The Commodification of Self-Care

Much has been written about the overwhelming, stress-and-anxiety-inducing lifestyles of modern Americans, who unlike their counterparts in Europe, are working later and taking fewer days off than ever.  The Atlantic magazine notes that here, “a pervasive cultural norm of work devotion leaves many employees with little time for family, friends, or sleep.”[1]  In tandem with articles fretting over Americans’ stress, then, has come a very different slew of articles, a sort of call-to-arms: to value and practice self-care.

self care
Suggestions upon googling “self-care”

Let me start by saying that I have absolutely no problem with everyone taking care of themselves.  I do, indeed, believe that we should all have time for eating healthy meals, bathing, sleeping, exercising, socializing, and just plain zoning-out.  My issue comes with the pretty, pastel-hued and product-laden images of “#selfcare” that appear when you search it on Instagram.

This kind of self-care has been commoditized in the same way that sex and romance and confidence have been commoditized, in order to sell people (especially women) products.  It has been commoditized in the same ways, too, by appealing to our insecurities, desires, and even morality.  The rise of this commodified self-care movement in certain aspects comes as a reaction to what Peiss calls “[feminism’s] critique of commercialized beauty,” [2]: companies know that women are suspicious of old cosmetics’ claims of revitalizing beauty or career or self-esteem, and so savvily market “self-care” as a counter-culture means of escaping the cosmopolitan, consumeristic lifestyle with which beauty products typically align.  You should practice self-care because “you deserve it” or “you should treat yourself.” Therefore this new, product-driven “self-care” ironically becomes the same as those other beauty products—what’s being sold is relaxation and indulgence, just as sex and romance were before.  “Self-care” becomes a form of “feminist consumerism” which Jha sees as “employ[ing] feminist themes of empowerment to market products” while it nonetheless “shares consumerism’s focus on individual consumption as a primary source of identity, affirmation, and social change.”[3]   In this case, taking care of yourself is the new empowerment, as long as you have the right products.

From Lush’s Instagram, #selfcaresunday

Ironically, the Instagram-defined #selfcare can then be used to justify further consumption.  The skincare/cosmetic brand Lush wants us to believe that #selfcare is a hot drink and one of their pink bath bombs.  An individual skincare Instagrammer who goes by “sortofobsessed” (18,400 followers) posted recently “Cold Hard Truths About Being a Skincare Junkie”: after “Hiding your collection from non-skincare friends because they wouldn’t understand why you need 10,000 products” comes the bullet-point, “Not feeling bad about investing in your skin because self-care is super important.”[4]  Now, it’s true that individuals can make their own choices on what to consume; however, using “self-care” as a marketing tool also serves to cheapen or distort the truths of self-care for the rest of us.

sortofobsessed’s post

For many, self-care is not as pretty as Instagram would have us believe.  It’s not so much rainbow bath-bombs as brushing your teeth in the morning; not so much a dozen different facial creams as taking time to prepare your first decent meal of the day, or go for a run, or nap.  Self-care is important, and sometimes it will look like foaming pink bubbles and a good book—but sometimes it won’t, and that’s important, too.


Works Cited

[1] Melissa Gregg, “The Neverending Workday.”  The Atlantic Online, Oct 15, 2015,

[2] Kathy Lee Peiss, Hope in a Jar: The Making of America’s Beauty Culture. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011), 261.

[3] Meeta Rani Jha, The Global Beauty Industry. (New York: Routledge, 2016), 25.

[4] Adri (sortofobsessed).  Instagram post.  4/27/17.


4 thoughts on “The Commodification of Self-Care

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  1. I definitely agree that self-care has become all too commodified. And it does seem especially marketed as a “feminine” necessity, from the millions of skin care products to the bath bombs alalalo mentions.
    I am interested in self-care in conjunction with cultural appropriation. The bottom image in the group of three in the middle of alalalo’s post with all the essential oils etc. characterizes part of what I think of for self-care culture among white women especially. I am very familiar with the kind of yoga going, hippie, and incense-using white woman common in the Bay Area. And in fact have been rethinking some of my tendencies towards this aesthetic. There is a lot of problematic appropriation in this “yoga aesthetic,” which often goes hand in hand with the world of self-care. I wanted to point out that sage bundles, like the one in the picture, are traditionally used as a sacred purification method in smudging ceremonies by many Native American communities. [1] Incense is used in both the Buddhist and Hindu traditions. Malas, the beaded bracelets and necklaces that some white women have taken to wearing are Hindu prayer beads for chanting the names of the Gods.[2] And the flowing “Balinese/Aladdin/Boho/harem”[3] pants? These are related to India and the Middle East as well as Bali, and seem to be a form of orientalism. Also the Om symbol, which many people wear on jewelry, scarves, or as a tattoo, is a sacred Hindu sound also used in Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism.[4] While some white people do use or wear these symbols as part of their religious practices, many have appropriated them for their aesthetic. This decontextualization is a dangerous form of “eating the other.”[5] Many white people in the yoga community take over and use improperly, parts of cultures they identify as “Other.” Bell hooks says that “The contemporary crises of identity in the west . . . are eased when the primitive is recouped via a focus on diversity and pluralism which suggests the other can provide life-sustaining alternatives.”[6] Some people who adhere to the “yoga aesthetic” in the west use aspects of the culture of “Others,” to define and display a chosen identity, which they see as a way to break free of the western structure. They are only interested in consuming the “primitive” diversity of the “Other” for their own self-interest. Individuals and the market veil their interest in the “Other” in the language of diversity and of postmodern feminist consumerism. As alalalo cited from Jha, feminist consumerism positions “individual consumption as a primary source of identity, affirmation, and social change.”[7] The American “yoga aesthetic” becomes problematic cultural appropriation through this postmodern decontextualization, which encourages especially white women to consumption of the “Other” as a source of “identity.”

    [1] Becky Olivera Schultz, “Smudging,” Pow Wow Power,
    [2] Jennifer D’ Angelou Freedman, “What are Mala Beads + How Do I Use Them?,” yoga journal,
    [3] The many names for these pants from a quick google search.
    [4] Valerie Reiss, “The Meaning of the Om,” Huffpost, Updated January 23, 2014,
    [5] bell hooks, Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance,” in Black Looks Race and Representation, Gloria Watkins, (New York: South End Press Collective, 1992), 39.
    [6] bell hooks, Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance,” 25.
    [7] Meeta Rani Jha, The Global Beauty Industry. (New York: Routledge, 2016), 25.


  2. This post was initially so striking because all of the images looked familiar with their soft filters, minimalist style, pastel shades, and that pang of desire for indulgence that I feel each time I see them. This familiarity compels me to ask, how did discrete mass marketing develop a recognizable aesthetic, a widely circulated language, AND the identification with feminist politics under the label “self-care”?

    I distinctly remember when I was swept into the #selfcare bandwagon my freshmen year. A circle at Carleton drew me in with its claim to Beyonce’s feminist power; Beyonce’s self-titled album had just dropped, and I remember feeling called to assert that I, too, was “flawless” by joining this circle’s self-care practices. Though I remember genuine moments of care between this group of women, I also remember that these practices involved trips to the Sephora at Mall of America, our selection of Dove dark chocolate (with affirmations inside the chocolate wrappers) as our favorite treat, and visits to the sex toy shop Smitten Kitten in the name of sex positivity. Talk about the neoliberal impulse to foster sisterhood and relaxation through consumption! Though these practices required a substantial amount of expendable cash, we encouraged these practices with the conviction that the ghosts of our lives, including eating disorders, abusers, and depression would fade away.

    alalalo has illuminated here that excessive consumption has been redefined as a curative for a culture of stress and repression. Still, this toxic culture and its solutions can become isolated and individualized under the practice of “self-care” (including my own practices), reminding me of this last week’s discussion of racialized cosmetic surgery as a personal solution for an extensive social problem. We were not entirely unaware… my freshmen year circle identified their ghosts as partial products of gendered violence and racism. Yet, mine and my friends’ troubles and our coping techniques were discussed so personally, that we almost simultaneously reaffirmed that the problems were ‘of us’ and not part of a larger social fabric.

    Perhaps I am not giving myself or my friends enough credit for our consciousness and critical thinking at the time. Still, I do think Elizabeth Haiken’s discussion about the psychological explanations for cosmetic surgery should push us to question the psychologization of mental illness or trauma that convinces us that we cannot be functional or healed without commodified #selfcare.


  3. I so, so appreciate this post. I hate that so much of the really essential rhetoric around self care has gotten wrapped up in this sort of neoliberal consumption where we applaud people (predominantly white, middle to upper class, cis women) for purchasing products. There are a few things going on here – first, as melendezke commented, the inacessibility of many of these self care routines (and the therefore sense that you must not be caring for yourself, and being kind or responsible to yourself, if you can’t access these routines). There’s also the perverse sense of responsibility or obligation that this rhetoric can enable, where I sometimes feel that requirement of physical/mental/emotional self-maintenance that we have talked about frequently in this class. And on top of all of this, after today’s class discussion on nail salons and the women at whose expense other women’s beauty work is happening, I am all the more cognizant of the absurdity of so many of the practices we deem self-care. It is considered self-care by many for people whose presentation is policed (cis women in general, trans people in general, basically anyone who is not a skinny gender-conforming white man) to spend time, energy, and money on looking “their best,” presenting how they want and in the ways that will feel most empowering and affirming to them, etc. I totally buy into this and reinforce it for myself and others, and have gone on more than one gender-affirming-shopping-trip with friends, but when I don’t know where or how the clothes I’m buying were produced, and am defining self-care by being able to afford these shopping trips, perhaps there’s a more complicated word for this experience.


  4. The commodification of self-care is particularly interesting to me because it is another indication of the market feeding into neoliberalism feminist thought where women have the ability to take empower their own lives through products like a bath bomb. Products can be a source of discovering identity, but it can also be seen as a quick solution to deceive people into thinking they are taking care of themselves when in reality, they are giving into a capitalist market to fit the idea of “normality”. melendezke’s thought above about “cosmetic surgery as a personal solution” further corroborates this idea, where women give explanations for altering one’s body as a form of building confidence. So, in what ways are self-care products and cosmetic surgery actually helping the mental health of an individual and in what ways is it the mere idea of giving into a market that advertises the promise of beauty/relaxation that makes it satisfying? What does it mean to give self-care and “love your body”: accepting it as it is or having the will to improve it? In class today, we discussed the emotional labor that comes with giving a manicure and talked about its relation to the commodification of self-care. Kang raises the question of whether “beauty practices are parasitic to a woman’s self-esteem or a potential source of pleasure and power.” (28) With that, it makes me think of bath bombs, cosmetic surgery, and nail salons and how all of these can carry a sense of empowerment for those who already exist in the dominant discourse. It may not be the same for marginalized groups who exist in very different power structures and are often forced to follow beauty standards that do not fit their own.


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