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There’s a new cultural trend on a precipitous rise: spending money in the name of “self-care.” Take a hot bubble bath with enough candles that your bathroom could be mistaken for a vigil! Wrap yourself in a cocoon of new 900-thread count sheets! Do not move for 48 hours, unless it’s to dish up another giant slice of chocolate cake or generous pour of wine! Work hard to block out all of your worldly problems!! The “new” self-care movement justifies the purchase of commodities as a way to make life just a little bit more luxurious or tolerable; it tells you to “Spend a little bit of money on YOURSELF for once in your life!”
Log onto Instagram for a moment, and check the #selfcare hashtag. What do you see? Generally, it is attractive white women selling you a product, whether that product is yoga instruction, nail decals, or herself. It’s official! The self-care movement has been co-opted by consumerist forces, perhaps unsurprisingly. Which means that now is a great time to dissect and analyze the self-care movement; Why did this happen? How are people using the “new” self-care movement? What is “real” self-care?
The “New” Self-Care Movement
Self-care wasn’t always turmeric face masks and $7 coffees, you see. The movement has an interesting and legitimate backstory, starting as far back as ancient Greece and more recently, involving people in traumatic lines of work such as sex abuse counselors. Self-care grew as a methodology for minority groups to stay healthy from within a system that refused to treat them. For many, self-care remains an act of political resistance and self-protection. I encourage you to read this for more on the history of self-care.
In the last few years—some date it to the United States’ most recent presidential election cycle—there's been a huge resurgence in the use (and interpretation) of self-care. And while some folks are making space in their lives for true wellness, there’s a virulent strain of self-care going around that’s nothing more than stealth marketing tactic. Whether it’s spa or beauty treatments, scented candles and bath salts, the $6 coffee, red velvet cupcakes—there’s no shortage to consumer products who market under the guise of self-care. Self-care’s cousin, “Treat Yo’ Self” is used even more generally as an excuse to sell, well, anything at all. At the root of all of this is the notion that “you work hard so you deserve it.”
Check out this article titled “This Nightly Self-Care Routine Helped Me Beat My Insomnia.” To date, this is the most shameless example I’ve seen of self-care as a marketing tool. If you think this list includes scientifically-proven suggestions such as getting 60 minutes of exercise per day and minimizing stress after work, you are giving capitalism too much credit. This article pushes 8 terrifically useless products, ranging from $18 crystals to an $80 essential oils diffuser. In total, this article is hawking over $900 worth of total garbage in the name of self-care.
The Justification of Spending Money
Everyone’s allowed to have a the occasional slice of chocolate cake it's just that I don't personally don’t feel the need to justify the act with the label of self-care. Why? Because enjoying life shouldn't require justification! We’re allowed to eat the occasional treat just because we want to, you know. We shouldn’t feel guilty about doing what pleases us and prioritizing those things (in moderation) in our lives. It is strange that we live in a culture where taking pleasure—especially when that pleasure is had by women—requires any defending whatsoever.
Why do women feel obligated to defend indulgences but men don’t? It is absurd to envision a man referring to drinking a few beers as “self-care,” but it is definitely feasible to envision a woman with a glass of red wine doing so. Is it because women are routinely criticized because of how they spend money when it’s on themselves? Surely it must be. “Splurging” is a gender-neutral phenomenon, yet you don’t see a dude get lambasted as vain when he treats himself to a watch or gadget; so why are we so flustered when a woman wants to buy a spa treatment, a pair of shoes, or some make-up? I think we’d see a lot fewer claims of “self-care” if we, as a culture, felt comfortable allowing women to spend money how they please, to feel and be powerful, and to engage in their own pleasure.
My friend with thousands in credit card debt often says things, unprovoked, like “Yeah this yoga class is expensive but it’s self-care.” I want to tell her that it’s okay if she wants to go to yoga class (!!!) but that she shouldn’t use “self-care” as a device to insulate [insert purchase here] from the critical consideration of whether it fits into a budget. “Self-care” purchases don’t get some free pass; money management requires creativity (and there are almost always more affordable options). Now, if you determine after some analysis that the class still makes the most sense for you and it fits in your overall plan, go for it! But in general, splurge on things you like because you like them and have budgeted for them, not because you think that they will fix your problems. In this situation, it’s clear what the real root of her anxiety is.
So, What is “Real” Self-Care?
A good first step towards self-care is understanding that the distraction is probably not the solution.
Real self-care requires personal, emotional, and physical development. It is healing through introspection and work, both of which are tough. Self-care is doing the things that actually make your life healthier in substantial and a long-term ways; it is about working to become a better person in every sense. It is about confronting difficult realities in your life and asking if there is some material way to change the worst of them, instead of constantly treating the symptoms of unhappiness like Band-Aids on a broken bone.
While my expertise is not necessarily in helping you live a more thoughtful life, I have tried to solve a lot of problems with alcohol and am at terms with the reality that my problems will not be fixed by anything I can drink, eat, or buy at a store. To me, self-care means loving and appreciating myself without the validation of others, cultivating a close community, spending time outside and away from my inbox, and most importantly, having a project to work on that makes me feel fulfilled. As cheesy as it sounds, it’s all deathbed regrets type-of stuff, like spending more time with loved ones. ‘Cause when you’re lying on the ol’ deathbed, I guarantee you won’t be thinking: “I shoulda bought more sheet masks.”
Taking action on debt and learning how to manage your money are essential to your wellbeing. 42% of Canadians say that money is their greatest source of stress, more than “work” and “relationships” combined. 50% of women and 41% of men lose sleep over financial stress. The European Journal of Public Health recently classified debt (of any kind) as a contributing factor to Common Mental Disorders (such as anxiety and depression), with debtholders three times more likely to feel depressed than those without debt. No, organizing your finances isn’t as fun as sitting in a bubble bath and binging on Netflix, but hopefully, you see the endless value of this tough but gratifying work.
Also, doesn’t financial security, freedom, and ultimately, independence, sound like the ultimate in self-care? Yes, you deserve nice things today. But you also deserve to retire someday, free from money worry. So go ahead and “treat yo’ self” to an extra contribution to your retirement or debt payment of choice!
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