In Part Three of Lea Cooper’s six-part series about the study of zines in the medical humanities, we move from the living room to the bathroom, containing zines around (Self-)Care.
Most good zine titles involve a pun. This title is a spin on Carmen Maria Machado’s In The Dream House (2019), in which a house is the holder of fragmented memory, the archive of an abusive same-sex relationship. Like all good zine puns, this one draws from the many layers of the book that inspired it.
Zines have an entwined relationship with archives, trauma, memory, narrative, queerness, the domestic, and home. This series of posts takes you on a tour of The Zine House – using its rooms to structure and explore zines around health, illness, disability, neurodivergence and madness. In doing so, I hope to illustrate some of the potential and complexities of zines in the medical humanities. I’m not going to define zines, so if you don’t know what I’m talking about check out Zines 101 on my website.
The bathroom as a site of self-care
The bathroom is often the site of self-care as it is imagined or constituted by the wellness industry, Instagram infographics, or NHS Crisis teams; it is here that we run endless baths, dropping £7 bath bombs into each one, draping facemasks over our features and lighting scented candles. These actions could well be part of a broader project of taking care of yourself. However, when they are packaged and sold to us as self-care they turn self-care into a luxury, an act of consumption. When they are the sole response to a mental health crisis, they turn self-care into an individual responsibility. When Audre Lorde first wrote about self-care in the essay collection A Burst of Light (1988) she says:
I had to examine, in my dreams as well as in my immune-function tests, the devastating effects of overextension. Overextending myself is not stretching myself. I had to accept how difficult it is to monitor the difference. Necessary for me as cutting down on sugar. Crucial. Physically. Psychically. Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.
Though the final line has been often repeated, the full quote offers something of the wider context and gives it a renewed meaning: alongside her work as an activist and poet, Lorde was facing a second cancer diagnosis. Self-care as political warfare is fundamentally linked to Lorde as a Black, queer woman, and to Lorde as a sick person. The zines in The Bathroom return us to self-care as necessity, as an act of survival and of political warfare, as radical, abolitionist and practical. In the brief time we will spend here, I’m going to discuss two different aspects of self-care and zines: assembling compilation zines as itself an act or practice of self-care; and how zine-making realises self-care as inventiveness, as resourcefulness, as creating or crafting a world where we can care for ourselves and each other.
Working for change in the face of oppressive systems
sweet-thang zine issue six (2020) is a compilation zine featuring work by Black artists of marginalised genders on the theme of healing. Contributors explore healing in a variety of contexts. Editor Zoe Thompson describes how: “This issue is a space of solace dedicated to the rest and peace of those who need it most, and a space which loudly honours, especially under this current climate, the contributions of Black women on the frontline, past, present and future” (personal correspondence, 2022). The diverse contributions in this issue reflect broad notions of healing and (self-)care.
Mental Realness Mag is a submissions-based (maga)zine ‘centered around the mental wellness of Black femmes across the diaspora’ (from website). Now an A5 print compilation zine, Mental Realness Mag began as a solely digital zine – a format underexplored in zine studies which has a tendency of privileging print, and it’s interesting to switch to describing or evoking the materiality of a webpage. An archive of the digital volume remains online, collecting poetry, prose, quotes and images into five volumes. Volume II starts with a banner across the top, with the text ‘Continuing the work of our Foremothers’, followed by a quote from Malebo Sephodi who describes how their grandmother encouraged them to engage in ‘self-care’.
Self-care was not the only thing that Audre Lorde argued was a necessity rather than an indulgence. In ‘Poetry is Not a Luxury’ (1984) she advocates for poetry as essential, and as part of the work of change or transformation. The creative contributions to sweet-thang issue 6 and Mental Realness Mag materialise invocations on the importance of creativity, of writing, of poetry, of art, to self-care, where self-care is not to maintain the status quo, but to work for change, in the face of systems that do not want you to survive or to heal.
Muchacha Fanzine is ‘a radically intersectional decolonial Native Xicana Feminist publication’ (Salinas (ed) 2020), which was started by zine maker, musician and activist Daisy Salinas as a feminist punk zine in 2011. Since then, Muchacha has shifted into a submissions-based compilation zine, featuring work by marginalised voices from around the world. Contributions to Muchacha Fanzine Issue #15 (2020), were themed around Collective Care and include abolition, indigenous sovereignty and climate justice, mutual aid, transformative justice, interspecies aid, and advocacy.
Though self-care is often marketed as a new phenomenon, or critiqued as an invention of neo-liberal capitalism, contributions to both Mental Realness Mag and Muchacha Fanzine are clear to claim self-care as an inheritance.
Zines have often involved contributions or submissions from people other than their maker. The internet has enabled wider calls for submissions contributing to, in my estimation at least, an increase in compilation zines. This mode of zine production feels sympathetic to a shift from self-care as an individual act, to self-care as collective care. The work involved in assembling sweet-thang zine, Muchacha Fanzine, and Mental Realness Mag feel aligned with Sara Ahmed’s assertion in her exploration of Lorde’s work on self-care that “in queer, feminist and anti-racist work self-care is about the creation of community, fragile communities, assembled out of the experience of being shattered.” (Ahmed 2014).
‘Fuck Bath Bombs, Take A Sick Day’ – troubling neo-liberal self-care
But what of zines that deal with practical aspects of self-care and offer advice for individual (alongside collective) care? Do they just (re)produce mainstream versions of self-care? A blog from the Wellcome funded MadZine research project sees zine maker and writer Meg-John Barker and principal investigator on the project Hels Spandler discuss just this. Certainly, some zines replicate familiar advice or versions of self-care that are endlessly reproduced on Instagram graphics. But others more explicitly trouble this version of self-care: Laura Saunders’ mini-zine Fuck Bath Bombs, Take a Sick Day (2019) makes obvious the links between the ways that self-care is packaged and sold, and the ways workers’ bodies and health are exploited and neglected in the name of profit.
Hell Yeah Self Care (2017) by writer and zine maker Meg-John Barker includes a full page spread reference to Lorde, in Barker’s characteristic style. Barker uses zines to communicate and explore topics around sex, gender, relationships, trauma and plurality. In doing so, they draw from their lived experience, and their previous work as an academic psychologist and as a therapist, blurring these within the zine to produce what Adela C. Licona describes in zines as ‘Third Space knowledges’ (2013). Barker’s handwritten, hand drawn zines feel intimate, immediate, and conversational in a way conventional printed mental health resources rarely do.
Hell Yeah Self-Care (Barker 2017) lists ‘Meeting our basic needs’ as one of five highlighted meanings of self-care. In marketing self-care as a luxury, a non-essential, self-care becomes disconnected from the everyday tasks of living. In a generic gift shop last week (searching for a generic gift) I was informed by the cursive script on a cushion that: ‘Self-Care Calories Don’t Count’. It seemed deeply ironic that providing oneself with nourishment, with literal calories, is a very basic act of self-care that this pillow was trying to absolve me for. Mad Menu (Luna Tic 2022) is a zine concerned with the practicalities this fundamental act of self-care, of self-nourishment: feeding oneself. It offers ‘food ideas and recipes for people who sometimes or often find it difficult to manage food because they’re mad’ (Mad Covid 2022), drawn from the lived experience of Luna Tic and her Mad comrades. This is self-care as it is lived every day.
Self-care as inventiveness
Mad Menu (Luna Tic 2022) sits alongside other more interactive zines such as the ASC for Healthy Communities Long Covid symptom tracker : a self-care tracker (2020) which offers a blueprint for recording Long Covid symptoms. Staying Out of the Hospital: a guide to surviving psychosis (2005), a zine from Jim Hindle, describes itself as ‘a practical guide to managing the altered state of consciousness that is termed psychosis’ (1). Though this zine shares much in common with other self-care zines, of particular significance are the ways it doesn’t limit the remit of self-care. Experiences like psychosis are often excluded from the concern of mainstream self-care, which often falls back on the generic advice to ‘speak to your doctor’ or bows to medical expertise. This zine reflects that for some people experiencing altered realities, looking after yourself involves avoiding unhelpful psychiatric interventions. These zines are self-care as inventiveness (after Lorde), as the creation of the resources we need.
I made I’ll Take Care of You, A Zine Club Zine (Cooper 2020) during one of Wellcome Collection’s Instagram Live zine clubs during the first Covid-19 lockdown in the UK. The theme was care. My partner is also disabled and the early days of lockdown highlighted how care wasn’t easy to delineate in our relationship to each other or to people outside our house. As I attempted to capture in the zine, care was not so neatly linear, singular, or one-directional.
The zine was titled after the Beach House song ‘Take Care’, which I played on repeat as I worked away on the zine in the early afternoon light (and now, as I work away writing this). The song’s final refrain ‘I’ll take care of you, take care of you, it’s true’ has to me always had a triple meaning. It is a promise to others, a statement of intent for relationships with care as their foundation. Simultaneously, it is a promise to myself, to look after myself despite pressures (internal and external) to do otherwise. Finally, it is a promise to me from my peers, friends, communities, comrades, an echo of the gentle refrain of the zines that occupy the bathroom of The Zine House, reminding me of the ways that we take care of each other.
Where can I find these zines?
sweet-thang zine can be found via their website and Instagram. Muchacha Fanzine can be found via their website and patreon. Mental Realness Mag can be found via their website and Instagram. Hell Yeah Self-Care can be found alongside Meg-John Barker’s other zines on their website. Mad Menu can be found via Mad Covid’s website and anyone who would benefit from a free physical copy can request one via firstname.lastname@example.org. Fuck Bath Bombs: Take a Sick Day can be purchased via Penfight distro. Staying Out of Hospital: A Guide to Surviving Psychosis can be found here. Chella Quint’s zines on menstruation can be found here. sweet-thang issue 6, Mental Realness Mag, Hell Yeah Self-Care, Mad Menu, Fuck Bath Bombs: Take a Sick Day, and the Long Covid symptom tracker can all be found at Wellcome Collection.
Read the full In the Zine House series.
Ahmed, Sara. 2014. “Selfcare as Warfare”. https://feministkilljoys.com/2014/08/25/selfcare-as-warfare/
ACS. 2020. Long Covid Tracker. Zine.
Barker, Meg-John. 2017. Hell Yeah Self Care! Zine.
Cooper, Lea. 2020. I’ll Take Care of You. A Zine Club Zine. Zine.
Holden, Lisa. Mental Realness Mag. Zine.
Licona, Adela C. 2013. Zines in Third Space: Radical Cooperation and Borderlands Rhetoric. New York: SUNY Press.
Lorde, Audre. 1984. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. New York: Quality Paper Book.
Lorde, Audre. 1988. A Burst of Light: essays by Audre Lorde. Ann Arbor, Michigan: Firebrand Books.
Luna Tic. 2022. Mad Menu. Zine.
Machado, Carmen Maria. 2019. In The Dream House. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Graywolf Press.
Mad Covid. 2022. Mad Menu Zine. https://madcovid.wordpress.com/mad-menu-zine/
MadZine Research. 2021. “Can a Self Care zine be a MadZine? A Conversation with Meg-John Barker”. https://madzines.org/can-a-self-care-zine-be-a-madzine-a-conversation-with-meg-john-barker/
Mental Realness Mag. 2019. Volume II. https://www.mentalrealnessmag.com/volumeii
Salinas, Daisy (ed). 2022. Muchacha Fanzine #15. Collective Care. Zine.
Saunders, Laura. 2019. Fuck Bath Bombs: Take a Sick Day. Zine.
Thompson, Zoe (ed). 2020. Sweet-thang zine issue six. Zine.
About the author
Lilith (Lea, as in sea) Cooper is a PhD researcher at the University of Kent working on a collaborative project looking at the zines at Wellcome Collection. They balance their PhD research with zine and comics making, zine librarianship at the Edinburgh Zine Library and an arts practice. Find them at www.zinejam.com or on twitter at @lilithjcooper.