#MLA16 · day in the life · emotional labour · feminist communities

Radical Feminist Self-Care, MLA Style (Towards a Manifesto)

“So did you know that apparently all of us feminists at the MLA are passing one another packages of fancy face masks and holding beauty parties?” This came from Amy as we were getting ready for our first days at the MLA conference in Austin last week. If you haven’t heard about how ten-step Korean-beauty-inspired face masking is, apparently, the new radical academic feminist mode of self care, then let us catch you up. In an article for Slate, former Chronicle blogger Rebecca Schuman posited that a ten-step face masking regime, practiced by women in South Korea for decades, was emerging amongst academic feminists as a new form of self-care.
Her article, which now has a substantial retraction, is, we think, ultimately trying to advocate for academic women to take some time for themselves. But it made everyone in the room uncomfortable, and if our social media feeds are any indication, we were hardly the only MLA-feminists having trouble swallowing this prescriptive branding and beautifying of feminism in academia. The general response in our room was incredulity. As we talked about what bothered us, worried us, and made us LOL, we realized we needed to take our discussion public. So here, for you, are some of our collective thoughts around the claims that academic feminists need elaborate beauty regimes to practice self-care, and what our self-care looks like instead.
It’s true that there are times when “self care” looks like “self indulgence”–an extra glass (or an extra bottle) of wine, an overflowing bubble bath, a pan of brownies–but the two are by no means identical. What made us go “ick” about Schuman’s article was the conflation of radical feminist self-care with expensive, indulgent attempts to conform with normative standards of beauty–self-care as the pursuit of a dewy, youthful, white complexion–that are often harmfully sexist, racist, ageist, classist, and superficial. The straight up shill for Adeline Koh’s products, as great as they may be, was nearly as galling as the idea that women academics are focused on cosmetics at MLA rather than their presentations, interviewing, networking, and/or reuniting with colleagues.

While we are all for self-care, especially in the way that Audre Lorde talks about it–as political warfare–we think there is something a bit insidious happening in Schuman’s piece. First, it seems to assume a beleaguered female body as the only academic feminist body possible. Second, it seemed to suggest that is you weren’t following this regime, should you be fortunate enough to be in the know, then your fate was to remain beleaguered and haggard. In short, one of the issues we take with Schuman’s deployment of her argument is that she presumes a self-conscious femme body preoccupied with the coercive patriarchal norms that see women’s bodies as always already insufficient, less than, and invisible.

We agree that radical feminist self care at MLA is often necessary. We have very different ideas about what it might look like.
Radical feminist self care at MLA means surrounding yourself with people who support your work and career. It means generous professionalism. It means eschewing toxic behaviors of academic posturing and jockeying–rejecting the idea that academia is a zero-sum game–in favor of generating community, camaraderie, and friendship.
Radical feminist self care at MLA means self care as group care, as recognizing that caring for yourself can also involve the emotional labour of caring for members of the community that buoys and empowers you. It means building meaningful community with other women in early, pre-tenure, just-tenured, newly-sabbatical-ed, precarious, alt-ac, and other complicated career positions.
Radical feminist self care at MLA means calling out male academics on their bad behavior when you have the power to do so.
Radical feminist self care at MLA means sitting around a hotel room at midnight, with a bottle of wine, validating the shit out of each other.
Radical feminist self care at MLA means attending to your physical and mental health more than your complexion. Sometimes it means leaning out as far as you can. It means saying no to FOMO and yes to naps. It means drinking lots of water between coffee and cocktails.
Radical feminist self care at MLA means spending your money on All The Books–The Beauty Myth, perhaps?–instead of pricy beauty regimes containing snail mucus.
For us, radical feminist self care at MLA means rooming with a bunch of other meat-eschewers so that you don’t have to fight to feed yourself with the delicious vegan tacos that both your tastebuds and your ethics demand.
And you know what? Radical feminist self care in academia isn’t limited to the MLA.
We would love to hear some of the ways you care for yourself and your community.
My thanks to Amy Clukey (University of Louisville), Hannah McGregor (U Alberta), and Melissa Dalgleish (Hook & Eye, Hospital for Sick Children) for writing this with me.
{Editor’s note: we totally wrote this in our pyjamas while drinking wine and eating vegan donuts. Actually, no, we didn’t. We wrote it in Google Docs after the MLA, after long days at work, in our scant spare time, because sometimes radical community care means working together on a heart-piece that we really care about. But we did eat vegan donuts at the MLA. More than once.}  

14 thoughts on “Radical Feminist Self-Care, MLA Style (Towards a Manifesto)

  1. I think this article is great but a radical self and group care manifesto should also denounce public shaming and humiliation of other women when they make mistakes. I'd like to see Hook and Eye take a stand on this.


  2. And I second the comment that a “radical” feminist manifesto should be cognizant of the problem of upholding one way of being over others (re: beauty rituals).


  3. This question of feminist solidarity and absence of shaming is such an important and complex one. Collective organizing and community-driven politics is important for a lot of marginalized groups, but on the other hand group-think can lead to the silencing of dissent. Is critique always public shaming? Is engaging in a debate necessarily a sign of an absence of solidarity? How can we find ways and space to disagree productively without falling into a more-feminist-than-thou debate? I'm not asking any of this rhetorically — I would actually really like to hear people's thoughts!


  4. I think this piece does a good job of adding to the discussion of self-care in a productive way. But it does so by framing it within the larger discussion of the controversial “shilling” of a well-known woman academic's beauty line. It seems strange that a self and community care manifesto calling for “generous professionalism” and “community, camaraderie, and friendship” has been developed in response to a woman academic's public shaming on Twitter, without acknowledging or denouncing said shaming (see: https://storify.com/kforkristin/k-beauty-and-the-beast). To me, this is very problematic.


  5. Hi Paisley,

    Thanks so much for your thinking here. I'm the one who titled it “towards a manifesto” and I added that 'towards' to signal the partiality, provisionality, and initial thinking we're trying to do here. Notes like yours and the ones above help in pushing that thinking forward.

    We were working here to try and think through why the article–which I really think was intent on underscoring the importance of self-care among women in the academy–didn't sit right with us. So the aim here isn't to publicly shame anyone, gosh no, but rather to take the ideas in Rebecca Schuman's article–and the way that they were presented–seriously and try to critically think through how they made us feel, and what they made us think.

    Much respect to Sabbatical Beauty–what a project!–but our thinking here isn't specifically about this admirable start-up, or the feminist academic who started it. Yes, our thinking was activated by the article written about the company, but we're not thinking about it per se.
    Rather, we're trying to think through the tangles of what it might mean to engage in self care


  6. Thanks for the response, Erin. I understand that the authors are trying to think through the tangles of engaging in self care, but I also feel like it's impossible to separate this piece from the larger context from which it was developed. What I'm trying to argue is that the piece should somehow intervene in the toxic environment of public shaming that is taking place – as a form of community care. Basically, put yer thoughts into action!


  7. While I agree with the core of message this post, I find it weird that it keeps referring (in the title and beyond) to “radical feminist self-care,” when it seems like you mean “radical, feminist self-care.” (Unless it really is a question of “what self-care would Andrea Dworkin/Katherine MacKinnon/Sheila Jeffreys/Mary Daly etc. do,” in which case that self-care certainly excludes sex workers and/or trans women and/or bdsm practitioners). I also find it weird that the only feminist book mentioned by name is by Naomi Wolf, given her disturbing level of rape apologism around the Julian Assange affair. I generally like stuff at hookandeye, but those aspects of this particular post are just so weird to me.


  8. Thanks for your thoughtful comments, JMG! The “weirdness” you feel may be a product of a post written through a bricolage of four different contributors as opposed to the usual single-authored posts by writers we have in our regular roster.


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