How Self-Care Became a Commodity in the Modern Era of Wellness

Photo: Getty Images/Aliaksandra Ivanova-EyeEm
These days, you'd be hard-pressed to scroll on Instagram without seeing someone eating something delicious, or wearing something cozy, or jet-setting somewhere exotic, all in the name of #selfcare, a term that's been hashtagged 21.3 million times on Instagram (and counting). But the concept far pre-dates the fall of 2016, which is when Google searches for it picked up steam and the idea metamorphosed into a full-blown lifestyle philosophy of prioritizing the self in the name of health.

Decades earlier, Slate reports, self care was used to describe a form of political resistance that involved looking inward in the midst of external chaos. Usage saw peaks in the '60s and '70s during the women's liberation and civil rights movements. Its 2016 resurgence makes sense, then, given its ascent alongside that year's presidential election, the results of which left many Americans feeling stressed and looking for avenues to feel better. “Self care is knowing yourself and knowing that at different times and different seasons and parts of your life, you will need support differently,” says wellness expert and reiki master Kelsey Patel.

And while the original definition of self care—care for your body, mind, and spirit—still holds true in its modern iteration, there is a component of it that's new to this decade. Now, the internal reflection that facilitates caring for oneself often comes to fruition with the assistance of products and brands—or, as coined in a 2011 episode of Parks and Recreation, the "treat yo'self" mentality. That's because this has been the decade of not just self care, but the widespread commodification of it.

How brands get us to buy in

Self care doesn't have to cost a dime, but that hasn't stopped a critical mass of brands from using the term to peddle their wares. Notably, we're being sold self care by in the form of tampons from Blume (tagline: "Self-care for the mind, body, and spirit"), candles from Self Care Co. (which calls itself "the self-care company"), sweatshirts from Self Care Station ("self-care is for everyone"), and personalized vitamins from Care/Of ("take care of your life")—all of which were launched post-2016.

This marketing can be problematic, says Carla Marie Manly, PhD, clinical psychologist, and author of Joy From Fear. She notes that the popularity of self-care items meant to elicit peace, happiness, and an increased sense of self-worth can subconsciously lead people to believe that in order to experience those positive states of being, they need to invest. “When self care is commodified, the psyche learns to equate caring for the self with needing to spend money on the self," Dr. Manly says. "This relegates self care into the realm of ‘those who have money can have self care and those who don’t have money can’t.’”

Patel agrees. "That’s where the harm comes in," she says. "A lot of these brands and products out there have used traditional marketing in a way that makes people feel they need a thing outside of themselves to access the care within.”

Another major propagator of this false idea that you need money and *stuff* to practice self care is Instagram, where sheet-mask selfies and well-staged photos of bathtubs brimming with bubbles and petals reign supreme. (If a person takes a bath and doesn't post with hashtag-selfcare, did the bath really happen?) But in effect, this undercuts the positive takeaways from the self-care rituals being practiced. The good news is that Well+Good predicted 2019 would mark the demise of this performative wellness and usher in an era of authenticity in time for the new decade. Because, As Dr. Manly contends, self care should be accessible to all, just as it was in the '60s and '70s. “It can be as easy and inexpensive as sharing time with a close friend, taking a nap, or writing in one’s journal," she says.

Self care in practice (with our without accessories)

Alongside all the tampons and candles and vitamins, however, are companies looking to re-emphasize self care as a ritual or act, rather than a product. The spa services at Chillhouse, a New York City-based spa and café (which uses the tagline “building destinations for modern self care"), aren't cheap, but if self care care for you looks like taking a break from checking your email to sip matcha while you get your nails done, you can take yourself on a self-care date for less than $30. Meanwhile, the totally free newsletter Girls’ Night In, which launched in 2017, will deliver self-care tips and recommendations directly to your inbox. And it's no coincidence that the rise of the self-care movement coincided with a resurgence of meditation and mindfulness, as exemplified by companies like Headspace, the Big Quiet, and MNDFL. It seems there’s never been a better time than now to practice self care, in its traditional mindfulness-forward definition.

Still, if you want to buy into self care via products and services, Patel says it's certainly possible to do so in a way that's additive to your life. “We are complex beings. No one product will save you from yourself,” she says, but these products can supplement healthy lifestyle habits, like eating healthy foods and taking time for mindfulness, if they are used as a means of cultivating kindness for yourself. Patel created her own self-care line of products that are ritualistic in nature, Magik Vibes Box, with this point in mind. “I wanted to share with people knowing they will decide what’s best for them at different times in their lives,” she says. With the self-care retail market only forecasted to grow, the key here is in not in avoiding the commodification of the concept, but interacting with it as a conscious consumer and a grounded person.

In other words, no matter what you buy or how much you spend on it, if you are turning inward, honoring your needs, loving your body, and caring for your soul, it’s self care. And, it's the kind of self care that will transcend the ages, through political strife and states of calm.

Other big wellness takeaways from the past decade? All travel became wellness travel. And  social media changed our lives in many ways—for the better.

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