Important practice or product of consumer culture? Let’s talk about it.

As discourse on mental health becomes more normalized, self-care as a concept becomes more recognizable. Arguably, this increased awareness results in a wider range of interpretations and definitions of self-care as an idea and as a practice. A foundational understanding of self-care might denote the importance of maintaining healthy habits and engaging in behaviours which bring one joy or relieve stress and tension. Psychology Today explains that “learning how to eat right, reduce stress, exercise regularly, and take a time-out when you need it are touchstones of self-care and can keep you healthy, fit, and resilient.”

On paper, this all seems quite intuitive. Straightforward. Obvious, even. We have to take care of ourselves. We were taught this in school, or by our loved ones and parental figures. As adults, we are encouraged to take time for our self-care, that “self-care isn’t selfish”.

So, why is it so hard? Is it even fair to say that self-care, which by definition is taking steps to continue living healthily, is an indulgence? Not only that, but what happens when there is economic dissonance in self-care, so that being unable to “treat yourself” instead means you aren’t taking care of yourself? It speaks to capitalist consumer culture that items and practices marketed as indulgences, treats, or self-care are, at their core, the product of a concept that dictates the need to care for oneself. None of this is to say that every single individual struggles with self-care, or sees it as an indulgence, or feels that self-care is

something they need to spend money on in order to participate.

However, there is a plethora of literature and articles dedicated to how to practice self-care, what to purchase, what to do, and how it should affect a person. Yet there seems to exist just as many, if not more, articles explaining the potentially darker facets of the concept. Not all are backed by science, but many seem to be giving greater credence to the possibility that consumer-capitalism is permeating and dictating that which is personal and essential to the well-being of an individual.

In the New York Times article which inspired this feature, Amanda Hess writes on “The New Spiritual Consumerism”. She explores the societal effects of shows such as “Queer Eye”, suggesting that although it is an important and even political piece of pop culture, it nonetheless creates “a kind of simulation of wealth redistribution.” Sure, these men are empowering individuals and changing their lives, but what happens when the team leaves? Hess goes on to say “every time the Fab Five retreats from the scene, I imagine the freshly-painted homes slowly falling into disrepair, the beards growing shaggy again, the refrigerators emptying.” Cynical? Absolutely. But it makes you wonder.

Photo from Netflix Series' Cover
Photo from Netflix Series' Cover

Current reality series, especially those with a makeover component, do place value on how one invests in oneself. So, if these shows really are perpetuating the idea that in order to practice self-care and be the best version of oneself you have to pay up, what effect does that have on how we see ourselves? Personally, I’ve seen the disappointment on friends’ faces when they can’t afford to renew their gym membership, or get their nails done, or purchase more shampoo, toothpaste, or basic groceries. Not only are they unable to care for themselves in some capacity, whether it is essential or not, but it makes them feel as though they have failed.

Darker still is an article from last fall in Current Affairs called “Self-Care Won’t Save Us”. Aisling McCrea argues that self-care “appears to be perfectly designed to fit in with a society that appears to be the cause of so much of the depression, anxiety, and insecurities. By finding the solution to young people’s mental ill-health (be it a diagnosed mental health problem or simply the day-to-day stresses of life) in do-it-yourself fixes, and putting the burden on the target audience to find a way to cope, the framework of self-care avoids having to think about issues on a societal level. In the world of self-care, mental health is not political, it’s individual. Self-care is mental health care for the neoliberal era.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, even VICE echoes this sentiment: “The Dark Truths Behind Our Obsession with Self-Care” also describes self-care as a burden placed on millennials, discussing how we are being forced to care for ourselves in the face of insufficient mental health resources.

There are some common threads between these pieces, which must surely be shared and contested by the thousands of other texts not featured here. First, the looming so-called threat of society’s newfound obsession with the instagrammable and trendy aspects of self-care. Second, they each carry imagery of face masks, tea, and candles. This leads one to question whether associating “dark sides” of self-care with common and relatively accessible items is productive. Does associating those products that many may deem necessary to their own self-care routines with the condemnation of our consumer-capitalist culture help or hinder one’s potentially improved self-perception? And does sharing one’s routines on social media invalidate the practice of self-care somehow?

These are questions worth asking in the face of such criticism. Ultimately, the point of these pieces is to raise awareness: the Current Affairs and VICE articles in particular are trying to call attention to the issue of mental health management, particularly for millennials and gen Z-ers. Not only that, but they are pointing out the damaging ways in which self-care is equated with financial investment—and it shouldn’t be. However, they don’t offer a solution to the problem either. So we’re left in limbo: in this narrative, self-care is simultaneously vital and damaging, essential and out-of-reach.

Ultimately, there’s no judgement. Whether your self-care is a quick walk outside or a two-week trip to faraway shores, you do you. But this question of expenditure is worth raising, especially in instances where luxuries are equated with essential items, further isolating those in lower socio-economic levels and thus widening the disparity between tax brackets. Any increase in the already considerable isolationism of those who simply don’t have enough money to get by is something that the Western world needs no more of, never mind Kelowna. Mainstream self-care discourse should include everyone.

Finally, please remember that our campus offers a multitude of mental health services and resources, including a Third Space Counseling centre, advisors, health professionals, and even peer-led clubs and societies. If you’re struggling with self-care, or self-worth, or even just trying to figure out who that self is, reach out. There’s no wrong way to do it, and everyone deserves to feel safe, cared for, and important. Self-care is a great place to start.

UBCO Counselling and Mental Health

UBCO Student Health Clinic

Canadian Mental Health Association - Kelowna