If I had the time, 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 no 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 this glass of wine because it is SELF-CARE and I hashtag DESERVE IT!!!”
First, a brief history: Self-care is a concept that’s been around for ages, with hot takes on “self-governance” 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 being ignored and mistreated by a racist and sexist medical care system which 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) 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.” Parks and Recreation fans will recognize “Treat Yo’ Self” from the episode that defined buying yourself nice things because You deserve it.
I didn’t sign 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: After experiencing some mild inconvenience, our 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 Morning 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 in 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.
Recently, I read an article titled “This Nightly Self-Care Routine Helped Me Beat My Insomnia.” If you think this list included steps such as 1. Get 45 minutes of exercise every day and 2. Read a book before bedtime, BOY OH BOY DOES SHAMELESS CAPITALISM HAVE SOME NEWS FOR YOU!!!!!! This article pushes 8 garbage products, ranging from $18 crystals to an $80 essential oils diffuser that looks like a bougie piece of the Aggro Crag. In total, this “women’s magazine” is hawking over $900 worth of shit in the name of ‘self-care.’ This article has less than zero intention of helping you fall asleep. It’s an advertisement dressed as an article, waitin’ for the suckers to roll in.
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 “better” or “more enlightened.” I’m reminded of Nike’s recent feminist-themed Serena Williams campaign for International Women’s Day. It is gorgeous and makes me want to 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 in 2018. Capitalism finds a way to co-opt every good trend or social movement, wrapping it up in plastic to be sold. Sigh.
Real self-care is about doing the things that actually make your life healthier in substantial and long-term ways. It is about health, both physical and mental, 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 bubble bath or a sheet mask can certainly aid us in feeling slightly less broken, let’s also be careful not to label the distraction as a solution.
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. (I really hope one is played by my hero, Kate McKinnon.) 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 4,000,000+ images of thin, flawless, white women. They see private yoga lessons, the occasional motivational quote, a calming spa, pretty nails and soft hands wrapped about a peach-colored coffee mug. There is a bronzed, raven-haired woman meditating on an idyllic, private beach. The aliens come to the only possible conclusion: Self-care is a luxury only for rich, white people.
When we start to think of self-care as a luxury that only those with money can access, we’re taking a giant shit on the very principles that the self-care movement were founded upon. 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 self-care. In fact, just the opposite is true! And while you deserve the occasional latte and to feel relaxed AF on Sunday evenings, you also deserve the feeling of financial stability. You owe it to yourself to be free from the emotionally crushing feeling of credit card debt. You owe it to yourself to love the place that you live. You owe yourself the ability to someday be financially free and to pursue a passion. I mean, doesn’t retirement (or semi-retirement) sound like the ultimate in self-care? Just sayin’ <3