The commodification of the self-care movement
‘If you can’t love yourself how in the hell are you gonna love somebody else?’
The self-care movement stems from a history of feminist activism and yet, it is largely considered today as a narcissistic and self-absorbed practice because of how it is being used by brands. While on the surface the #selfcare that is used in marketing appears to align with the Feminist movement, the reality is, it has been completely commodified to such an extent that the act of caring for yourself comes at a price and can only be accessed by those privileged with the funds and the time. Those who cannot afford the products that are categorised as self-care may assume they cannot participate in the ‘trend’ even though the movement was originally made for people like them.
It’s no surprise that the self-care movement has such a huge market whilst reflecting on headlines and tragedies that have occurred over the last few years alone. In an article on this topic, Shayla Love questions ‘If we lived in a world in which we were being properly taken care of, would self-care have the same appeal?’ It feels sinister to offer these expensive products as a form of replacement for the underfunded mental health services we are bearing witness to. When Donald Trump was elected president in 2016, the Google searches of the term ‘self-care’ reached a 5-year high which shows increasingly people have felt that they can only access help through themselves, as opposed to feeling hopeful of the changes that can be made through the people in charge who hold most responsibility for bettering society.
What is most alarming is how brands have picked up the self-care rhetoric and have aligned it with feminism. The marketing around self-care is gendered and focuses explicitly on the act of complete isolation.
There are numerous examples of self-care items that are marketed predominantly towards womxn as means of escape from the stresses of the world. Some of which do seem to fit a fixed purpose such as a guided mood-tracker journal for new mothers or essential oils that have the key ingredients to help people sleep better. But, there are a huge number of expensive products that are branded under the name ‘self-care’ and many of these feed upon common insecurities. These products range from a “CALM DOWN” bodywash (retailing at £20), manicures, and specific makeup and skincare. There are multiple blog posts written by womxn that advocate anti-aging products and collagen powders ‘in the name of self-care’. This makes me wonder how a movement that was founded on self-acceptance and love can share the same title with brands selling products that align with our culture’s obsession of consistently looking young and moulding womxn to replicate the ever-changing beauty standards.
While there is nothing wrong with purchasing and enjoying these products, we should not consider these items alone as the utmost form of care. There is a need to broaden the demographic of those we encourage to practice self-care. This is being done by writer and activist Fariha Róisín who interviews people to reshape narratives about wellness for themselves and their communities. Fariha writes about what self-care might look like such as, ‘It might mean skipping a drink when offered or just listening to your body. Does it feel good? Do you need to make time to not be social?’
Moreover, this idea of caring for yourself when you are most emotionally vulnerable through the act of isolating activities including online shopping and hour-long baths to spend more time alone with your thoughts rather than reaching out to others for help is harmful to preach. Laurie Pennie labels this rhetoric as ‘gas-lighting’ and abusive because it makes you feel: ‘if you are miserable or angry because your life is a constant struggle against privation or prejudice, the problem is always and only with you’. We prevent ourselves from considering a broader reaction to how are we are feeling. So much of the motivational quotes that we see posted revolve around this concept that you are the one stopping yourself from achievement and feeling content, rather than taking into consideration levels of power and prejudices.
This movement was made popular by the activists who were the most marginalised as a protest. It is Audre Lord’s writing that we see to be symbolic of the entire movement, ‘Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare’. Lorde described herself as ‘Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet’, and she dedicated her life to confront the injustices of classism, racism, sexism, just to name a few.
The idea of self-care rose alongside the civil rights movement and womxn’s movement in the US. Aisha Harris describes ‘womxn and people of colour viewed controlling their health as a corrective to the failures of a white, patriarchal medical system to properly tend to their needs’. The unjust poverty that those who were most marginalised were experiencing was having fatal impacts on health. To save lives, there could be no race, gender, and class hierarchies as this was stopping individuals from receiving the medical attention they desperately needed. Activists were openly educating people on health and opening nation-wide programs that recruited nurses, doctors, and students to test for illnesses and provided basic care that many people could access in the US healthcare system.
Unfortunately, we still see similar problems today in the UK, there are huge systemic prejudices in our healthcare. Black, Asian, and ethnic minority, working-class womxn and poor womxn are more likely to die in childbirth than white wealthier womxn. Urgent investigations about this and outreach programs should be government-funded to help womxn, but this is not happening. A campaign named FivexMore is amplifying these statistics and is crying for change. They are spreading awareness regarding the perils faced by Black mothers and equipping womxn with tools to improve their personal health outcomes.
What does self-care even look like?
In Bell Hooks’ book All About Love, she theorises the concept of love and provides radical new ways to think about the art of loving, and includes an entire chapter on self-love. Hooks utilizes the following definition of self-love, ‘Self-love cannot flourish in isolation. It is no easy task to be self-loving … It is the practice of living consciously, self-acceptance, self-responsibility, self-assertiveness, living purposefully and the practice of personal integrity’.
‘Living consciously’ and maintaining ‘self-assertiveness’ looks different for everyone but overall it should be openly accessible for all. It does not need to have a price attached and it does not equate to escapism and avoidance of responsibility. Gloria Steinem’s best-seller Revolution from Withinpromoted the practice of living consciously by describing the danger of achieving success without doing the necessary groundwork for self-love and self-esteem. She found that achieving womxn who still suffered internalised self-hatred invariably acted out in ways that undermined their success.
This idea of ‘groundwork’ within self-care is not something that brands explore; instead, they sell you the seemingly quick-fixed solution. The AA program can be considered a radical act of self-care that begins with the accountability of being powerless to addiction.
It looks like a lot of things for different people such as finding ways to not let your job or lack of job define you, understanding how your actions impact others and knowing when to reach out for further help. Ultimately, it is an openly accessible practice with a rich activist history that is needed for everyone.