If I had the production budget or any musical skill whatsoever, I would create one of those Saturday Night Live-style music video parodies about the state of the self-care industry. (You know the videos I’m talking about, like this one about re-gifting candles and this one about mooching off your parents on holiday breaks.)
Lights, camera, action: The video begins with a woman and her boyfriend sitting on the couch. She says to him, “Oh I see, you’re drinking a six-pack because of self-care reasons!!” He has zero fucking clue what she’s talking about and responds, “No, I am drinking beer because I want to.” She quickly pours herself some red wine in one of those clown-sized wine glasses and retorts with a “Well, I’m having wine because it is SELF-CARE and I DESERVE IT!!!”
First, a brief history: Self-care is a concept that’s been around for ages, with references dating back as far as ancient Greece. Self-care as we tend to understand it—the act of making time to prioritize one’s own well-being—emerged in the 60s and 70s for those working in “high-risk and emotionally daunting professions,” such as trauma nurses and sex abuse counselors. Shortly thereafter, self-care strategies were adopted by women and minority groups who were ignored and mistreated by a racist and sexist medical care system that had no interest in accommodating them. For minority groups, self-care remains an act of political resistance and self-preservation.
Self-care and “wellness” grew in popularity in the 80s and 90s within crunchier circles (hippies, yoga moms, trustafarians), and nowadays self-care is a card-carrying member of the cultural zeitgeist; as American as apple pie and semi-automatic weaponry. This new, capitalism-driven, commodified version of self-care is having quite the moment, but has taken a form that is less “self-preservation” and more “Treat Yo’ Self.”
I didn’t come onto the internet today to tell you that you shouldn’t spend money on yourself. You definitely should. Hopefully, at no point did you get the impression that I recommend shuffling frugally and lifelessly towards your #minimalist grave. Everyone’s allowed to have some chocolate cake; I just wish we didn’t feel the need to justify the act with the label of “self-care.” Enjoying life shouldn’t require justification. We shouldn’t feel guilty about doing what pleases us and prioritizing those things (in moderation) in our lives. It is barbaric that we live in a culture where taking pleasure—especially when that pleasure is had by a woman—requires any defending whatsoever.
It is borderline absurd to envision a man referring to drinking alcohol as “self-care,” but perfectly reasonable to envision a woman drinking alcohol to do so. Why do we, as women, feel obligated to defend our indulgences? Is it because we live in a world where women can’t spend money on themselves without fear of criticism or shaming, even from one another? Or that women are considered vain or irresponsible if they prioritize their own beauty (from within a system that tells her, daily, that nothing is more important than her beauty)? Or is it because a woman’s pleasure makes society uncomfortable, and she feels that she has no choice but to defend that pleasure?
Let’s be clear: A woman’s consumption of pleasure needs no explanation. Not to you, not to herself, not to anybody.
Our parody music video cuts to a new scene: Woman can be seen pushing a cart down the aisle of a Target, where she picks something up, look at it, exclaims in sing-song: “Self-care!!” and throws it into her cart. She grabs a Dew Dreams-scented candle. “Self-care!!” Into the cart it goes. Turmeric face mask? “Self-care!!” A cute pajama set? “SELF-CARE!!” A 45-pound bag of beef jerky? “SELF-CARE!!” [The music kicks up an octave.] 10-gallon tub of butter? “SELF-CARE!!!!!!” NOVELTY TOASTER? “SELF-CARE!!!!!!!!!!!!” While unloading her overflowing cart at the check-out line, she informs a disinterested attendant, “FYI, THESE ARE SELF-CARE PURCHASES!!!”
Sadly, my expertise is not in helping you find inner peace. But I am someone that’s tried to cure a lot of problems at the bottom of the bottle and who is (nearly) at terms with the reality that material and substance highs aren’t the stuff of fulfillment. While I am all for spending my fun money on things that I like, I reject the notion that my problems can be fixed by anything that can be purchased at a store. (Something I must remind myself constantly.)
I recently read an article titled “This Nightly Self-Care Routine Helped Me Beat My Insomnia” in a popular women’s magazine. Now, if you think this list included such steps as 1. Get 45 minutes of exercise and 2. Read a book before bedtime OR includes sound advice from professionals regarding a potentially complicated medical diagnosis, BOY OH BOY does shameless capitalism have some news for you! Instead, this article pushes 8 “wellness” products, ranging from $11 sage sticks from Urban Outfitters to an $80 essential oil diffuser that looks like bougie Aggro Crag.
This article has less than zero intention of helping you get your zzZZZs; it’s an advertisement dressed in editorial costume.
Pushing her cart overfloweth into the parking lot, she runs into an old acquaintance and mentions that she was “Just doin’ a lil self-care shopping!!” Her friend says “Oh I had a self-care weekend too! I exercised, forgave myself for something I’ve been upset about, set some physical and emotional boundaries with a toxic family member, increased my 401(k) percentage, and relaxed on the couch!!” The self-care shopper crinkles up her nose and responds, without irony, “Clearly, you don’t understand self-care.”
Splurging on a new pajama set is not real self-care in the same way that buying a pink “Girl Power” t-shirt is not feminism. While both are totally fine purchases if that’s your taste in sleepwear or titty coverage, neither are markers of spending that is somehow more enlightened. I’m reminded of Nike’s recent feminist-themed Serena Williams campaign for International Women’s Day. It is gorgeous and (almost) makes me wanna run wind sprints but you better believe that Nike WOULD NOT use feminist messaging if they didn’t think it would make sneakers fly off the shelves. Capitalism finds a way to co-opt every good trend or social movement, wrapping it in plastic to be sold. Sigh.
Real self-care is about doing the things that actually make your life better in substantial and long-term ways. It is about health, healing, and personal development. It is about confronting difficult realities in life and asking if there is some material way to change the worst of them, instead of constantly treating the symptoms of unhappiness like we’re battleground triage nurses. It’s about creating a life that doesn’t make us feel broken, as hard as that may be. While a splurge may make us feel temporarily lifted, let’s be careful not to conflate distractions and solutions.
The ending scene (which admittedly takes it too far, as sketch comedy sometimes does) has us panning out to a faraway planet, where two aliens have acquired a human smartphone. They have been informed that ‘self-care’ is considered integral to human function and survival, so they pull up the hashtag “#selfcare” on Instagram to do some research. They are surprised to find 14,000,000+ images of thin, flawless, white women. They see yoga lessons on a private beach, motivational quotes, a calming spa, pretty nails, and soft hands wrapped about a peach-colored coffee mug. The aliens come to the only possible conclusion: Self-care is a luxury only for rich, white people.
Yes, you deserve nice things, no matter your income or net worth. We all do! But do not let the powers that be convince you that you need to spend money to do self-care. In fact, just the opposite is true! While you needn’t feel any guilt about buying the occasional fancy latte, but you also deserve the feeling of financial stability. You deserve to be free from emotionally crushing credit card debt. You deserve to love the place that you live. You deserve to someday to pursue your passions, to someday be financially free.
I mean, doesn’t retirement (or semi-retirement) sound like the ultimate in self-care? Just sayin’ 🙂