A perfunctory scroll through Instagram will inevitably pull up images of a woman in a bubble bath, holding a glass of wine, captioned #selfcare, a term that is thrown around so much that it has essentially become every millennial woman’s rallying cry. But as it became a massive trend, what was meant to be a mindful practice was co-opted and commercialised, turned into a marketing tool used to sell women bath bombs and expensive facials.
Self-care was originally born as a form of therapy, but quickly entered the zeitgeist of female wellness in a pretty disingenuous way. Most of us have been sold a very reductive idea of what self-care actually is, limited to one-off acts of indulgence and instant gratification that often require spending money on the way we look. But what is self-care, really?
“Self care is about recharging depleted energy,” says Jessica Boston, a cognitive hypnotherapist who specialises in working with anxiety and women’s confidence. “It means something a little bit different to everybody, but it’s anything where you’re making an effort to put yourself first and reconnecting back to yourself.” For some people this means running a hot bath and lighting a Diptyque candle, or getting a mani-pedi, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. However, we should be wary of a model of self-care that’s entirely contingent on spending money on our appearance, regardless of our individual needs or preferences.
As women we’re constantly being sold products or treatments under the guise of self-confidence and empowerment, so it can be hard to understand the real meaning of self-care with all the red tape surrounding it. Boston explains that this is often due to “years and years of conditioning from a system that benefits from the misery that comes from women having a dysfunctional relationship with their bodies”. If you can make women feel uncomfortable in their bodies, you can sell them a commodified idea of self-care. “I feel strongly about women’s misery being used to sell them things (and) about making sure they don’t feel good enough, hijacking that and tell them ‘this is the solution to how you feel’.”
This isn’t to say that indulging in personal upkeep is always detrimental, in fact in some cases it can be the best form of self-care. “Often when people have body image issues they become disconnected from their bodies,” says Boston, adding that in this respect, pampering yourself or spending time caring for your body is the best remedy. The problem arises when we’re told this is the only definition of self care, or at the very least it’s the “correct” way to do it. We should be weary of brands trying to peddle the idea that a bubble bath will cure your anxiety disorder, centering their product as the cure and saying “look, this will make you feel better”. See most of Dove’s campaigns, where the purported answer to body image anxieties lies in a tub of anti-cellulite cream. This is an effective, albeit insidious, form of marketing that the whole of the beauty industry adopts, and although they’re not going to stop anytime soon, as consumers we can remind ourselves that real self-care should never be about the product, but the ritual, as Boston says. “Self-care doesn’t have to be expensive, it is anything that you classify as putting time aside for yourself.”
At its core, self-care is about processing your emotions and reconnecting with yourself. For some that manifests through bubble baths or a brow appointment, but sometimes it can be as boring as catching up on life admin or doing chores. Whatever the activity, whether it’s going for a walk or out for dinner with friends, the importance lies in setting time aside for an activity that will truly sustain you, and help make life a little less overwhelming. “Put time aside to send a message to your brain that you’re worthy of putting yourself first,” says Boston, adding that it doesn’t necessarily require focusing on your appearance, nor budget.
The issue with how we talk about self-care today is that it often limits our understanding of it to stereotypical and superficial activities, but commodifying self-care carries the risk of trivialising mental health. Self-care manifests differently for every woman, but the bottom line is that it should assert that your self-worth and wellness are important. Whether that means bubble baths or boundaries is completely up to you.