Is the Self-Care Movement Healing or Harmful?
As I write this I have lavender-infused goop from Lush on my face, I am sipping elderberry tea and have a fresh glow after completing a yoga-flow streamed from YouTube. Am I just a sucker eating up another frivolous millennial trend like I do smashed avo, or am I doing necessary work on my emotional health? Or, is a dangerous (and expensive) trend emerging where sticking cucumber on your eyes is sold as a fix for serious mental illnesses?
A Self- (care) Obsessed Generation
Millennials didn’t invent the idea of self-care. Even Socrates advised his Athenian pals to pay attention to the upkeep of their souls. But, I’m certain that when my Grandma was a twenty-something, she wasn’t carving out ‘me time’ in her week. The phrase ‘Self-Care Movement’ (SCM) was coined by millennials, and we have even dedicated a day each week to it. The hashtag #selfcaresunday has been used over 170,000 times on Instagram, as millennials share pics of their indulgent waffles, skincare faves and weird bundles of sage. With that variety, you’d be forgiven for not understanding what the parameters of self-care are. As you’ll see in this article, most things can be twisted to fall under the self-care umbrella, given its broad definition: Self care is provided for you, by you. It is taking the time to do activities that nuture you.
Many are quick to dismiss the SCM… “Millennials are soft… they are coddled/lazy/selfish/never get off their phones/ruin perfectly good bread by adding charcoal etc. etc.” It is often dubbed as another manifestation of millennial narcissism, alongside the selfie.
Self-care resonates predominantly with millennial women (let’s be real, it’s not the men putting coconut oil on EVERY part of their body). That might also have something to do with the quick-dismissal of the SCM. Enduring historical views have often labelled women’s consumption as ‘excessive, trivial, irrational and even pathological‘ while men’s consuming habits are, ‘autonomous, self-controlled and rational’.
Pew Research Centre reported that millennials make more commitments to personal improvement than any generation before them. And they are spending double the amount that Baby Boomers do on self-improvement purchases to follow through on those commitments. Self-care is to millennials what Jane Fonda workout tapes was to baby boomers.
But, while millennials are spending more on self-care, they are also more anxious, depressed and suicidal than any generation before them. Anxiety among young people is at an eighty-year high. The SCM may in fact be a crucial coping mechanism. Or it may be an elaborate marketing scheme aimed at getting vulnerable members of society to buy more shit they don’t need. You decide…
Raising Awareness or Raising $$$
The motherland of the SCM is of course social media. Research conducted by ERIC Institute of Education Sciences confirmed there is a definitive link between increased self-care among millennials (18-34) and their use of social media. Given that this generation has simultaneously been dubbed the “anxious generation” and “digital natives”, it follows that we would seek solutions for our anxiety in our “natural habitat”.
On any one of the 43 times per day (on average) that the typical millennial checks their phone, a plethora of self-care material is at their fingertips. I can receive reminders to practise self-care from a Twitter-bot, subscribe to a self-care podcast series, order a self-care kit from Etsy and flick through an Insta story which links must-buy self-care products. Are you noticing a trend here?
Millennials now turn to social media as their main source of health information. Often, this means taking the advice of people who have zero medical training in mental health. A trend has emerged on YouTube where young female vloggers seamlessly transition from chatting about their top five highlighters to their mental health. Beauty guru Ingrid Nilsen shared with her 3.8 million subscribers a video , ‘How I Get Ready on a Bad Day’.
She begins by acknowledging that when she is having a bad day, it can be hard to even get out of bed. BUT, doing the hair and makeup “allows me to invest time in myself”. I have a sneaky suspicion though that she wants her viewers to invest in more than themselves. She goes through her self-care go-to’s: yoga, cleaning, cooking…and popping on ‘some Complexion Rescue by bare Minerals!’ (#AD). That video sparked heated debate around the ethics of leveraging emotional health as a commodity.
Nilsen’s video is just one out of the plethora of influencers doing ‘collabs’ with brands in the name of self-care. There was that time that Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop literally suggested that walking in bare feet could cure depression. While most would call it B.S, Goop called it ‘earthing’. And how naïve was I to think the process would just involve removing your shoes! Goop provides you with the opportunity to buy earthing kits!
The stats show that YouTubers and bloggers are influencing the purchase decisions and the adoption of practices amongst consumers. Given that self-care is now a $ 10 billion dollar industry, should we be more strictly regulating claims made about mental health treatment? There is something about young women turning to You Tubers and beauty gurus for mental health information in the same way they would for a smokey-eye that doesn’t sit well with me. I am witnessing serious mental health disorders like depression and anxiety being used as buzzwords, followed by influencers loosely (at best) linking their products/services to the SCM. The SCM naturally resonates with vulnerable people, many of whom suffer from these disorders. Unfortunately, vulnerability makes an ideal target consumer. If a role model of theirs suggests slapping a cucumber Band-Aid on their issues (or in Ingrid’s case, bare Minerals) they will probably listen. Where should we draw the line? I know it would have already been drawn if YouTubers were making unsubstantiated claims about the treatment of illnesses that manifested in visible symptoms.
Turning a Blind Eye(lash-extension)
It is a surprising paradox that while millennials are super into self-care, half of us visit a doctor less than once a year. Is it the case that the SCM is enabling us to avoid dealing with mental health issues in a constructive way? Agreed, it feels like a rip-off when you spend $70 for a ten-minute consult. But millennials are spending an average of $294.15 PER MONTH on self-care. This is perhaps because it is easier to install a Himalayan salt-lamp then it is to confront your mental health in the presence of a stranger. Counsellor Erin Telford notes, “When you feel like something is wrong with you, it’s much more comfortable to look outward for a solution [i.e. face mask + cucumber] rather than slow down and look inside.” We need to be savvy when we evaluate any product’s marketing that is jumping on the self-care bandwagon. Psychotherapist Aime Roe urges that a little skepticism in our consumption is important and evaluate what makes sense for you. Do I feel that buying this journal will benefit my mental health? Or am I buying it because Zoella told me to? Above all, self-monitoring should come before self-care. Surface level products are no substitute for professional help and guidance (albeit confronting), and it is irresponsible for anyone to suggest otherwise.
If your mental health is affecting your quality of life, you should visit this website before you visit the bare Minerals website.
A Glass Half-Full Perspective
Of course, the SCM has it benefits. True, YouTubers may be advocating for yoga as self-care to get you to purchase from their active wear range. Nonetheless, any medical practitioner will tell you the same thing (albeit with different motivations), that it has major positive effects on our stress and cortisol levels. Then there is the welcome change seen in how openly people can now discuss their mental health issues. The Attitudes to Mental Illness Research Report revealed a promising decrease in stigma surrounding mental health. Maybe then it is more important than we thought that social media influencers are transitioning from mental health issues alongside other matter of fact occurrences in life, like pimples, in the same video. While there was plenty of backlash over Ingrid Nilsen’s video, there were also plenty of comments like this:
Even if very little about the SCM trend amongst vloggers is genuine, maybe their diminishing the ‘taboo’ around mental health is meaningful enough.
Yes, I am a Hypocrite
While I’m clearly a sceptic of the holistic intentions of the SCM, I’m defs going to continue to buy the stuff I don’t need. “Why are you buying into a scheme that you just spent several paragraphs telling me is exploitative?” I hear you ask…Because it makes me feel good.
We millennials are burdened by a perfectionist streak to which our parents and grandparents cannot relate. And that has everything to do with why we are a generation riddled with mental illness. Thomas Curran (University of Bath) whose findings on millennial perfectionism were published in the Psychological Bulletin, said this:
“Today’s young people are competing with each other in order to meet societal pressures to succeed and they feel that perfectionism is necessary in order to feel safe, socially connected, and of worth.”
And as females, “Capitalism and the patriarchy has sold us the idea that we are only valuable when we are being productive”. Productivity is rooted in capitalist ideals which equate individual worth with how productive you are. It’s a brutal merry-go-around the capitalist model. First it creates a problem by making us anxious about not enough done. Then it offers a solution for the problem it created in the form of expensive self-care products. Cheeky capitalism. Entrenched external expectations surrounding ‘having it all’ have led to women “over-giving to prove their worth until they run themselves into the ground.” The SCM offers reprieve.
It encourages an openness and acceptance that we are not perfect, but fragile. If buying a sheet-mask and bath-bombs grant you a tiny bit of calm in the storm, DO IT. It needn’t cost the earth (or anything), it’s just got to bring you a sense of peace and well-being (try this no B.S list of suggestions).
So maybe my grandma was practising self-care when she sat down to her English-breakfast tea and two arrowroots every morning. Time to wrap this piece up now because I have had my mask on for much longer than Lush recommended and my skin feels alarmingly tight.
Thank you to my friends at Lush for sponsoring this post. (Just kidding).