The Commercialization of Self‑Care Has Left Us Needing More Self‑Care
Self-care entered my world when I was a teenager. My mother, concerned about my ability to balance academics and a growing number of extracurricular activities, told me, “Sometimes, it’s okay to say no.” Doing everything spreads you too thinly.
It was a privileged iteration of what had started several decades earlier as a method of health maintenance by groups — women, minorities, the poor — failed by health systems built to favor heterosexual, upper class, racial majority cis-men. But the message was the same: self-care is about self-preservation.
Five years ago, self-care came raging back into popular discourse, giving me a name for my mother’s wisdom. Overnight, self-care became the rallying cry of my increasingly privileged generation, overwhelmed as we are by adulting.
“Something like this, which is so self-based – you don’t need to depend on anybody else for self-care — I think that may have sold with [millennials],” says Sadaf Vidha, a counselor who works for a stress-focused mental health partnership between the Tata Institute of Social Sciences and the Mariwala Health Initiative. “It gives them a sense of control.”
But where the zeitgeist goes, social media and capitalism follow. Now, self-care is unrecognizable. It’s about becoming, rather than preserving. It’s become work. It’s become competitive. And it’s become expensive.
A strong undercurrent to the businesses, ads and influencers hawking self-care is a twisted form of the original messaging — not, ‘you’ll be okay if you care for yourself,’ but ‘if you’d cared for yourself, you’d be okay.’ The comparison inherent in social media scrolling and influencer culture drives home this message. Even if your #selfcare means #stayingin because of #FOGO, the candles you’ve lit and the dinner you’ve made never looks as good as the Insta-filtered performative moment someone else has posted. Self-care, now conflated with self-improvement, has become yet another thing to strive for — and for most of us, to fail at.
The beauty and wellness industries have been the leaders in co-opting self-care rhetoric to make a buck. Beauty brand L’Oreal was prescient when, in 1971, it launched with the slogan, “Because I’m worth it,” a phrase that timelessly speaks to self-investment. Newer iterations of the same theme are more obvious plays to the self-care iteration: a recent profile of a US business aiming to make botox the new blowout (itself, a prescription for self-care dating to 2010), describes the scene: “the consultation area is a large communal table … against a backdrop with a neon cursive sign that reads ‘BRB … Taking Care of Me,'” writes Avery Stone for The Cut.
The price of these injections? Well, the cheapest is US$270 (Rs. 18,700). Of course, one doesn’t have to make botox their go-to self-care regimen. There are manicures and massages, sheet masks and night creams. There are diets to subscribe to, sessions with wellness coaches, yoga retreats and nutritionists to pay for and find the time to attend, and gym memberships to purchase. Across all of these, there are options for every wallet size, but the common denominator is cost. Self-care has become something to budget for.
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It adds up to entire businesses now masquerading under the guise of helping consumers care for and love themselves — but dig one level deeper and they’re charging to fix what’s wrong with clients’ lives. Most of these businesses are in the beauty and wellness space, and have cropped up since the mid-2010s. Vidha points to the rise of GOOP, the lifestyle and wellness brand founded in 2008 by actress Gwyneth Paltrow, as one of the milestones in a change from self-care as preservative and healing, to self-care as improvement. Where GOOP led, others followed — even half a world away. SelfCare is a consultancy in Mumbai that “strives to help people make healthy choices that are sustainable,” according to its website; it’s Instagram description is perhaps more honest, listing “lifestyle correction,” and “weight loss,” among other services.
“Wellness influencers attract sponsorships and hundreds of thousands of followers on Instagram by tying before and after selfies to inspiring narratives. Go from sluggish to vibrant, insecure to confident, foggy-brained to clear-eyed. But when you have to deprive, punish and isolate yourself to look ‘good,’ it is impossible to feel good,” writes Jessica Knoll in a searing takedown of the wellness industry on the New York Times.
The (self-care) burnout generation
The result is self-care fatigue — if not from the failure to meet the ideal, then from the pressure to keep trying.
“That does stress me out — the sense of responsibility,” a friend told me, when I started asking people if they ever feel stressed by self-care. (Most said yes, to varying degrees and ways, reflecting how variegated self-care has become — at once junk food and healthy eating, for example.) “Mostly, staying on top of it [is what stresses me out]. I feel like it requires emotional energy, and I usually go through phases. When I’m not stressed, I’m also good at self-care.”
It’s an irony that the market has tapped into. Brands are well aware that stressed and tired consumers are vulnerable. Not only vulnerable, but more likely to be loyal to decisions made out of exhaustion. “When individuals are worn out, engaging in subsequent tasks requiring more effort should be even more straining than if they were at the top of their game,” writes Derek D. Rucker, PhD, an assistant professor of marketing at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, in a 2009 AdAge article summarizing his research. “…this work suggests that scheduling advertising when consumers are likely to be rundown would work well, assuming the creative can pull consumers in. Of course, the question then becomes, how do you identify when a target segment is likely to be fatigued?”
The answer is: literally all of the time. Much has been written about ‘millennial burnout‘ — the feeling of exhaustion, emotional overload and incapacity for dealing with the small things, which characterizes a generation raised to chase perfection and productivity, and who came of age comparing themselves to social media profiles pulled up across three different devices. We’ve also been reported on as the loneliest generation. Skeptics scoff that it’s a lack of resilience, a ‘snowflake’ problem, but as Rajvinder Samra, PhD, argues in The Conversation, “highly competent, psychologically healthy and seemingly resilient people are likely to face an increased risk of burnout.”
Whether we’re all so well-adjusted is open for debate, but the fact remains that “a lot of traditional structures [of support] are breaking down. As many evils as there were to the joint family system, it was at the end of the day a very large group of socialization available to people readily,” Vidha says. “Families are becoming smaller; we’re relying more on outsourcing the help to do things, rather than family members doing it.”
“When you are that lonely, then the only tool you [can] access is the one you can do by yourself,” she adds.
So, we hop on a never-ending cycle of investment in services and goods, but not really in ourselves. Because let’s be clear: self-care is not about fixing ourselves. Self-care is a break from our constant attempts at self-improvement, a break from the grind of work, family, and social obligations, from beauty norms, from unjust systems, from therapy — from effort. Self-care is about maintaining your current best, appreciating who you are right now, so you can return to the effort of becoming better, of doing more, of delivering yourself at 100%.
Finding self-solace in, say, a weekly manicure, massage, or face mask; in exercising or ‘clean eating’ (whatever that is) is not wrong, or unimportant — for many, these habits may fill the vital time and space they need. But time and space are the operative words when it comes to self-care.
Yet, the pressure from brands and social media to make sure this time and space is filled — with things, services, effort and validation — threatens to obscure what’s actually valuable. It also often funnels us further into the very beauty and wellness norms that keep women feeling bad about themselves — and in need of self-care (or at least self-care products).
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In response, a generation-defining counterindustry has popped up: the trivialized, much-derided ‘snowflake’ version of self-care that focuses on affirmation of self-value — “Because I’m worth it,” without the lipstick. Instagram accounts that consist solely of memes reminding viewers of their self-worth abound. As of reporting, #selflove had 29.5 million posts on Instagram — #selfcare, 16.3 million. Products that proclaim self-love publicly are picking up steam, things like “’self-care temporary tattoos’ in the shape of Band-Aids bearing reassurances like ‘This too shall pass’ and ‘I am enough,’” as described by Jordan Kisner in a self-care think piece for the New Yorker.
Perhaps this could provide a balance to a more insidious, improvement-focused version of self-care, if both didn’t promulgate an individual solution to a communal problem. The systemic injustices that first prompted the self-care movement haven’t disappeared, they’ve just gone underground. Increasing wealth and education have given many of us the illusion of freedom and control, but society and its institutions haven’t changed that much. There’s no zumba class or temporary tattoo that can make more palatable being a woman, queer or otherwise marginalized person in this unequal world. “If self-care is to truly improve our well-being, then perhaps the best way of caring for ourselves and others is by engaging in action that dismantles the system in which we’re currently operating,” argues Laura Havlin in Dazed.
Best is a relative term, though. This is still an effortful, improvement-oriented kind of self-care, and one moreover that puts the solution to unjust systems on the shoulders of those disadvantaged by them. This isn’t to say social change is unimportant (or that my generation is disinterested; we are very interested), but institutions don’t evolve overnight. Self-care should be about how to last in the face of this slog toward a more equitable society.
The safety net, reimagined
Some have promoted increasing access to mental health care as the way to fill the void filled and emptied again by self-care. For Vidha, that’s unrealistic. A shortage of mental health specialists means individual treatment, while important, can’t be the answer to a large-scale problem. Instead, she says, it’s a matter of finding ways to replace the old, in-built family networks with new, community-based ones — lay counselors, social workers and support groups — equipped to be frontline mental health support systems, thus bridging the gap between individual therapy and the real world. It’s a model of care proposed in 2015 by Vikram Patel, a globally prominent psychiatrist and researcher, as a way to address the mental health care gap in India by creating a web of holistic support, as opposed to a single interface.
“What’s happening in mental health right now is, it’s becoming a band-aid solution to a flood situation,” Vidha says. “Specialist care is failing even in first world countries; in our country, it doesn’t make sense at all. We need layers of care, and we need to understand that community needs to be part of mental health intervention also.
“We can’t function, you know, if you’re in my office, you come in, you go out, and I don’t know what’s happening to you outside of it,” she says. “We cannot continue to work in this isolated way that we have continued to do, because that is pathologizing people even more, right? That is making them internalize that the problem is with them.”
Commercialized self-care, as a means of self-betterment, is part of what got us to this tipping point — this conviction that the problem is with us. It’s a point from which even the original idea of self-care as a means of preservation can’t shift us forward. Preservation brings to mind insects held in amber, unchanging, and forever alone. It grants the illusion of control by a self-imposed restriction — nothing feels chaotic, if for one moment of time and space, nothing is around.
“[Self-care] is trying to make people feel like they have this control over their situations. And sure, it has its merits. There are positives to doing self-care,” Vidha says. “But it’s not going to be able to make up for the multiple levels of solutions that we need.”