Friendship as warfare

Dr. Amelia Morris, Royal Holloway

In recent years, self-care has become a ubiquitous buzzword that has been utilised to sell anything from beauty products, spa days, boozy brunches and holiday retreats. As Spicer writes for The Guardian, self-care has a vague definition that:

[…] includes nearly any activity people use to calm, heal and preserve themselves in the face of adversity. Some common forms of self-care include getting enough sleep, eating well, physical exercise, meditating and doing things you like such as watching an 80s teen film. Other suggestions for self-care include tracking your menstrual cycle, having date nights with yourself, doing craft activities such as crochet, learning the art of saying no, and “consciously unfollowing” people on social media. 

Yet, the roots of self-care stem from Foucault’s The History of Sexuality, wherein he theorised that to care for oneself is a political act. Later, Audre Lorde’s A Burst of Light resisted the notion that care is self-indulgent, referring to it as “warfare” against a system that erases unpaid labour and encourages a self-sacrificial life to paid work. Writing this as a black lesbian with cancer, Lorde argued that caring for oneself is essential to surviving in a world that profits from your oppression, and indeed, that existing on ‘the margins’ of society is exhausting work that demands constant attention. 

Whilst self-preservation is important for one’s mental and physical health, particularly for members of marginalised communities, capitalism is skilled at stripping radical messages of their politics, and repackaging them as goods to be sold back to us for profit. Indeed, there is irony in the words of a socialist feminist being utilised to peddle bath bombs and spa packages, as well as pushing for self-improvement via climbing the employment ladder (for example, an article on LinkedIn outlines steps for self-care in the workplace, with the result of self-preservation being more productive and eventually getting a promotion). 

Therefore, it is important to reflect on the ways that self-care exists in communities, rather than via individual acts that actually benefit neo-liberal understandings of the self. As Sara Ahmed writes, within a capitalist society that demands giving all of oneself to work and profit, “self-care is about the creation of community, fragile communities, assembled out of the experiences of being shattered.” Care, through this lens, is carving out space for proper connection and support within a society that has denied it to you.

In this post on Feminist Killjoy, Ahmed is writing about queer and anti-racist resistance within a marketized higher education sector, but I think we can apply this analysis to everyday friendships, particularly friendships with women. For instance, my relationship with my friends (many of whom I have known since a really young age) encompasses this definition of self-care. Notably, every year for the past ten years, my friends and I have gone on a group holiday to the countryside, where we spend a week catching up and doing activities like visiting castles, completing ‘GoApe’ high ropes and cooking for each other. Often, my favourite moments of the year are sitting in our holiday garden with a cup of coffee, talking about our lives, laughing about stupid situations we’ve got ourselves into and suggesting solutions for problems we might be having. This is what May refers to as ‘deep friendship,’ which he suggests has the potential to undermine the “dominance of ‘neo-liberal’ economic, political and social structures,” due to creating relationships between equals built on trust, an action that sits in contestation to neo-liberal values of cutthroat individualism and competition. 

After university, it is often presumed that friends will drift into relationships and lose touch; their priorities shift, and their lives become busier with work and family. Indeed, many times when we have turned up to an activity on holiday, we’ve been asked by the group leader if we are a hen-do. This suggests that big groups of adult women don’t often go on holiday together, unless one of them is about to be ‘married off’ and this is their ‘last hurrah.’ There is, of course, nothing wrong with going on a hen-do with your friends, but I find it a sad nod towards the fact that friendship is often not positioned as a priority, whereas romantic relationships are understood as a reflection of a woman’s success. Particularly for women, we are primed to be in competition with each other (often for the attention of men), and so the trope of ‘bitchy’ friends or ‘frenemies‘ pervades many representations of these relationships. 

As such, nurturing these friendships is an act of self-care that promotes personal growth and mutual support, allowing us to “reassemble ourselves through the ordinary, often painstaking work of looking after ourselves, looking after each other.” In an age of austerity, wherein investment in community is positioned as irrational and overly-expensive, friendships are an (albeit minor) act of warfare that draw upon a feminist ethics of care, and resist neo-liberal understandings of an atomistic society.