Self-care’s recent rise to prominence may be more complicated than corporate interests would lead us to believe. Features writer Emily Bacal explores the commodification of the trend and its problematic implications, introducing an alternative interpretation on how we can practice true self care and why we should make the effort.
The surge in popularity of self-care has done a lot more for face mask sales than it has for mental health. Casually searching ‘self care’ yields articles gracing news sites from Refinery29 to Forbes. You can find information on recommended practices and purchases, lists of 10 easy steps to make your life fuller, apps to help you unplug or plug more mindfully, breathing necklaces, tonal therapy pods, and chillable jade face rollers. The sheer volume of self-care options speaks to the remarkable growth of the industry, which grossed $10 Billion in 2017, according to NPR.
Often-contradictory methods for achieving self-care are symptomatic of its ambiguous definition. Loosely defined, self-care is the maintenance of and consideration for oneself, with a focus on mental wellness and self-reverent kindness. Under the current craze, how one achieves this is largely dictated by corporate interests which tell you your problems and provide ways to solve them. The problems are sometimes real, sometimes aggrandized or manufactured completely. The generalized solutions are sometimes helpful, sometimes placebo-inducing, and oftentimes not helpful at all.
From a well meaning initiative — the attempt to spread permission to affirm and love oneself — comes a materialistic mockery. As Harvard Business Review reports, ‘self-care’ has become something of an obligation, another goal lengthening your endless to-do list. And as new wellness technologies spring up — which allow you to, among other things, monitor your sleep cycle, heart rate, and step counts — this task becomes increasingly expensive. Even non-tech treatments like massages, yoga retreats and essential oil diffusers all come with a hefty price tag.
Concerning is a world in which being kind to oneself is a radical idea.
Perhaps one reason mainstream popular culture has been so eager to embrace inadequate markers of self care is that they divert attention from actual self-prioritizing behavior. Concerning is a world in which being kind to oneself is a radical idea. Doctrines promoting selflessness and workaholism have so permeated the cultural mind that doing things purely because they make you feel good, and not in the pursuit of an external goal, becomes an untenable, unjustifiable act. True self-care ideology combats this, claiming that it is alright to put yourself first, to take time out of a day of obligations to just be. Most ambitiously, it claims that you can do these things and still be a good person.
This doesn’t seem radical. Where in the definition of goodness is there a condition stating that to be good, one cannot be kind to oneself? The tension arises when we further examine our societal concept of goodness; many agree that selflessness is good and selfishness is bad. The specter of selfishness has long been used to police behavior, wagging a proverbial finger at people, specifically women, who dare to do things for themselves.
Where in the definition of goodness is there a condition stating that to be good, one cannot be kind to oneself?
Self-care seems opposed to this self-denying sentiment, yet, the most common reasoning used to advocate for self-care is not its immediate personal benefit, but that it bolsters one’s ability to care for others. This qualifier may give a clue as to why self-care is such a gendered term. Rarely do you hear a cisgender, heterosexual man talking about self-care, perhaps because in saying you are practicing self-care you are implicitly stating that you have a self that needs to be cared for. This is incompatible with the hegemonic masculine ideal, bereft of feelings, weakness, or internal strife.
This is not to say that cis-het men are not expected to care. But masculine ‘caring’ traditionally assumes the form of monetary provisions and obsolete chivalrous practices, which do more to help the male ego than other people. Women, by contrast, are expected to undertake emotional labor, giving up time, energy and support of all kinds, even when they provide monetarily. The delegitimization of this type of work is a partial cause for the need of a self-care campaign. However, this campaign would be better waged through awareness and personal reflection than via elaborately constructed stratagems devised by corporate interests to sell contrived objects.
Self-care, true self care, can benefit us all. Regardless of gender expression, race, class, ability, or sexuality, getting in touch with your mental state, accepting and loving yourself, is important. Recognizing your emotions and mindframe and prioritizing their care can alleviate aggression borne from untended feelings and ameliorate stress before it reaches extreme levels.
Yes, doing things as little as nabbing that last slice of chocolate cake or taking a bubble bath seem trivial. What makes these external self-care practices worthy of the attribution is not the activities themselves, but the mindsets behind them.
Because that is what we are trying to convince ourselves of, with every face mask, massage, and movie marathon: that we are worthy of love and, more radical than that, that we can and do love ourselves.
Indulgence, regardless of the form it takes, is powerful. Doing things for yourself feels good. Choosing to perform an action simply because you want to is freeing, empowering. Seemingly inconsequential choices to sleep an extra hour or cook yourself a beautiful meal accumulate into a pattern of behavior significant enough to trick you into feeling like you’re worth the effort. Because that is what we are trying to convince ourselves of, with every face mask, massage, and movie marathon: that we are worthy of love and, more radical than that, that we can and do love ourselves.
So, indulge. But indulge in yourself. Stay outside an extra half hour just to feel the sunbeams licking your face. Stand in the middle of the woods and scream. And, yes, slather on a damn sheet mask if it brings you peace within yourself. My advice? Make sure it’s gilded — you deserve it.
Photography by Henry Hannon. Originally published in ROCKET Volume IX, Issue 1.