If you've been on Instagram recently, or any other social media platform, you may have noticed a trend. We're not talking about the latest dance or popular meme, we're talking about the commodification of self-care.
From face masks to Goop’s jade egg, over the last few years, self-care has become more about something you can buy than something you do to take care of yourself.
But there are real problems with viewing self-care as a purchase rather than a practice. In this blog, MyWellbeing therapists Madeleine Strassler and Natalie Capasse dig into the ways in which self-care has been monetized and how you as an individual can push back against the commodification of self-care and create a practice that fulfills and sustains you.
The real answer: it shouldn’t be.
Typically, the products or services we think of as “self-care” only tend to offer short-term solutions as opposed to identifying and addressing the root problem.
“With clients, I have observed a misunderstanding of what self-care is,” says Natalie. “There is a view that if they buy something, like a facemask, they’ll feel better, but that’s not the case. The very definition of self-care has gotten lost in its commodification.”
But the $11 billion wellness industry doesn’t seem to be slowing down anytime soon. Google searches for self-care have been on the rise since the beginning of the pandemic, and in turn, we get fed back more ads for products that claim to help us “do” self-care.
“To use myself as an example, of course because I’m interested in therapy and mental health and follow accounts and search for things that have those keywords, I get a lot of targeted ads on Instagram about self-care and mental health,” says Madeleine. “I see ads for therapy, but then lately I've been getting another one that’s advertised as a device to help people with panic attacks, and the angle is ‘if you just buy this one device, your panic attacks will go away!’”
Positioning self-care as something you can buy creates and feeds a cycle where you push yourself beyond your limits, buy something like a face mask to “do” self-care, assume that it’s enough because that’s what everyone else is doing and because it might be the quickest and most available thing you can do, and start the cycle again. But none of that is setting up a sustainable self-care practice.
“I asked a client what she does for self-care, and she said that she gets her nails done every third week,” says Madeleine. “There’s nothing wrong with getting your nails done, but my question was: does getting your nails done do anything for your anxiety? I’m never going to tell anyone that they shouldn’t do something that they enjoy, like getting their nails done, but it might be meaningful to reserve the label of self-care for things that support our mental health.”
“If self-care is synonymous with purchasing something, it creates a financial barrier in terms of what people perceive self-care to be,” says Natalie. “If self care is only something you have to buy it becomes inaccessible; it’s the opposite of empowerment.”
If self-care is expensive and some people can’t afford it—often those folks who need it most—it sends a message that self-care isn’t for them, that they won’t ever be able to practice it; that it’s an unaffordable luxury that, while necessary, isn’t available to them.
“Not only does it create a barrier for something that's meant to be a right, but if we define self-care as a purchase that might make us feel better or temporarily distract us, it ignores the root cause of the issue we’re trying to address with that purchase—some need not being met.”
“Purchasing a product cannot fix your problems, and it also puts the onus on the individual to make a consumption choice as a solution as opposed to structurally addressing the things that are contributing to the mental health crisis,” says Madeleine.
“Rent is going up, people are getting laid off, the pandemic rages on, and making purchases isn’t necessarily going to make you feel better about structural problems. Commodification thus centers responsibility on the individual to solve things that may be a collective problem.”
It’s scary how little control we feel like we have over structural issues, and that stress and fear can drive us to do whatever we can to feel a little better, which is why we often turn to the “quick hit” of buying something to feel a little better.
But if the structural problems we face are huge, what can we do?
“Self-care can be what makes you feel energized, what motivates you, what do you do for fun in your spare time without putting any monetary value on it,” says Madeleine. “For example, maybe society doesn't value knitting but maybe it brings you great joy. Think about what energizes you and then do it.”
“You want to identify, acknowledge, and address your own needs for your mental or physical health; your self-care should align with those things,” says Natalie. “Getting your nails done is self-care if it fulfills needs like getting out of the house, spending time for yourself, doing something that lets you celebrate your self-expression. Just getting your nails done because it’s something you’re ‘supposed’ to do for your mental health is not the same thing.”
American psychologist Abraham Maslow proposed that five core needs form the basis for human behavioral motivation and dictate an individual’s behavior: physiological, safety, love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. The needs appear in a pyramid shape, with basic needs at the bottom of the pyramid and more high-level needs at the top, and the theory states that a person can only move on to addressing the higher-level needs when their basic needs are fulfilled.
“If someone’s basic needs are not being met, how can they reach the higher levels of the pyramid?” says Madeleine. “No one's going to get to self actualization if they're unhoused and hungry. Feeding yourself is meeting a need, and that is self-care.”
“In-session, we often help our clients identify what their needs even are,” says Natalie. “It can be hard to figure that out on your own, even if it seems like it should be easy. I’ve also used self-care checklists with clients that break it down into emotional needs, social needs, spiritual needs, physical needs, etc. that help clients define their needs for themselves.”
Therapy can teach you skills that can help you identify your needs. For example, in Dialectic Behavioral Therapy (DBT), the PLEASE acronym helps people remember a set of skills that can make emotional regulation easier. This helps you take care of your basic needs so that you can make healthier decisions and be less vulnerable to emotional disruption.
“Identifying the root of the problem is actually incredibly important,” says Natalie. “For example, if someone is living with food insecurity and they're not happy so they are doing face masks, it's not going to add up to feeling better. With a client, we might discover: My need is to have a plan about how I'm going to be able to get food this week and feel comfortable knowing that I can feed my family. The act of self-care might be ‘I'm going to set aside 30 minutes to give myself space and time to sit down and make this plan where I don't have other things going on. This is going to take care of myself because I've identified my need and have created a plan to meet it.’”
“Structurally, organizations or governments have a responsibility to address the issues that affect us all, but it’s a radical act of empowerment to sit down and say, ‘If this is how the structure of the system is affecting me, there is still a way I can empower myself.’”
Like Glennon Doyle says, we tend to think of self-care as things we're doing to our outer selves, when actual self-care means taking care of the inner self, which sometimes means doing hard things.
“As therapists, our goal is to empower our clients,” says Madeleine. “The answers to the problems our clients face are within them, and we help facilitate that process for them, but we're not giving them the answers."
“What that actually looks like in the room is exploring people's thoughts, feelings, and behavior in the past, what’s problematic for them now, how they're coping with things, where they’re getting stuck, and whether they can think of anything that they can do differently. The idea of empowerment is really important; we help guide people to see the capacity that they already have within themselves and harness it.”
Caitlin is MyWellbeing's Content Lead, a writer, speaker, communication coach, and the founder of Commcoterie, a communication consultancy. She teaches teams how to use professional coaching communication techniques in their everyday conversations, helps leaders engage their teams with effective and inclusive communication, and partners with service providers to activate their programs and offerings with their own clients through inspiring communication strategies. Find out more, including how to work with her, at www.commcoterie.com.