourselves in accordance with ideals we did not produce, and disciplining ourselves again when we do not fit them. Self-creation, self-improvement, self-sabotage.
It is interesting that “self-care” has become the common sense antidote to mental ill health. Ill me is always stuck on, in, my own Self. That’s a form of self-care, a crafting of the self, a drawing up of its drawbridges. Except here it looks ugly and sad. I imagine myself connected to others only by comparison, by competition.
During each and every episode of depression, anxiety, and disordered eating, I have been consumed by my self, and it’s failure to meet expectations.
And so it seems funny that we should begin and end at self-care, when thinking about how to fix things. My fear is that a well-intentioned eruption of self-care discourse ends up subscribing to, rather than dismantling, the very same fixation with the self that can be so damaging in the first instance. It follows a particular conception of self, of fixing ones-self, which chimes a familiar neoliberal logic. It is the self- on it’s own- which needs focus, needs crafting, needs improving.
I have practiced self-care in ways that are nice, palatable, bloggable. And I have cared for my self in ways that are dangerous and disturbing: my methods unacceptable to the world, but the results often desirable.
Our bodies, particularly women’s bodies, are open to public discourse. We are told how the self should conduct and care for its-self, but we are left to fix our bodies in the quiet. In the quiet, the private space of a bathroom for example, self-care practices can become ugly, irregular, unpalatable. I would become a head-over-the-toilet Frankenstein’s monster creation, wishing itself towards all I have ever been told my body should be.
As disordered eating lessened it’s grip, I swapped bulimia, starvation and diet milkshakes for a fix all do-it-yourself cure to sadness. Face masks. £7 a pot Lush facemasks. If only I could craft myself, care for my self, produce a polished self, looking better, being better, perhaps I could be fixed.
But old traumas and new upsets crashed over my head in angry waves I couldn’t stand up to. And when the thick green paste would still mix with my tears, I was forced to face things that were more than me, more than how I presented to the world in that moment, messier than facing forward. These tears had a history and a sociality and could not be wiped entirely by finding new ways to cultivate self-improvement.
With No Such Thing As Society, failure is all yours. When failure and success, or even Being Ok, are two sides of the same coin, self-care narratives can subscribe to much the same thinking. Not only that, they might too intensify our-selves as bounded and separate. The Self swells in size, and so too do its flaws for inspection.
Making sure our bodies are well fed, well rested, and out of harm's way is a fundamental prerequisite for our own wellbeing. Self-care can be survival practice.
Black lesbian feminist writer Audre Lorde (1988) said quite rightly that “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” Claiming that you matter is survival work for people who have been systematically denigrated.
But #Selfcare as a practice of self-examination and self-improvement, proliferating on social media in the last three years through fitness accounts, corporate branding, and skincare rituals, is the opposite of political warfare. It is a reproduction of the dominant political order, which seeks to produce self-reliance and self-governance, whilst breaking down ideas of society and collective responsibility.
This form of self-care can quickly go awry. A fixation on the self very easily produces yet another pattern of expectation and failure. And what good is there in delineating all responsibility to be better and get better, to oneself, when an enlarged view of the self might actually be damaging? It feels as though we are premising the solution on emboldening what is sometimes the problem.
A tangible example, in relation to eating disorder self-help “recovery”, is the popular move from thinness to #fitness. A new manifestation of an old not-enoughness; not damaging physically but fed and sustained by the same proximity to an imagined failure, by the same external expectations absorbed as our own.
And I buy into it all. I still believe that there is a better, truer version of my (physical) self. She exists in old photographs where my waist is slimmer and my arms and legs are thin. She exists in imaginings where I superimpose a vague essence of me onto the bodies of fitness models, who promise me in earnest that if only I push myself, practice, be vigilant, then that imagining will actualise.
The self is not immediate or universal. It has a history and a politics. Much like the soul, it has no tangible form. When, for example, does a child recognise itself as a self, as more than an extension of its primary caregiver? Or, what about the diverse ways personhood is understood globally? What about cultures where we are not imagined as “unique entities” at all, but a composite of all our relationships (Strathern 1988.)
The narrative of self we are sold is an idea: we are self-creations, atomised. Seperate and self-possessed. We have little or no history beyond a pattern of our own actions, and we must always be facing forward.
Careful self reflection is not a terrible thing, nor is sometimes looking to be better. But only when I place my-self in its proper history, can this be healing.
Care for the self, but know it is situated. Know it has a history. Know it is fiercely interconnected. Know it is porous. Know it is desperately trying to meet expectations that it did not really choose.
When I situate my self as interconnected, inextricably tied to and a composite of a web of relations, my relationship with expectation shifts. My self, on its own, is not all that’s left to blame, to scrutinise, to unpick, to obsessively try and improve, or lament if it does not. I am part of others and they are part of me. It was and is an idea of Self, which inherits “outside” expectations and writes them into its own walls, to obsess over, that so often traps me in the dark.
So I don’t think we should do away with self-care, but I do believe in rejecting the dominant (neoliberal) narrative of what self is.
Fixing the self cannot depend only upon enlarging it for inspection, and isolating it from the conditions of its production. We inherit expectations, traumas, histories. We are continuously shaped, formed, pushed and pulled by our contact with the world.
Self-help as a singular solution depends on a false meritocracy; a falsehood which pretends we are singularly the creators of all our own successes and “failures”.
We are not the sole architects of our selves. We spill into the world in ways that are complex, and move through it with a plasticity that is denied by an idea of self that is contained, independent and entirely self-possessed and self-crafting.
Our selves need caring for, but this is not a healing we can find (solely) in skin peels and fitness apps. Caring for our selves doesn’t have to mean subscribing to a new or intensified pattern of expectation. Because getting lost in ones self, in this way, can go terribly awry.
*There are many illnesses (ones I have less direct experience of), sometimes deemed “less palatable”, for which this explanation is oversimplified and/or insufficient.