What is ‘self-care’ anyway?

I thought self-care was a scam, until I came face-to-face with what it really means.


When I first encountered the term ‘self-care’, I dismissed it as a gimmick; another wanky trend, designed to flog fancy shower gels. In fact, the concept isn’t new. According to The New Yorker, it was a political requirement to practise self-care before entering politics in Ancient Greece, and the right to prioritize self-care has an important history as part of the modern civil-rights movement. Yet here we are in 2018, with self-care suddenly it seems, the subject of a gazillion magazine articles and more than 5,000 books. Its inevitable hashtag, racking up 5.5 million results on Instagram, is linked to inspirational quotes, petal-filled baths and bright-coloured smoothies.

But the meaning perhaps, has gotten a little lost. Lots of people have written about the way self-care is commercialized, expensive and therefore a privilege. The performative, social-media aspect has been criticized too. “It’s called ‘self-care’; it’s supposed to be something you do for yourself. But you look on Instagram and it’s people drinking lovely coffees! Fruit bowls! If you’re setting up lighting to show other people how you’re doing it, it’s not self-care anymore – it’s Self Care™,” says Cheryl Wischhover, a former nurse practitioner who’s now a beauty reporter at Racked.

For me, the things that we’re calling self-care worry me. Many of these acts, we do anyway: having a bath, getting our hair cut, eating breakfast. “Everything is getting labelled self-care. Where is the line between you wanting to buy an expensive face cream and wanting to feel ok about it, and it actually being something that will be helpful to you?” Wischhover wonders. And what does it mean for women if basic acts are perceived as pampering? Are we going to end up feeling guilty about simply being humans living in the world?

Then there’s the way it’s positioned as a panacea for mental-health problems. In my personal experience, people with conditions like anxiety and depression need therapy and medication, time and support, not a bubble bath. It’s been a hard slog to get society to understand that mental-health conditions are real, legitimate illnesses, and it sometimes feels like self-care returns us to the olden days – the idea that a little lipstick is all one needs to pull oneself together.

“If you’re setting up lighting to show other people how you’re doing it, it’s not self-care anymore – it’s Self Care™.”

Does that mean we need to throw out the notion of self-care completely? That’s where my conflict really kicks in. Because my experience has shown me that in its truest form, self-care can be transformative. I’ve volunteered with the young women of The Cinderella Project, which helps disadvantaged high-school grads prepare for prom by providing dresses, makeup, and hairstyling for the big event, and have witnessed first-hand how a little outward primping brings genuine joy.

When I wrote about Look Good Feel Better, the organization that runs workshops for women undergoing cancer treatment to learn about wig care, makeup and skincare, I met Michelle Farrance, who was diagnosed with a very aggressive form of breast cancer at 35. She had undergone a double mastectomy, six rounds of chemotherapy and 28 rounds of radiation. Hearing first-hand about how she finally felt pretty after learning how to re-frame her exhausted, browless face with makeup taught me how humble acts can help to regain one’s sense of self. There are countless others out there like Michelle, like one teen girl whose hair had become matted after months of depression,  and whose transformative video went viral last year.

Author Jayne Hardy suffered from such severe depression that she stopped brushing her teeth and lost a molar. Her first step in addressing her illness was starting a beauty blog. “When I started writing about beauty products it meant I had a reason to start taking care of myself again,” she told The Daily Express. She went on to launch the Blurt Foundation, a UK organization that sends out monthly subscription boxes full of surprises like Happy Socks or Pick-Me Up Coffee Scrub to aid in self-care, and wrote a book on self-care as a tool toward fulfilling our own physical, psychological and emotional needs, called The Self Care Project.

Here’s the rub for me in my own life: I do all the things that constitute self-care. I floss. I have a cupboard full of essential oils and I know how to use them. I multi-mask. I shower – with fancy shower gels – and exercise, and cook from scratch. Yet like most women, I feel, not depressed but overwhelmed and harried—constantly stressed.

“One of the things that help people with depression is to list things that comprise self-care. When they feel a low mood, they have a ready list to start doing.”

Part of the struggle for many women is convincing them that they deserve to have breaks and it is not a sign of weakness or that they can’t cope,” says Beverley Kort, a Vancouver-based psychologist. She notes that self-care is also perceived as more ‘okay’ for women who work than for those who stay home with their kids. “It can definitely be a defining moment for a women to realize that it is okay to start carving out space for herself to be her own ‘care receiver’ in order to cope better with her life. Small acts of self-care can be very restorative – as much in the giving it to yourself as in the act itself.”

Hearing this is genuinely a lightbulb moment that resolves a lot of my conflicted feelings. I realize in considering self-care, I’ve been focusing on what to use and how to do it, instead of why. I work for myself from home, with two kids, minimal childcare and no local family, snatching moments to write during nap times. I feel like at any point, I’m going to be asked to prove my productivity and my worth – I don’t know by whom. I check emails while on the treadmill and can’t bear to walk around without a podcast on. At 7 a.m. this morning, I roasted a chicken while my kids ate breakfast. I’m constantly trying to squeeze more from every moment – less in a #makingmemories way, more literally telling my four-year-old to stop smelling the flowers because I have to be somewhere else, and do something else. “We’re full to the brim with responsibility; we’ve bought into the social status of busyness [and] devalued anything that we enjoy,” says Hardy in her book. Hand up over here.

Real self-care isn’t necessarily pretty or Instagrammable. It can be emotional work that can manifest in simple ways. “Self-care to me means if it’s light out, I walk around the neighbourhood,” says Wischhover. “Because I’m addicted to social media I put my iPhone down for 45 minutes and read a book. But I use skincare for self-care too – I have my nighttime routines. Sometimes it’s just about sitting in the bathroom for 10 minutes with the door shut.”

But self-care can be simpler still. “Taking time, eating well, doing something that gives you a little pleasure every day, noticing when good things happen and acknowledging them, sleeping well, pacing yourself during the day and doing less.” These methods can make us more resilient – give us resources for if we do hit a low point, when our routines become a tool for crawling our way back. “One of the things that help people with depression (though not severe or chronic) is to list things that comprise self-care,” Kort explains. “When they feel a low mood, they have a ready list to start doing, since when you feel depressed motivation can be non-existent—so you can’t think of what makes you feel good.”

I suppose self-care, then, is about practising in an intentional way; understanding what nourishes me, and what depletes me. Believing that I deserve time to wallow in a bath instead of grabbing a quick shower. Meeting up with friends instead of believing that commenting on their Facebook posts is an adequate substitute. Leaving the phone at home. Getting lost in a book. Saying no, and asking for more. Letting my children stop and smell the flowers, and maybe even doing it myself. It might not be what your self-care looks like, but that’s ok, because I’m not doing it for anyone else – I’m doing it for myself.

Collage: Emily Wraith
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