In the last five years, “self-care” has become a popular term in many people’s lexicons. As we advance our careers and relationships, so do we seek to cultivate our minds and bodies against the pressures of everyday life. However, the concept of self-care has become more and more intertwined with consumerism. Wellness is a packaged deal; self-gifting is encouraged. And all this because “You deserved it!” But who is “you?” Under capitalism, self-care is only granted to the productive and wealthy members of society. Meanwhile, true contentment and autonomy are at risk of being eroded.
Ask Capitalist Questions, Get Capitalist Answers
The modern wave of self-care emerged as an answer to job burnout. These days, it isn’t uncommon for workplaces to hand out pamphlets advising you to “recenter and re-energize.” Accordingly, we start taking up yoga on the weekends or meditating during breaks. Nonetheless, these are only surface-level fixes to a deeply entrenched issue.
Fundamentally, the capitalist work system is anti-self-care. Workers are pushed to the height of productivity, constantly at risk of being displaced. Consumerist self-care is capitalism trying to provide a solution to a problem it created.
Society tells us to “treat ourselves” to a cold brew or a shopping haul—treat ourselves because we deserve it. Consequently, this conditions us to believe that we only deserve personal enjoyment after working our fingers to the bone. Our productivity justifies our material rewards which define our self-perception.
Self-Care Is Expensive
The commodification of self-care has allowed industries to constantly raise the bar for what it means to treat yourself. Just take a look at Goop, a wellness company started by Gwyneth Paltrow. You may know them from their $90 vitamin packets or $66 vaginal jade eggs (yes, you read that correctly.) While it’s easy to pass these products off as ridiculous, the truth is that people are buying them. Goop’s vitamin sales surpassed $100,000 in just one day.
And the face of it all is Paltrow: tall, blonde, and glamorous. It is less about who Paltrow is than what she represents. Companies like hers do not only advertise self-care but also what we have come to associate with it—beauty, wealth, and prestige. As long as the wellness industry keeps reinforcing that association, so will we keep buying their products.
Manifesting Material Culture In Social Media
While Goop is mostly indulged by a select class, the wellness industry makes their products accessible and appealing to the everyday consumer. Social media is rife with inconspicuous marketing of self-care items, from skinny teas to skincare. Influencers turn the supposedly private ceremony of self-care into a spectacle. Thus, we become less concerned with achieving happiness than gaining social capital by purchasing their products.
Although there is no harm in putting on an avocado sheet mask, what social media ultimately gives us is a materialistic and narcissistic substitute for self-care. We stray away from the goal of mental serenity to seek validation from others.
To re-imagine self-care, we must completely separate it from the capitalist ideals of productivity and material reward. For feminist scholar bell hooks, self-care may simply be “the awesome task of just lingering.” This is surprising for those of us who feel guilty at the prospect of “doing nothing.” Yet, she paints a picture of tranquil reflection where thoughts, dreams, and yearnings collide. hooks believes in the power of such lingering for “sharp moments of clarity.”
Without the stimulus of consumption, we can open ourselves up to new possibilities of self-realization. We can be at peace with leisure without wondering whether we worked hard enough to deserve it. Most importantly, we can begin to dismantle the system that truly doesn’t care about us.
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