We need to look more closely at the concept of self-care

We need to look more closely at the concept of self-care - Candid Orange

By Meg Warren-Lister

If the Covid-19 pandemic has benefited anyone, it’s those with a stake in the self-care industry. In considering this, it is worth bearing in mind that the current iteration of ‘self-care’ is a capitalist, patriarchal rebrand of its predecessor.

The rhetoric of self-care was originally drawn from activist spaces but it’s now a phrase that has been co-opted by consumerism. We need to re-root it in accessibility and advocate for it alongside structural action if we are to achieve inclusivity and collective long term empowerment.

We have all seen a ‘self-care Sunday’ post, whether in a sincere or ironic form, usually accompanied by emoji hands – fingers in the instantly recognisable ‘peace symbol’ formation. Personally, an unexplainable reflex puts me off saying the phrase with any sincerity, but clearly I am in the minority.

At the time of writing, the hashtag ‘self-care’ on Instagram has 42.2 million posts. This statistical feat speaks to our cultural obsession with the notion of self-care, a pillar of the zeitgeist that I would argue reached its zenith in 2020. I must admit, a global pandemic provides unavoidably fertile ground for the monetisation of any concept related to looking after yourself. 

In 2014 the US industry reportedly boasted a meagre value of just $10 billion. Last year, this figure rocketed to $450 billion. Yet, we need to eye these numbers critically. Self-care now exists in the girl boss era where ‘treat yourself’ slogans are rife. This is no coincidence. If you listen closely, you can hear a fingertip orchestra – boardrooms full of hands rubbing together in glee.

Digging deeper: Conceptual underpinnings & privilege

‘Self-care’ is an undeniably loaded term. For me, the image that immediately springs to mind is a face glooped in pink sludge, cucumber slices atop eyes. The fuzzy details of an amorphous bed on the periphery. The woman in question? Probably young-ish, thin, white – think Bridget Jones. This imagined scene is a neat crystallisation of the sinister underpinnings of self-care; aesthetic improvements rebranded as a progressive form of caring for yourself. 

The consumer? Someone of means, and someone who exists visibly to the male gaze. It is notable that I do not imagine someone disabled, fat, or old. It’s as if the focus is not really on the individual at all but rather, improving the individual’s desirability. More often than not, the imagined consumer is already (broadly speaking) within the societally reified attributes of whiteness, thinness, and so on.

Relatedly, I am no stranger to the fact that, in cultural dialogues at large, self-care in its present commercialised form is treated with the usual disregard that applies to anything considered conventionally feminine. Ideas about vanity and vapidity begin to swirl around and coagulate. Perhaps this is the logic behind my own ‘yuck’ reflex reaction to reading the words ‘self-care’, an unconscious bias bubbling to the surface. Digging deeper then, maybe what is particularly gross about the current form of self-care is its sole conflation with external things that can be brought, usually for aesthetic improvement. As if the only possible form of self-care entails purchasing, and increasing your desirability.

For your average Gen-Zer, self-care probably includes the usual roster of Glossier-esque products. Though the list of what constitutes self-care may and will evolve, the usual menu is unchanging at its core. Centre stage are products. Atomised, each is harmless and actually, usually delightful – I for one am a fairly reliable Glossier patron, and I can’t say that my spending habits are always motivated by need. 

Perhaps the issue that arises then, is their being packaged together – things to purchase. The risk being that the resultant narrative is to feel better, you need to buy better or buy more full stop. The waters of self-care become muddied with privilege. What branding calls ‘looking after yourself’, is rendered a luxury; confined to those who can afford it. An uncomfortable non-sequitur. This narrowness serves to perpetuate a narrative that caring for yourself is looking more desirable or buying something. As if these are the keys to fulfilment – not meditation, going to therapy, or having hard conversations. Not reading a new book for the sake of it. Not simply choosing to look after yourself in spite of discriminatory power systems and policies.


Indeed the above rhetoric has sparked a slow but sure shift. Self-care is now firmly situated in conversations that are far removed from those in which they were borne – conversations involving scholars such as Audre Lorde for example, the famous writer and civil rights activist. In 1988 Lorde wrote: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence. It is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare”. Lorde’s comments form the backdrop against which the current form of self-care is illuminated. A ‘rebrand’ to use the language of capitalism, that dislocates the initial purpose and meaning of self-care, nudging it into the realm of privilege and money.

The collective

So, while for many of us self-care has been pleasant rhetoric on which to fall back in 2020, conceiving of self-care as an occasional optional luxury, is itself, an indulgence. Particularly to those for whom self-care has always been a necessary ingredient to survival, generation after generation. For Shahida Bari, self-care can function as “a form of resistance”, and an “expression of a collective political will, a strategy, even, for activism”.

Understanding that self-care can be political is only the tip of the iceberg. We are all familiar with the rampant individualism that governs Western policy generally, and particularly that in the UK right now. It shouldn’t be news to you that much of the current political rhetoric leans towards placing the onus for many things (including being sufficiently ‘cared’ for) on you and me. A neat obscuring of the systemic conditions that create the problems we are told we must address. Climate change fits neatly in this category; note the perennial ‘turn off your lights and taps’ chants in place of significant regulations on big business. As does the kitsch slogan compelling UK citizens to ‘clap for carers’ last Spring in place of increased NHS funding and better employee working conditions.

What now?

This is not an ode to frugality, nor a suggestion that any of us ought to refrain from those purchases that make life ‘better’ if we have the means. It is merely a call for us to reconsider the breadth of the things that are considered self-care. What about setting boundaries? Living with intention? 

Those life-affirming activities that are free, but have the potential to be powerful. Including these more holistic tools in our definition of ‘self-care’ enables us to begin our emigration from the realm of privilege and gendered capitalist confines. ‘Manifesting’ and ‘living in the now’, however, are easier for those of us not subject to sinister policies and systematic discrimination. It is radical to simply look after yourself when the odds are stacked against you. Self-care in this context becomes, in the words of Bari, not an act of indulgence, but an act of resistance.

Nevertheless, the things that make our lives better and happier on an individual level are inherently valuable (no one can tell me my weighted blanket was not worth it), and the last year has certainly proved that. For many of us, it was the simpler things that ameliorated the struggles of a global pandemic and multiple national lockdowns. 

What 2020 also confirmed however, was that these things alone are not enough. On an individual level, you do you, but on a collective and policy level, the focus needs to be on dismantling the various forms of discrimination and inequity wielded by bloated power structures. On a self-care level, we need another rebrand that does not take privilege for granted.

Graphic courtesy of Abigail Takahashi (@takahaae)