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Donna Trope
Photography Donna Trope

Why the commodification of self-care might actually be a good thing

Has self-care become the latest marketing tool or is the global recognition of the practice exactly what we need?

Welcome to the Dazed Beauty Digital Spa. From the role of placebo in extreme wellness to the problem with our cannabis obsession, here we explore the complexities of the wellness industry and how it might evolve.

I first stumbled across the term self-care back in 2015 whilst scrolling through gal-dem, a magazine written by women and non-binary people of colour. The name was self-explanatory but the act of looking after myself hadn’t actually been a notion I’d thought of or even thought of as necessary. Now in 2019, you don’t have to look far to hear about the importance of self-care; it's all over the internet. Of course, self-care as a concept isn’t new, but millennials have seemingly made it their own, and it hasn’t taken long for big brands to cotton on and capitalise on it, which in turn has ushered in a new era of luxury self-care. But has self-care become the latest marketing tool or is the global recognition of the practice exactly what we need?

Self-care is the act of making time for yourself and using varied techniques to actively look after your mental and physical well being. The NHS describes it as “keeping fit and healthy, understanding when you can look after yourself, when a pharmacist can help, and when to get advice from your GP.” But why is it we’re only reaching peak self-care now? According to a study run by The Mental Health Foundation in 2018, millennials are more stressed by work than any other generation. We’re currently entering an era where being “booked and busy” is not only common but a sign of success and status. But along with being constantly rushed comes stress and negligence. It makes sense that with the rise of burnout culture, comes the antidote; self-care.

But with the rise in popularity of self-care, comes the rise in its commodification and concerns about it veering away from its original and radical roots. Today, the self-care industry is estimated to be worth a staggering $11 billion. Some self-care products are totally affordable and can be beneficial, like this aromatherapy kit, equipped with essential oils that have been proven to enhance wellbeing by positively impacting both physiological and emotional states or this book on ways to practice mindfulness, which can help alleviate stress and anxiety.

The most recent in a long line of self-care products comes Gurls Talk’s recently launched line of self-care make-up kits in collaboration with Revlon. Comprising a nail polish, lipstick, eyeshadow putty or lip gloss, named after empowering affirmations like It’s Ok to Feel, Celebrate Every Piece of Yourself and Dare to Love Yourself - the kits aim to celebrate mental health, body positivity and feminine health. At £12.99 they hardly break the bank, but the connection between self-care and beauty products feels slightly shaky, calling into question the ethics of selling self-care in the first place. Should we be buying things to make us love ourselves more?

“It’s an industry banking on privilege. A lot of this “self-care” is only accessible with a lot of self-funding.” – Justina Sharp

Our insecurities sell. From famous faces selling tummy teas that promise to give you washboard abs, to vulva beauty routines rooted in shame and products used to target cellulite, we buy things to help fix our insecurities and brands know this. The UK health and beauty industry is set to be worth £26.7 billion by 2022. And as long as we have insecurities, there will always be a market to sell products to fix them. It’s a vicious circle, one that could be broken by choosing to love ourselves. Only now the notion of loving ourselves is also being sold back to us to via self-care products. Obviously, it's not as conspicuous as being sold a tea to make you lose weight, but in some way selling self-care products is still capitalising on our insecurities. It insinuates that if you buy this product you’ll be happier, more confident and feel wholesome, which isn’t always the case.

On top of this, the rise of luxury self-care is starting to price out the very people who need it most. Online lifestyle brand Goop, founded by actress Gwyneth Paltrow, suggests that their readership should purchase enriching face oil costing $110 and face wipes for $24 as a means of sustaining self-care in the office. With a company net worth of $250 million, Paltrow may be able to justify these extravagant purchases, but for your everyday consumer, this type of self-care is unattainable and unnecessary. The Evening Standard recently reported on luxury self-care illustrating how the rich and famous unwind, highlighting a £1 million crystal bathtub, £76k water bottles and even humidifiers costing over £1.5 million, all of which suggests that self-care has simply become another marketing tool for which to peddle products.

“It’s an industry banking on privilege. A lot of this “self-care” is only accessible with a lot of self-funding,” says Justina Sharp, lifestyle influencer and social commentator who writes a weekly self-care advice column on her Instagram. “That means that groups of people who need that care the most - young people, minority groups, women - feel like they can’t adequately participate and so may avoid it as a whole. If we are constantly surrounded by imagery that is reliant on material items - jade rollers, expensive masks for every part of your body, weighted blankets - then there will always be people for whom self-care is an unaffordable luxury.”

“I do love that the self-care trend has encouraged so many people to be more open and honest about their state of being.” – Justina Sharp

Self-care as a luxury pursuit is something Nadia James, the founder of Kinde, the social networking app aimed to get people to talk about mental health, is keen to move away from. “(Self-care) is an action you take, not a purchase you make. Those ‘treat yourself’ moments are a small part of what self-care requires,” she says. “In truth, we run the risk of excluding people who need self-care most when we focus on scented candles and yoga mats.” Instead of products, James thinks we should focus on practices. “Affirming ourselves, meditating, learning new skills, writing, intention setting, investing in our development—these are all activities of deep significance to self-care.”

But the commodification of self-care doesn’t have to be a bad thing. In fact, exposing self-care to the masses is valuable. Justina Sharp believes the popularity of self-care is having a positive impact on us. “I do love that the trend has encouraged so many people to be more open and honest about their state of being,” she explains. “I think there is still a very serious and dangerous stigma surrounding mental health that can only be undone by opening this conversation.”

Sure, it’s a bit dodgy being encouraged to shell out money on a self-care themed lip gloss, but in some ways, it’s a good way of getting the message out to people that self-care can be vital to maintaining your mental health. And in all honesty I’d rather buy into something Adwoa Aboah, a woman of colour who has been brutally honest about her own mental health is selling than Gywenth Paltrow or anyone else peddling luxury self-care. Not only does Aboah’s platform speak up for girls who look like me, but she also has influence with over 760,000 followers on Instagram. If she can encourage kids to take care of themselves, then that can only be a positive thing. It’s less about the products anyway, and more about encouraging young audiences to check in on themselves and their mental health. And if it’s through affordable make-up that kids would buy anyway, then why not harness that? I know I could have really benefited from hearing more about the importance of self-care as a teen.

Being a woman is difficult but being a black woman is even harder. Living through daily misogynoir (racism and sexism specifically aimed towards black women) and microaggressions is not only tiring but detrimental to our mental health. The Mental Health Foundation suggests that ethnic minorities in the UK are “more likely to be diagnosed with mental health problems, more likely to be diagnosed and admitted to hospital and more likely to experience a poor outcome from treatment.” Which perhaps accounts for why self-care has become largely popularised by black communities in particular. As womanist and civil-rights activist Audre Lorde said in her book A Burst Of Light back in 1988, “caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” This is echoed by Nadia James, who notes that “self-care sprouts from a very real need to overcome social oppression and marginalisation. Rather than waiting for help, we’re choosing to influence our own physical, mental and emotional health and welfare.”

“Choosing to love ourselves is an act of defiance and not always a product purchase.”

Self-care takes on a whole new meaning when you are a minority, as choosing to love yourself in a world that doesn’t prioritise you is challenging - which means getting the message out there is even more necessary. Writer and model Mulan Itoje started up a safe space called Spring Melanin specifically addressing this. Aimed at dark-skinned women of colour, Spring Melanin is a space for relaxation and healing conversations. “Colorism is the prejudice or discrimination against individuals with a dark skin tone, typically among people of the same ethnic or racial group,” Itoje explains. “Safe spaces are a form of self-care, they allow room for holistic healing, reflection and accountability without judgement.”

For Itoje whether the commodification of self-care can be beneficial comes down to the ethics of a brand. “Are your profiting off people’s suffering or people’s growth?” she asks. “Not everything commodified is bad. Sometimes you need it to be commercialised for it to be normalised and the sisterhood of dark skin women of colour should be normal. I can’t be expected to create this for free, that in itself would be exploitation.”

Whilst the self-care industry may still be cashing in on our insecurities, choosing to love ourselves is an act of defiance and not always a product purchase. Self-care in all its forms is valid and people who reduce and trivialise it as just a lucrative fad don’t do it justice. The commodification of self-care means the practice is accessible to everyone, even if that access comes through a self-care inspired lipstick - surely that’s better than nothing? That said, real and hard work has to be put into performing self-care much more than just purchasing an object because, at its core, self-care is a practice and action. Learning to take care of yourself in a world that doesn’t take care of you is revolutionary.