The term “self-care” has been through the internet ringer — celebrated, misused and exploited at various intervals. Trying to define it can be a kaleidoscopic experience. But as a result of my contentious relationship with self-esteem, I have actively avoided questioning its legitimacy. Instead, I have embraced what seems to be a commonly accepted millennial philosophy: If you make a decision in the name of your own wellness that won’t cause harm to anyone else, it is categorically Good.
When I came across a piece in The New Yorker, however, in which writer Jia Tolentino wondered whether she was “buying skin care or a psychological safety blanket,” I was surprised she even considered this discrepancy. And then it dawned on me: My mission to look after myself has, from the jump, been so wrapped up in millennial pink makeup pouches and trendy yoga studios that I’ve scarcely bothered to ask why “self-care” is something that I feel I have to purchase.
I’ve often fancied myself a self-aware person, but once I began to examine my self-care habits through Tolentino’s lens, I realized that I might just be a sucker — for expensive products, for extravagant routines and, most importantly, for the capitalist agenda that imbues things like small pores with moral value. Sure, I may feel better about myself when I religiously complete a three-step skin care routine, but why? When I see a clear, dewy face in the mirror and smile — how much of that comfort is informed by genuine self-respect? And how much is informed by arbitrary standards that have been thrust upon me by advertising executives?
Armed with the new, perhaps frightening realization that I’d been throwing money at a feel-good effort that might ultimately be meaningless (or worse, harmful to me), I decided to use the month of June to collect some data on all my self-care habits. Over the course of four weeks, I tracked every purchase I made in some effort to feel better — to see if it actually did. This tracking did not include things like my monthly MetroCard or a planned dinner with friends, because while those things might make me feel good, they wouldn’t have been purchased expressly in the name of “self-care” — a phrase which here means, for my purposes, “acting to shield myself against insecurities or emotional distress.” Below, the results of my tracking.
As soon as I pitched this story, I knew that I wouldn’t be pleased with the results — but I find the actual number truly disturbing. In less than a month, nearly 600 of my hard-earned dollars have been sacrificed at the altar of an arbitrary chase to “feel better.” To be fair, that’s not to say some of these purchases did not accomplish their allotted goals: I wear my American Eagle jeans damn near every day; my rose-scented bath was undoubtedly relaxing; and the reason I eat salad is because I enjoy the taste as well as the health benefits.
What concerns me, then, is my inability to differentiate between what I need and what I need to buy. (It’s possible I can trace the majority of my frivolous spending habits back to the “treat yourself” episode of Parks and Recreation.) For example: Is there any reason why, if I’m trying to feel better, I can’t make a salad at home to bring to the office instead of buying one? Or pick a different outfit with clothes that I already own when the one I had imagined isn’t working? Did I need to buy new mascara when I already had a full tube of perfectly functional CoverGirl LashBlast at home? The only (desperately disappointing) answer I have is: no.
I don’t want to condemn self-care shopping in all its forms. I do think that I deserve to cherish what I smother on my face, put in my mouth or drape over my fleshy home. I’m going to live in here for the rest of my life; I may as well try to enjoy it! But I’m beginning to recognize my impulse to define self-care in aesthetic terms. The beauty and health industries have poured billions of dollars into convincing me, throughout my life, that it’s my job to be visually pleasing — and that I need certain products to receive a positive evaluation.
As it turns out, I’m not really engaging in self-care when I do just that; I’m performing it. After all, buying a new long-sleeved shirt won’t change the way I feel about my arms. It will only, for one night, postpone the panicky feeling I get when I pose for photos. My relationship with my arms is in need of deeper healing, not expensive hiding.
Everyone has their own definitions of self-care, of course. But mine happen to include expensive salads, Glossier products and retail therapy, and for the sake of my wallet (and probably my sense of self), I’m going to need to change that. It won’t happen overnight, but awareness seems like a good first step.
Collage by Madeline Montoya.