As with anything that goes mainstream, the concept of self-care is not immune to the myriad cultural and capitalist forces that be. So how do we critique its misuse, while defending its importance?
From marketing newsletter headlines to just about every third post on my Instagram—#selfcare has been used 4,027,652 times on the platform at the time of writing—self-care is everywhere.
But self-care dates back much further than the hashtag. It was an idea referenced by Socrates in Ancient Greece, but its modern understanding and use is very much indebted to the civil rights movement—a history that deserves its own forthcoming article. In other words, it predates sheet masks. Not that there’s anything wrong with sheet masks.
At first, I celebrated the emergence of self-care into the cultural lexicon. After all, anything that decreases the shame we have around taking care of ourselves is a win. But diluted and re-appropriated by marketers, self-care started to feel synonymous with privilege. The images and messaging itself started to make me feel equal parts cynical and guilty.
If I couldn’t afford a facial, staycation, acupuncture, and an ayahuasca retreat, was I somehow unworthy? Or was I just buying in to the wrong definitions?
What IS self-care, even?
In a country built on Puritan work ethics, self-care is a way of staying sane. We’re surrounded by forces that seek to increase productivity, optimize output, and make that money. Self-care is the antidote to that. If your body never agreed with eight-hour workdays in front of a screen, getting acquainted with self-care means feeling OK to take an hour off to meditate.
“Capitalism and the patriarchy has sold us the idea that we are only valuable when we are being productive,” explains Erin Telford, a seasoned healer who was based out of NYC for years, before recently taking her practice on the road throughout the states, “This translates, for women especially, as over-giving to prove their worth until they run themselves into the ground.”
But the internet isn’t always selling it that way. Sometimes, it’s selling spa weekends and cashmere as “self-care,” too. Girlboss Radio’s own newly-launched self-care podcast, Self Service, makes an argument for a broader, more holistic view of self-care, emphasizing that self-care need not be “synonymous with luxury.”
Looking out versus looking within
“When you feel like something is wrong with you, it’s much more comfortable to look outward for a solution (i.e. a new tincture or a new magical something) rather than slow down and look inside,” says Telford.
If you find yourself obsessively seeking out crystals and new buzzy products, she suggests “they should just be a bonus to how you are already tending to your internal world, not the ever-out-of-reach answer to the real work you may be afraid to do.” Products alone will not take care of you.
Amie Roe, LCSW and psychotherapist who works in Manhattan and Brooklyn, echoes Telford’s sentiment: “People will need to strike a balance between healthy skepticism and openness when evaluating services or products.” Indeed, healthy skepticism when it comes to consumption can go a long way. If a spa advertises its services as self-care, but that’s going on an already almost maxed-out credit card, is that really self-care? Evaluate what makes sense for you.
me: *eats one piece of fruit for the first time in weeks*me: self care is so important!! love urself!! ur body is a temple— andile (@INDIEWASHERE) April 8, 2017
The problem with marketing your expensive spa retreat as “self-care”
Virginia Rosenberg, an intuitive astrologer and movement artist based in Asheville, NC, says our self-care practices are highly interwoven with our socio-economic realities. “As a culture, we have been trained to look towards what we can purchase and attain to experience what we dream,” she says, adding, “Due to contrived economic demand, ‘self-care’ … becomes a luxury that is unattainable for those who need it most. [It] becomes a class issue. A status symbol.”
That Instagram of a claw-foot bathtub dusted in rose petals—in a luxury hotel where one night costs a month’s rent—captioned #selfcaresunday need not define self-care for you. And if such photos make you feel unworthy, that’s not unfounded. It’s critical that those who discover self-care through these mediums learn that it’s much more than consumer choices.
When self-care becomes a form of avoidance
When investing in your health, personal development, and healing, it’s important to discern that you’re not applying band aid solutions to deep emotional issues or physical health ailments.
Rebecca Conran, an intuitive energy healer and coach in Brooklyn, sees this all the time. “My clients are often looking for the next thing to quell their discomfort. The next fix,” she says, adding that self-care “doesn’t require a new outfit, flashy Instagram posts, or referring to yourself as an empath or Goddess.” Posting crystal photos on Instagram instead of investing in proper self-inquiry isn’t exactly the ticket, then.
self care is the MOST important thing !!! wear a facemask. drink water. take a nap. take a bath. quit ur job. post 500 times a day. gossip constantly. alienate urself from anyone that disagrees w u even remotely. wear a hazmat suit. move 2 a bunker underground.— Brandon Wardell (@BRANDONWARDELL) November 15, 2017
The danger of vilifying self-care
One thing everyone working in the self-care space would agree with is this: It’s important (and empowering) to define the term for yourself, and be mindful and responsible about how you use it.
NPR recently ran a piece called “The Millennial Obsession with Self-Care,” which leaned heavily on the problematic ways the term can be used. Well + Goodrecently ran a piece that asked if self-care had become “too selfish.” While these critiques both spoke about how we can mindfully approach self-care, many other critiques are shallow and cynical examples of throwing the baby out with the bath water.
The often classist co-optation of the term, arising from it’s newfound popularity, needs critiquing; but so too do the anti self-care headlines that smirk at the idea that women are seeking new ways to empower themselves. Self-care could be said to be a social reaction to a culture of shame, where feminine, marginalized, DIY approaches to healing are repudiated wholesale. The last thing we want to do is encourage more of that.
Robin Berzin, physician and the founder of Parsley Health in LA and NYC, believes we need to be careful with criticizing self-care. “The reality is the majority of our citizens … eat a highly refined, toxic diet, and spend eight to 11 hours per day sedentary, and the majority of that time [is spent] looking at screens,” she says.
“To me, it’s hard to say that focusing on a healthy lifestyle has gone ‘too far’ in light of the reality we are living in.” For her, seeing a qualified MD who integrates nutrition and lifestyle into medical treatment can only do good.
Where and how to draw the line?
Self-care may be less about buying things you can’t afford, and more stripping back what’s unnecessary. There are so many ways you can practice self care without spending a dime. Simply saying “no” to things that don’t resonate with you can be a radical act of self-love. Equating self-care with spa treatments and yoga retreats isn’t wrong, per se, but it’s a narrow perspective and a disservice to the concept’s legacy.
Another MD that specializes in functional medicine, Dr. Elke Marksteiner, says our stress and cortisol imbalances often arise from a lack of connection to our bodies, mind and nature. Simply taking a walk can have major positive effects on our physical well-being.
If you want to (and have the means to) invest in items for your self care, go for it. Amie Ro notes, however, that “it may take a few investments in unhelpful services before you find what’s truly helpful.”
Perhaps for you, self-care is making your bed. Perhaps it’s carrying a vial of bergamot-vetiver oil to tap onto your wrists when you get stressed at work. Perhaps it’s less about the oil, and more about recognizing you’re stressed, and taking a step back in the moment to just breathe. Perhaps it’s sheet masks.
Whatever it is, it can be free, though it certainly doesn’t have to be. Remember that self-care is nuanced. And perhaps that’s the gift of it.
January is “Self Care Month” onGirlboss. Read more here and listen to Self Service—a self-care podcast presented by Girlboss Radio.