Roar writer Maisie Allen discusses the toxicities of the self-care industry, with particular regards to womxn and university students.
Over the Covid-19 induced lockdown, articles and blog posts on how to take care of yourself during this unprecedented time seemed to dominate the internet and cultural conversation. This is obviously understandable, as the emotional toll of the pandemic and other forms of social upheaval have been felt deeply by many, however the discussions surrounding this have been overtly superficial and marketed towards specific demographics. These groups primarily include womxn and young people, especially students, and the products advertised in the means of self-care only tend to offer short-term solutions rather than looking towards concrete methods of change.
According to the Global Wellness Institute, the so-called self-care industry is worth 4.5 trillion US dollars and feeds into the harmful idea that self-improvement is intrinsically linked to caring for your body and mind so you don’t burn out. Where there is money, there is power – yet the self-care and wellness industry is recklessly promoting problematic consumer behaviours, leading many to feel disillusioned and stressed in the first place.
The upheaval of moving to a new environment, beginning new studies, and achieving a newer level of independence – that starting at university often brings – means that students, and especially incoming first-years, are ripe for self-care and wellness marketing. However, these are not often well-intentioned; despite the fact that the current student mental-health crisis is raging on our university campuses, none of these so-called self care and wellness measures tackle the root causes of the reasons why so many students are struggling at university. Packaging up a sheet face mask in bright colours, or selling boxes of tea with ingredients alleging to de-stress the drinker, fail to address the student housing crisis, with sharp rent increases in halls of residences and the cuts in maintenance grants, leaving many with financial worries that can often taint the experience of social university culture. Universities themselves are guilty of these practices too, bringing in puppies for students to play with for twenty minutes on campus in the name of mental health awareness whilst their counselling waitlists continue to grow, leaving many students to seek help elsewhere.
These wellness measures are often inherently gendered as well. They often follow sexist tropes that for womxn to feel better about themselves they just need a bit of retail therapy, buying into the neoliberal ideal of materialism and consumer culture. This market aspect is largely due to the fact that womxn tend to be the primary shoppers in their families. As primary caregivers, they tend to buy for their family members, and so when bombarded with messages to ‘treat yourself’ too, it’s often effective, particularly in the beauty and fashion industries.
Likewise, when discussing students and self-care, wellness companies and self-care advertising focus on methods on how to improve your mood that involve purchasing products or paying for specific treatments, rather than helping to dismantle the stigma of emotional exhaustion and the reasons behind it. Self-care often becomes more about self-improvement, and this is especially prevalent in the age of social media and the pressure to carve out a personal brand for yourself; essentially, to commodify yourself.
Despite the slowed down pace of life experienced by many during strict lockdown, since restrictions have eased the desire to return to the normal rush has been insatiable across all sectors and has been driven by a more sinister capitalist economic agenda. Even though the world is still in the grips of the Covid-19 pandemic, and a second wave looks incredibly likely for many countries, politicians like the UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson have been pushing for a return to work and socialising like before, meaning that wellness companies and the self-care industry have once again gone into overdrive. Except this time, rather than encouraging consumers to take time to relax and de-stress from the onslaught of Covid-19 death counts all over its news coverage by using a new bath bomb or hair mask, these same businesses are now using this as an opportunity to shame people for taking time for themselves.
The self-care industry is a chameleon, changing its colours to fit the newest trends whilst also masking this with a front of tenderness wrapped in the shape of lotion sets and weight loss shakes. Mental health and wellbeing are nowhere near on their agenda; although participating in certain activities in the name of self-care can be helpful, the companies pedalling this agenda aren’t doing it out of their desire to create a better, more caring society. 2020 has been a year like none other in recent history, and a sense of loss has been shared by many. Whilst it does seem like mental health and personal wellbeing are being prioritised in cultural discourse, a commodification of them is still a very real problem and needs to be prevented.