THE CO$T OF SELF-CARE
The term “self-care” has become a hot commodity (and big business), but is it really good for us?
BY LISA PETTY, PHD
We hear about it a lot.
We scroll past #self-care posts on social media, with pictures of women soaking in bubble baths, pouring (another) extra large tumbler of wine, or showing off a new pair of shoes. Or maybe our newsfeed highlights a toned stranger in yoga gear doing a headstand in the woods, at the edge of a lake, with the rising sun suggesting a reflection on the still water. Rarely do we hear women boast about getting a breast exam.
In the last few years, the concept of self-care has taken off like a rocket – and not everyone is on board. While some women are all-in, others can’t even say the word. If it’s supposed to be good for us, what’s the problem?
What is self-care, anyway?
We’ve certainly come a long way from the concept of self-care in nursing developed by Dorothy Orem, who first published her theory in the 1970s. As Orem saw it, self-care related to patients and the activities they engaged in to manage recovery from an injury or the diagnosis of an illness. She considered self-care to be things like making dietary changes, taking prescription medications, and changing the dressing on a wound.
And it makes sense. We want to be independent and do things that let us stay healthy and recover when we need to. But, with the focus now on physical health only, the activities outlined in Orem’s concept have changed course, and become known as “self-management.”
At the same time that Orem’s theory was published, the wellbeing movement gathered momentum. Wellbeing includes physical health, but also moves beyond the body to include positive mood, positive psychological functioning, and positive relationships. Overall, your satisfaction with life, your emotional state, and your sense of purpose or meaning, all factor into wellbeing. There is a two-way street between physical health and wellbeing, and each one influences the other. Think about how an injury or illness can impact your mood to see how this works.
When you have positive social, emotional and psychological functioning, you’re more likely to be satisfied with your job, feel creative, and enjoy a sense of autonomy. You’re more likely to have a stronger immune system and improved mental health. You’re also more engaged in the community, have higher levels of civic responsibility, and are a better mentor to younger generations. In other words, society as whole may benefit when individuals experience better wellbeing.
Self-care + wellbeing
With the expanded scope of wellbeing, self-management no longer fits the bill as a strategy to support health and increased quality of life. The concept of self-care has blossomed into an individual process that reflects knowing about your own body and the way it responds to illness. Biomedical advice may or may not be a factor in decision-making.
Even within medical fields, the concept of self-care has expanded to include physical, psychological, social, and spiritual wellbeing (body/mind/spirit), and involves implementing the activities that will maintain your desired level of wellbeing.
"Commodifiable activities tend to be the gendered ones, including beauty products and beauty care, shopping, and “girl’s getaways”, rather than practices that support physical and mental well-being."
So what’s the problem?
Rather than being a concept that’s embraced with open arms, the term self-care struggles to gain respect. This might be, in part, because the word means something different to everyone and is loaded with gender expectations. Many women don’t even like the word self-care, which may be another obstacle to engaging with it.
The commodification of self-care
It’s difficult to argue that self-care is a necessity when it has become an industry unto itself, with rather fluid interpretations of what care actually means. Commodifiable activities tend to be the gendered ones, including beauty products and beauty care, shopping, and “girl’s getaways”, rather than practices that support physical and mental well-being. In other words, self-care has become another way to promote gender roles, particularly in reference to our responsibility to look good.
Anita is a chiropractor with an established practice in Toronto, Canada. As a care professional, she has observed that many women opt for beauty procedures over proactive treatments, such as chiropractic care or physiotherapy. While Anita focuses on helping her patients heal from injury and illness, the eyelash salon across the parking lot from her is lively. She explained:
“It’s $100 for eyelashes; my treatment is $72. They have complete online booking and the smallest little gig there, hardly any overhead, just this gorgeous little spa, and they’re fully booked. Gorgeous girls going there, but my waiting room is not that busy. Yes, I do find between me and aesthetics it’s aesthetics that come first and it’s just heart-stopping."
Some statistics show that in the US packaged goods categories, self-care has become a $450 billion industry. Airlines, resorts and luxury car companies have now jumped on the self-care bandwagon. Worldwide, it’s a multi-trillion-dollar market. The line between self-care and consumerism has blurred. Along with promoting the gender expectation for beauty work, this sort of self-care creates pressure for women to give the appearance of 'having it all.'
At what cost?
The commodification of self-care has led some women to stop associating it with health. In my own research for example, not a single woman identified visiting a health care provider, optometrist or other health practitioner as self-care. This isn’t to suggest that women don’t engage in these proactive activities, but instead that they don’t think of them as self-care.
Diminishing self-care to be merely an indulgence or beauty care regimen undermines its potential for supporting all aspects of wellbeing. This is a problem for social health messaging that relies on the word self-care to inspire action. With its association with indulgence, women in lower socioeconomic positions may tune out self-care messaging altogether. On the flipside, women who require more intense mental health support might think she’s done all she can to support her wellbeing if she manages to get her nails done. Rather than supporting wellbeing, the concept of self-care may lead to care gaps.
"While the term self-care might benefit from a rebranding, the idea behind it – to support your wellbeing – is an important one. If you have problems with the word, stop using it."
And it’s selfish
The idea of being proactive about wellbeing is good in theory, but it’s not particularly easy for women because of the social expectations to put the needs of others ahead of our own. For example, research on women with breast cancer showed that women prioritized mothering over their own care. On a less extreme scale, taking time away from family and other social responsibilities leads to feelings of guilt and selfishness that can undermine the benefits of self-care.
Oh, the shame
No matter what choice we make, women experience self-care shaming. Women who commit to a weekly yoga class, or who have a standing appointment at the massage therapist, feel the need to explain their choices in the face of perceived disapproval – even by other women. Women also receive criticism when they fall off the exercise wagon or rebook another dentist appointment. You should be looking after yourself, right? What would everyone else do if you got sick? Not surprisingly, many women who commit to regular self-care practices do so to improve how they show up in relationships with others.
Keep what works
While the term self-care might benefit from a rebranding, the idea behind it – to support your wellbeing – is an important one. If you have problems with the word, stop using it. Men don’t talk about engaging in self-care, but many have 'hockey night' with their friends that they never miss. Take a page from their book: rather than having 'self-care' time, just go to pilates or go for a solo hike in the woods. There’s no need to bring a photographer with you, post a picture on social media, and then open yourself up to feedback. #doitforyourself
But do it
No matter what you call it, find ways to support your wellbeing. Learn to tune into your body for answers about what you need in terms of foods, exercise, rest, social activities, alone time, and fun. Indulge in salon visits if that brings you joy – and remember to book your check-ups. DEFY