Decolonize Self-Care by Alyson Spurgas and Zoe Meleo-Erwin

About the Book

Decolonize Self-Care emerges out of a careful exploration of seemingly casual trends on social media, and in the world at large, in which health and wellness had expansive markets. Capitalism itself seemed to be working in a new way—rather than markets operating under the signs of “competition,” “assertiveness,” and “aggression” (associated with masculinity)—“softness,” “gentleness,” “empathy,” and “compassion” (associated with femininity) appeared to have a new and valuable place within the logic of the free market. Influencers on Instagram and celebrities hawked jade yoni eggs to promote feminine health, elixirs and mindfulness practices to enhance brain power and sexual desire, and clean eating and functional medicine to rid the body of toxins and impurities. These trends often involved “Eastern,” “holistic,” or “alternative” frameworks and techniques, promising increased health and wellness. To this end, “self-care”—the broad theme bringing all of these trends together—appears to have become a keyword of our times. 

The promises of the self-care industry were ones that we feel attracted to and wary of all at once. Beyond concerns about the evidence base for products that promised increased health and wellness, the authors are skeptical of the politics and political economy surrounding these remedies. The markets—and marketers—were increasingly upper/middle-class cisgendered white women. And this demographic shift was often hailed as feminist. In Decolonize Self-Care, Spurgas and Meleo-Erwin make the following arguments: First, self-care has become big business with global markets valued at 4.2 trillion dollars (according to data published by the Global Wellness Institute in 2017). Second, the self-care and wellness markets are dominated by elite white women in the global north. More specifically, elite white heterosexual womanhood per se is waged by the self-care industry to sell products, goods, and services. In effect, the self-care and wellness markets rely not just on inspiration but aspiration to generate profits. That elite white women are, by and large, the movers and shakers in these markets is ironic given the fact that much of the self-care and wellness industry traffics in vague notions of “the East” or indigeneity in marketing materials.

In some cases, self-care and wellness goods, products, and services do have origins in the global south and indigenous cultures. Yet such populations typically do not benefit from the sale of these products by the self-care and wellness industries. Moreover, insatiable global north demand for them can impede local access to them. Third, self-care, as currently promoted—particularly on social media—suggests that health and well-being are and moreover should be individual-level efforts rather than larger structural and communal issues. In this sense, the self-care industry offers the illusion of change while keeping in place and bolstering the conditions—namely systems of racism, misogyny, cissexism, heterosexism, ableism, and colonialism—which have caused the need for self-care in the first place. Finally, the books argues that capitalism cannot be reformed to be more humane or able to provide care. Thus, the authors consider what damage is done when entrepreneurs, corporations, celebrities, and publics continue to invest in the reform of capitalism.

  • Alyson K. Spurgas

    Alyson K. Spurgas is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Trinity College. She is the recipient of the Mellon Fellowship in Interdisciplinary Science Studies at The CUNY Graduate Center (2011-2012), and winner of the Alexandra Symonds Prize (2013) for her essay on recent changes in female sexual dysfunction diagnoses. Spurgas has been recognized internationally for her innovative work on gender, sexuality, and desire and her forthcoming book interrogates the medical regulation and technoscientific production of "low" sexual desire in women.



  • Zoe Meleo-Erwin

    Zoe Meleo-Erwin is a qualitative health researcher and an Assistant Professor of Public Health at William Paterson University. Her work focuses on the meanings of health and illness, health decision-making, experiences of embodiment, and the ways in which digital technologies facilitate the creation of both identity and community around heath and illness.

A sharp set of pedagogical tools for teaching and learning about art as a vehicle for social engagement. Having evolved from an innovative collaboration between Queens College and Queens Museum, the book’s offerings are embedded in the workings of both community and artists, breaking down the very idea of what participation means in art and non-art contexts.” —Laura Raicovich, president and executive director, Queens Museum, NYC

“It’s no small thing to educate at the intersection of art and social justice. It’s a scope of inquiry that has tripped up art historians, artists, and college deans for multiple decades. This contribution is valuable to educators in its insight, pragmatism, and breadth.” —Nato Thompson, artistic director of Creative Time, author of Culture as a Weapon: The Art of Influence in Everyday Life

A sharp set of pedagogical tools for teaching and learning about art as a vehicle for social engagement. Having evolved from an innovative collaboration between Queens College and Queens Museum, the book’s offerings are embedded in the workings of both community and artists, breaking down the very idea of what participation means in art and non-art contexts.” —Laura Raicovich, president and executive director, Queens Museum, NYC

“It’s no small thing to educate at the intersection of art and social justice. It’s a scope of inquiry that has tripped up art historians, artists, and college deans for multiple decades. This contribution is valuable to educators in its insight, pragmatism, and breadth.” —Nato Thompson, artistic director of Creative Time, author of Culture as a Weapon: The Art of Influence in Everyday Life

“As a curriculum resource, this book is most useful for artist-educators who are already doing and teaching socially engaged art. . . . Art as Social Action also provides a snapshot of the many ways in which socially engaged art practices overlap with social justice approaches to art education, particularly those that attend to power relationships between teachers, students, schools, and communities, and to the social structures that shape art education pedagogy.” —Studies in Art Education: A Journal of Issues and Research

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