For several years in my mid-adolescent existence, I felt an overwhelming presentiment of instability, of anxiety and sadness and general emptiness. I felt wrapped up in the demands and desires of consumerism and digital spaces and my existence as a young woman.
Because of this, my YouTube subscriptions consisted of those YouTube channels that curate a specific niche of content, of productive and healthy and getting my life together videos, morning routines and days in my life, as I looked for some blueprint of self-care perfection to distract me. Watching other people’s lives offered a virtual reality, a model to consume and spit back out into the world as I tried to emulate their lives.
These videos were a core part of my experience growing up, as embarrassing as that may be. I learned self-care from the internet, from the increasingly common online discourse about loving yourself in the 21st century. Flashy articles and aesthetic videos promoting wellness and the #girlboss lifestyle (or any other lucrative buzzword) told me that the life to emulate was one where I was looking out for myself.
It’s a powerful and semi-empowering message, so perfectly attractive to our hustle culture generation, where nobody seems to stop working/organizing/creating. Looking out for oneself is somehow not an actual break from work; it is a positive act of labor, another activity to create an image of balance and success and incredible personal branding.
Except this idea that self-care is a means to an end, rather than an end in itself, is deeply harmful. Looking out for myself somehow meant simply buying face masks, doing yoga, brushing my teeth with charcoal, et cetera. Under the capitalist guise of spending for self-improvement, I used self-care products to replace actual self-care. Frankly, I don’t want to admit how much money I spent in Sephora’s skincare aisles before I realized I was actually depressed and got prescribed some Zoloft.
Even though it seems we’re all beginning to awake from our virtual reality of face masks and candlelit baths replacing emotional stability, I do think we need to have an honest conversation about the commodification of self-care. The face mask industry is worth over $27 billion just in America. $27 billion. Are we really going to pretend we haven’t surrendered our self-care practice to the interests of corporate America?
Self-care should not be something on our to-do list, a thing to buy, an activity to perform. So often, our self-preservation and what I’ve seen referred to as “protection of energy” is necessary because of the side effects of capitalist, patriarchal systems that erode at and actively work to destroy our sense of self. But by giving money to companies in exchange for products promising to fulfill our performative requirement of self-care, we are upholding the exact systems that exhaust us every day.
This is not to say that face masks are bad—I love face masks. But in a very deep and uncomfortable way, corporate self-care is a tool of the patriarchy, designed to maintain the false idea that beauty is wellness and that buying will solve our problems.
Self-care is so performative nowadays that it can be difficult to differentiate between what makes you feel good and what makes you feel externally validated. But just for a second, forget about the face masks and think about what’s missing from your life. I can almost certainly guarantee that cheek redness or uneven texture is not the root of your anxiety. Perhaps there is something more causing your discontent, an emotional boundary that you have yet to cross
Self-care is not what we do; it is what we think. It is all the intangible and immaterial in our lives, all the moments between the items on our to-do list. For me, self-care is completing the homework I get from therapy, feeling the effects of my medication, and, yes, working out. Self-care is not a public act, not something you have to see or look like in order to fulfill. It is completely personal and goes far beyond the aisles of Sephora (unfortunately).
I’ve been thinking a lot about self-care lately, what with all the changes that come with being seventeen—the restlessness and sadness and sentimentality for something that doesn’t quite exist. My self-care is in the way I think about myself and the world, how I handle these changes and talk to people and just generally go about my day.
Self-care is for your own self, resistant of the public and performative world that we live in. And I care for myself in ways that nobody else can or can ever understand, just how it should be. I love face masks, but I love myself more.
By Katherine Williams
Illustration by Pia Mileaf-Patel for The New Yorker