Contributed by Lindsay from Team RESTORE

In the mid-1980s, CBS aired a game show called Body Language. It was, according to announcer Johnny Olsen, a “game for the uninhibited”. Viewers watched as animated celebrity guests and giddy contestants “let their bodies do the talking,” in what amounted to a frenetic mash-up of charades and Wheel of Fortune. Cash and glory awaited those able to rapidly translate abstract words and phrases into hammy, outsized physical expression. So, if the bodies on Body Language were indeed “talking,” what were they saying?  

In meaningful ways, Body Language reflected the cultural relationship Americans had with their bodies at the time. The 80s were defined by unapologetic longing for external markers of success. These values played out in politics, industry, and the media, but also at the cellular level—in the realm of beauty and the body. The fitness craze, pushed by celebrities like Suzanne Somers and Richard Simmons, encouraged aspirational Americans to sculpt the sleek physiques synonymous with sophistication.  

The “80s body” was a metaphorical ode to dominance. There was a race to win at life, and the body was the vehicle. It was during this cultural moment that the self-care movement emerged from activist and fringe communities (both of whom rejected the inequities of the US healthcare system and the failings of traditional Western medicine) to the aspirational mainstream. 

What is Self-Care?

The medical definition of self-care is self-directed actions that are learned, purposeful, and continuous.1 Self-care is enacted to prevent illness and illness behaviors, to promote one’s personal health. The philosophical framing of self-care takes this notion a step further. In his mid-80s work The Care of The Self, philosopher and historian Michel Foucault asserts that the pursuit of care for one’s own well-being also comprises self-knowledge.2 Here, Foucault was pointedly referencing the Socratic teaching, “the unexamined life is not worth living.”  

As is often characteristic of Western thought, the definitions of self-care given above compartmentalize the mind and body as separate entities that do not communicate fluently or necessitate symbiotic attention. Like in Body Language, where participants either mimed gestures or analyzed what the gestures represented, there existed a divide between mind and body.  

If the 80s pursued physicality as the highest expression of self-care, the early 2000s turned the spotlight within. Yoga, meditation, and mindfulness practices became de rigeur hallmarks of caring for the self. Time magazine, in a 2001 cover story featuring Christy Turlington effortlessly folded into Rooster pose, crowed that yoga was “the exercise cum meditation for the new millennium, one that doesn’t so much pump you up as bliss you out.3 Suddenly gyms across the country began offering yoga instruction alongside Cardio Kickboxing, while transcendental meditation retreats replaced holidays in Hawaii. According to Time, by 2001 an estimated 15 million Americans practiced yoga—twice as many as five years earlier. 

Why did we swap sweatbands for sweat lodges? Why abandon the adrenal frenzy of Jazzercise for downward dog and ujjayi breathing? Maybe it was a reaction to the dotcom bubble’s burst and subsequent economic recession that fostered a climate of humility and inward contemplation. Perhaps the trauma of 9/11 forced Americans to seek new ways of regulating anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress. Alternately, advancements in neuroscience during the early 2000s revealed new findings in the brain’s plasticity, concluding that a regular meditation practice could literally rewire and transform the brain.4 Regardless, turning attention inward became a new way of striving for optimal well-being. Many benefited from these modern self-care endeavors, but there was a strong external reliance on being led through the process of transformation, effectively divorcing the “self” from “self-care.”  

How is self-care evolving, and how are we orienting to the practice today?  

It’s my belief that the next wave of self-care will see humans seeking to integrate themselves more wholly, thoughtfully, and autonomously than ever before. At this historical moment, we have near-instantaneous access to tools, information, and resources to support us on our journeys to health and well-being. Armed with this abundant guidance and support, we can become empowered to heal ourselves. We can evolve our health by leveraging the body’s innate intelligence, and draw on our self-possessed power of healing to learn to love and care for ourselves holistically. I name this contemporary notion of self-care “embodiment.”  

Embodiment is the process of affirming one’s relationship to self, and moving mindfulness into action. An embodied action isn’t just a conceptual idea or a resolution to behave differently. Neuroscience suggests the most direct route to creating sustainable change is through whole-body engagement. Actions and beliefs which are intentionally designed and consciously practiced aids in the construction of powerful, sustainable, new neural connections.  

Perhaps the next time life feels overwhelming, or you’re ensnared in an unproductive thinking trap, you instead choose to practice disrupting that habituated response. Perhaps you allow your churning psyche a brief respite, and turn your attention instead to your breathing. It can be helpful to place one hand on your belly and one hand on your heart, to support the calming of your nervous system. As you breathe, imagine each inhale enables you direct access to the parts of you which are fundamentally perfect. Imagine each exhale releases any obstacles conspiring to obscure that perfection from radiating out of you.  

Begin to access the virtues of peace, wholeness, and health—they are already contained inside of you. With practice, you may begin to embody them completely. 


References

[1] Taylor, Susan G.; Katherine Renpenning; Kathie McLaughlin Renpenning. Self-care Science, Nursing Theory, and Evidence-based Practice. Springer Publishing Company; 2011

[2] Foucault, Michel. Technologies of the Self. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press; 1988.

[3] “The Power of Yoga,” Richard Corliss, Time Magazine. Monday, Apr. 23, 2001

[4] Aftanas LI, Golocheikine SA, “Human anterior and frontal midline theta and lower alpha reflect emotionally positive state and internalized attention: high-resolution EEG investigation of meditation”. Neuroscience Letters, Volume 310, Issue 1, September 7 2001, Pages 57-60