Foucault's discussion of the 'care of the self' has followed the same interesting path from a concern with how we are shaped and constrained by power to how we create our own spaces within the web of power. In his own words, from being 'acted upon' to becoming 'works of arts' of our own making... It's an interesting shift, which seems to me closely related to the whole post-modernist hype emphasizing our own power to act upon our identities, resisting prescribed values and recipes.
What I find really interesting however is the overlap between this scholastic attention to individual power and the neoliberal discourse presenting the individual as all powerful, able to do things and to make things only by virtue of being determined and committed. Think of all those Hollywood movies where the main character succeeds because of her/his determination.
The care of the self, the duty to take care of and to form yourself into a worthy individual becomes an act of will, of determination and of commitment. But it is so rare that we stop and reflect on exactly what are the ideals that we aim for, what are the values informing them, who gets to profit out of those values, and what are the sanctions applied to those who refuse or, for that matter are unable to conform to them.
Someone very close to me has this very nasty habit of reminding me of how I fail to take care of myself. I'm more and more reluctant to use nail polish or hair dye, mostly for health reasons. But in a world of appearances, my refusal to use certain products and do certain things to my body is seen as a failure to take care of myself. I'm no longer properly groomed, as if my colorless nails are not enough. Truth be told, you seldom have any reasons to reflect on the constraining tyranny of 'looking good' when you conform. The act of conforming isn't even perceived as such: you find those shinny, long, red nails so very attractive. As a child, you're fascinated by them; but as a teenager, you learn their sexual power. A power you may start craving for. And you conform. And your nail polish becomes your most pretious ally, helping you climb the social ladder. So what's the big deal?
Try giving it up. Try persuading yourself that your natural nails are just as sexy as your red ones. Try persuading the your partner of that. Just as you have come to terms with it, try facing the your close friends and family. Then, maybe, you'll recognize how powerless we are in the face of the mainstream recipes for taking care of yourself. Moments like this one remind me that Foucault's idea of the care of the self as an empowering act of creation needs more meat to make sense.