In a 1982 lecture that went on to be published as an essay called "Technologies of the Self," the French philosopher Michel Foucault argues that looking after oneself, rather than being a form of navel-gazing or narcissism, is a kind of “vigilance” that dates back to antiquity. For Socrates, Plato, and their ilk, Foucault writes, “taking care of yourself eventually became absorbed into knowing yourself.”* As the thinking went, only with the proper amount of time set aside for the “active leisure” of reading, studying, and ruminating could a person come to grips with the profound nature of the universe and his own mortality.
After bubbling up through academic communities in the ‘80s, the term “self-care” accumulated health-related connotations as it gained mainstream renown. In the ‘90s, it referred to the way that patients could take supplementary responsibility for themselves in conjunction with their doctors, nurses, and pharmacists. This was not particularly surprising: Foucault once advised that “one must become the doctor of oneself,” and his theories inspired individual-focused health care even before WebMD.
What might surprise both ’80s professors and ’90s medical professionals, though, is the degree to which self-care has also become a capitalist enterprise. American culture, with its typical anything-worth-doing-is-worth-overdoing attitude, has reduced self-care to buying stuff and, even more counter-intuitively, to trying to become a more productive employee. In other words, active self-care was originally considered necessary to be a philosopher, typically for elite white men who had the luxury to sit and think. Now, America has democratized it by making it seemingly available to all—at least, for a price.