If you’re resolved to make self-care happen in the new year, you’re not alone. And if you’re not quite sure what it is, there are 11.5 million #selfcare hashtagged Instagram posts to show you.
But many of them are also trying to sell you. Accompanying the #selfcare hashtag is often #ad or #spon (sponsored), reflecting a billion dollar market that has risen up around the movement. Apple even named self-care its 2018 App Trend of the Year.
Powered by collective stress, bolstered by social media, and commodified by brands eager to exploit people’s desire for self-improvement, self-care has evolved from an individual act to a mainstream movement — and market — where the lines between true wellness, social media performance and self-criticism blur.
“Self-care can sort of blur into self-improvement which can sort of blur into you’re not good enough as you are,” said Christine Carter, a sociologist and senior fellow at UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center. “And when it becomes focused on the body, particularly for women … that starts to get really tricky.”
Self-care: Badass or basic?
Self-care seems to be a concept particular to women.
Google searches for “self care” hit a 14-year high in September, the week of then Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings, when the relentlessness of sexual assault allegations in the news upset many women with similar experiences. It marked a peak in an upward trend in search for self-care that began after President Trump’s election. More than six in 10 Americans report the current political climate is a significant stressor, according to a 2018 report from the American Psychological Association (APA).
This would suggest a return to the idea of self-care bolstered by African-American lesbian activist Audre Lorde in 1988, when she called it “self-preservation” and “an act of political warfare.” Lorde saw self-care as something politically useful for people who felt oppressed — care for yourself so that you have energy to advocate for the collective good.
Melissa Perez, 34, of New York, works in child welfare, and says she makes self-care a priority in large part because her job is so draining. For her, self-care means going to the gym, minding her triggers and meditating.
“If you do not have the capacity to care for yourself there is no way you can care for others,” she said.
But Carter says self-care’s popularity may actually reflect how powerless some people feel to help one another. To escape a feeling of futility in the current political environment, she said, it may be that more people are choosing to focus on what they can control: themselves.
“I do think that there is a fair amount of the hashtag #selfcare that is really a thinly veiled expression of hopelessness,” Carter said.
Others see the brand of self-care that’s gone mainstream as a bastardized version of Lorde’s idea. The current incarnation of self-care — championed in large part by white upperclass women and promoted heavily through social media performance — has been criticized as aspirational in a way most people can never make time for, let alone afford. Some would say it seems to exclude the people who arguably need self-care the most.
In December, New York’s newly-elected congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was criticized by some for announcing she was taking a self-care break. She gave a shout-out to some of the people she sees as likely needing one too.
Self-identified “anti-guru” Sarah Knight, author of several self-help books including the most recent Calm the F*** Down, says women are especially in need of self-care. Women have a long history of serving as caregivers — often at great expense to themselves.
“Any time men focus on their damn selves that is perfectly natural and the way of the world,” Knight said. With men, it’s not labeled self-care. “When women do it, it’s selfish, and it’s bad, and we shouldn’t talk about it.”
If you’re hashtagging #selfcare are you doing it wrong?
Experts say true self-care is about creating health and well-being, though there isn’t agreement about what falls under that umbrella. Most people say rest and sleep are self-care. But what about wine with friends? Is buying shoes self-care, too?
“Self-care is about taking care of yourself so that you can be there for other people,” said Maria Baratta, a licensed clinical psychologist in New York. “Narcissism is about putting the self first, but not in a way that benefits anyone but the self.”
If you’re doing something to reduce stress, to ensure your mind and body are functioning optimally, that is self-care, according to psychologists, and lots of things fall into that bucket. But doing it to get likes on a #selfcare photo may not serve that purpose — and could actually backfire.
“We have a fair amount of research now that shows most people who are performing on social media feel less happy, so the fact that you’re performing self-care for social media in and of itself is highly likely to make you more insecure and feel worse about yourself,” Carter said. “If you’re going to take care of yourself, great. If you really feel much more relaxed having a pedicure, great, go do that, but then don’t go perform it. That’s just my happiness advice.”
Self-care that benefits the mind and the body, Carter says, “fosters an authentic positive emotion — like gratitude, contentedness, compassion, elevation or inspiration.” These positive emotions reduce stress by bringing the heart rate down, reducing blood pressure and calming the nervous system.
Excess, however, can have a very different physiological impact.
“Indulgence is the extreme end of pleasure — those things activate the reward system [which] can be very gratifying, but in the end it tends to create more stress, because that dopamine hit you got because of the new shoes that you bought yourself ultimately creates craving and desire — it’s never enough,” Carter said. “Pleasure and luxury can feel good in the moment, but it leaves you wanting more.”
Knight warns against limiting definitions of self-care as well as subscribing to what social media says it should be.
“If you follow and like and click on all of these women who are doing yoga retreats or whatever and they have these amazing bodies and they look so calm and you think you should be doing that because it would make you feel better — you know how many people have recommended that I do yoga to relax? You know how much I like yoga? Zero. Zero percent I like yoga,” Knight said. “My version of self-care is not yoga.”
Self-care can be a quiet exercise that costs nothing. It can be the awe we feel walking in nature, a phone call to a friend, or taking time to reflect on what we’re grateful for. Some would say it could also mean buying shoes, especially if you need them. But ultimately self-care means being curious about who you are, and figuring out for yourself what you need — versus what you want — to live well.
“Who are you to say that anything I want to label as caring for myself is not actually that?” Knight asks.
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