In these turbulent times, self-care is more important than ever. But when the simple act of caring for oneself becomes intertwined with capitalist enterprise, spending time on the self also means spending money. We are inundated with adverts for self-care products on our social media feeds, and consumer culture has cultivated an association of self-care with beauty, wealth and commodities. Self-care is no longer simple, or completely about the self. 

The term ‘self-care’ dates back to antiquity, with legendary Greek philosopher Socrates credited as founding the movement; the notion of self-care underwent a major revival in the 1980s, but never before has the industry been worth so much both to the self and to companies’ pockets. Lockdown has established self-care as a cultural phenomenon – according to IRI Worldwide, in 2020 the industry’s worth boomed to $450 billion, increasing from $10 billion in 2014. Research from The Body Shop found that in the UK, £3 billion a month is spent on our self-care, an average of £49.20 per person. 

A capitalist society works in opposition with self-care. We are encouraged to work hard, often to the point of burnout, and spend more time working than relaxing, both of which make indulging in ‘calming’ products all the more necessary and desirable. Self-care has become synonymous with the trope “treat yourself,” “you” being the wealthy consumer who can afford to spend £50 on a sandalwood candle. What originated as the simple deed of looking after ourselves emotionally and physically has been reduced to a commercialised act. An American survey conducted in 2019 by the Samueli Foundation underscored the importance of self-care, with 85% of physicians agreeing that practicing self-care is “very important” –  but the research also found that 44% believed that self-care is only possible for those with enough time, whilst 35% believed it is only possible for those with enough money.

A google search of “self-care products” churns out over 3 billion results, with many products labelled as “essential” – these range from salted caramel chocolate to sauna blankets and £250 Egyptian cotton sheets. Self-care is often misconstrued as something which must be Instagram-worthy: extravagant at-home spa evenings or multi-coloured bubble baths. But really, inner peace can be achieved without spending a penny – the only real cost of self-care is time. Setting aside solid chunks of time for gardening, yoga, reading, meditation, or a bath is easier said than done, but air is cheap and allowing yourself to breath and your mind to focus is no harm. Either way, if it doesn’t work, at least you won’t be out of pocket!

To dismantle our skewed perception of self-care, we must reimagine what it means to care for ourselves. It’s something we can do for ourselves, by ourselves, without designer candles and high thread count sheets. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t splurge on a pillow spray or a face mask- you just shouldn’t feel you have to. It’s a common misconception that self-care is all about being selfish. It’s not. Even the OED tells us that self-care as defined as “self-interested behaviour” is “now rare” – and in an essay entitled Technologies of the Self, French philosopher Michel Foucault argued that looking after oneself is a kind of “vigilance”, and not a form of narcissism. But who’s to say that we shouldn’t be selfish now and then? If we don’t carve out time for ourselves, no one else will. 

My idea of self-care (introduced to me by Elizabeth Gilbert in her novel Eat Pray Love) is inspired by the beautiful Italian phrase “dolce far niente”, which means ‘the sweetness of doing nothing’. This seems a strange concept for many of us in this world of hectic productivity, but a blissful ideal, if we could only achieve it. It’s actually the opposite of doing nothing- it’s the state of just being. There’s nothing more caring we could do for ourselves than to just be, free from stress and demands, and from the guilt of doing nothing at all. Investing in ourselves doesn’t have to be a financial transaction; but if the temptation of self-care consumerism becomes too much, do as the Italians do – nothing. 

Artwork by Rachel Jung

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