Jamie Kim / Gavel Media

The Commodification of Self-Care

For some, the words "self-care" incite images of candles and bubble baths, or the enjoyment of a good book and a large glass of wine after a long day at work. Others picture self-care as a daily ritual—waking up early to do a twelve-step skincare routine, going for a morning walk, and telling the mirror, “you got this!”. Whichever method you choose, these wellness techniques all exist under the broad umbrella of modern-day self-care. At its core, this practice stresses the improvement of an individual’s health, well-being, and happiness. Now gaining mass following in the media, however, the movement strays further and further from this simple definition. 

In recent years, self-care has been tainted and twisted by a consumerist market. By searching this term in Google, any internet-user is bombarded with more than 250 million ways to “take care of yourself”. Websites offer everything from homemade face mask recipes to exercises in crystal meditation, and all claim to have the best relaxing tips and tricks. In similar fashion, there are currently 50.9 million instagram posts tagged under #selfcare. These images predominantly feature white models, either aesthetically posing with their favorite beauty products or enticing audiences to follow their accounts to achieve the perfect balance they flaunt.

Using these platforms as marketing tools, brands capitalize on the self-care campaign for young adults. In 2020, the company Social Media Link conducted a quantitative survey on generational trends within the wellness market. Their research specifically revealed that 35% of Millennials and 50% of Generation Z are dedicated to personal wellness. In accordance with this information, many companies began strategically appealing to the “internet-obsessed” generations. Digital advertisements target young viewers, telling consumers that “they too” can improve themselves for the small price of their luxury merchandise. Through these advertisements, however, companies warp the definition of self-care. No longer a process focused on individual growth and betterment, many misinterpret self-care as the overconsumption of goods and the preaching to “treat yourself,” with no actual change in your life or well-being. Consequently, many brands continue to profit from this inaccurate representation and have turned self-care into a $450 billion dollar industry.

In the past year, the medical community also expanded the popularity of self-care. Many organizations, including the Mayo Clinic and the World Health Organization, encouraged people to participate in wellness practices at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. This advice remained on the sensible side, specifically teaching people to prioritize their sleep and understand their personal signs of stress during lock-down. The majority of medical groups solely emphasized maintaining a balanced mind and body, and chose to ignore the materialistic aspects of self-care. Still, this encouragement initiated some interest in the market for self-help products. In hopes of improving their lives during quarantine, many consumers utilized their unanticipated and extensive time at home to search for the best self-help merchandise. 

With the majority of adults returning to in-person work, many can no longer dedicate themselves to a demanding wellness regimen. Nevertheless, the self-care movement still thrives on college campuses. Students often turn to relaxation and betterment exercises as relief from their stressful studies. As the academic workload grows over this semester, however, it is important for the Boston College student population to understand the origins of this practice. 

In contrast to the broad commercialism promoted on social media, self-care began as a feat of political activism. Throughout her work, "A Burst of Light: and Other Essays," Audre Lorde first explored this notion of self-care in 1988. As a poet and activist, Lorde utilized this collection of essays to describe her experiences as a member of the LGBTQ+ and Black communities, while also living with an advancing cancer. Many readers admire the writer for her open discussion of racism, sexuality, and feminism, and still highlight her relevant criticisms of prejudiced structures in America. 

Within the titular essay, “A Burst of Light, Living with Cancer,” Lorde specifically defines the nature of self-care. She writes, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” Through this statement, the poet indicates that self-care is not a personal luxury to be enjoyed by many, but rather a necessary and revolutionary act for Black and LGBTQ+ communities. In an overly prejudiced society, caring for oneself presents a political tactic for these marginalized groups. It enables many to directly resist and protect themselves from the systems of white supremacy, homophobia, and other forms of hate that still permeate everyday life. Likewise, Lorde’s version of self-care does not prioritize individual betterment over the group. Instead, it supports community building that strengthens empowerment for Black and queer people throughout the United States. 

The writer’s sentiments are exemplified in the Black Panther Party of the 1970s. Throughout the Civil Rights movement, the activist group supported medical self-care as a tool against racism in healthcare. Like Lorde, they recognized the importance of self-preservation and having autonomy over both the individual body and the community. The political organization specifically set up free clinics and sickle-cell anemia testing centres for African Americans, who were otherwise neglected by traditional medical institutions. Former Black Panther Leaders Angela Davis and Erika Huggins also championed self-care by advocating for the importance of physical and mental health. Ultimately, the Black Panther Party reflected their positive stance on self-care by demanding for better healthcare for the Black community in their Ten-Point Program of 1972. Self-care for Black people was, and continues to be, a tool for resistance and self-love in a world that does not readily provide support or comfort. 

In a recent interview with Bitch Media, writer Evette Dionne reaffirms these exact viewpoints in modern society. Being asked for her perspective on self-care as an act of political warfare and survival, Dionne responded:

Because health, particularly chronic illnesses like obesity, like heart disease, like diabetes, are killing Black women in droves. So when we say that our health matters and that we want to live as long a life as possible through self-care, it means that we’re going to the doctor, it means that we’re going to the gym, it means that we’re eating healthier, if that is what it takes to preserve our health. It’s all about putting your health first. So whatever that looks like, whether it’s making sure that you get annual pap smears or making sure you have physicals just because, that is literally a matter of life and death in extending your life.”

Following the murder of George Floyd, the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement has revived the origins of self-care. In accordance with Lorde’s definition, millions engaged in political activism throughout 2020 by participating in protests, signing petitions, and educating themselves on the influence of systemic racism. Resources, including free therapy and legal advice, were offered to the Black community and exemplified Lorde’s ideals of self-preservation and protection.

Aside from these powerful political marches, there are many ways to practice self-care in everyday life. For example, people can seek out wellness methods that reject consumerist values. These efforts can be simple, from spending less time online to discovering new hobbies, and most importantly, don’t involve any purchasing to perform. These practices break away from the capitalistic idea that every moment should be productive or spent online “relaxing,” and ultimately return to a pure, unmarketed version of self-care. This anti-consumerist style of betterment can also mean supporting collective well-being. Many specifically extend Lorde’s definition of self-care to community well-being, explaining that care for the community empowers people to care for themselves. By engaging in mutual aid projects, donating to local charities, and volunteering at community food pantries, individuals can promote true wellness across a neighborhood. For more inspiration, Massachusetts residents can look at Boston Magazine’s recent article that features different volunteer opportunities throughout Boston. Several community fridges in Boston supply free food and are always looking for donations.

College is a time where many students learn how to care for themselves. This time is an opportunity to learn about genuine self-care as well as community care. Within the Boston College community, there are many opportunities to reclaim this method of self-care. For example, the Boston College Forum on Racial Justice hosts several events throughout the year to promote political activism and education on race. Last March the organization hosted author Ijeoma Oluo who discussed her New York Times Best Seller "So You Want to Talk About Race?" This year the group is excited to welcome more speakers, so check their website for more information about upcoming events. Similarly, there are many student programs that further support this version of self-care. Organizations including Black at Boston College, the Black Student Forum, and the Thea Bowman AHANA and Intercultural Center focus on building a supportive community for students of color at Boston College. These groups specifically encourage students to engage in discussions about race and political activism, ultimately promoting Lorde’s concept of self-care. It is important to create spaces for students of color on campus, as well as spaces to push white students to do anti-racist work. By digging a little deeper to find the true meaning of the term, students at Boston College can throw away their face masks and yoga mats and reimagine self-care as “an act of political warfare.”

English Major and double minoring in Sociology and Business. Besides writing, I spend my time going for runs, getting coffee, or listening to Harry Styles.