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.” 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.
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,” : 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.” In this case, taking care of yourself is the new empowerment, as long as you have the right products.
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.” 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.
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.
 Melissa Gregg, “The Neverending Workday.” The Atlantic Online, Oct 15, 2015, https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2015/10/work-sleep/410581/
 Kathy Lee Peiss, Hope in a Jar: The Making of America’s Beauty Culture. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011), 261.
 Meeta Rani Jha, The Global Beauty Industry. (New York: Routledge, 2016), 25.