Many have said that the millennial generation has been one consistently defined by obsessions. Whether it’s memes, avocado toast, or Instagram, millenials are always on the move to the next fad. But there’s one obsession that has recently taken over and doesn’t seem to be going anywhere anytime soon: self-care. The Oxford Dictionary defines self-care as the deliberate “practice of taking an active role in protecting one’s own well-being and happiness, in particular during periods of stress.” But anyone with an Instagram account can tell you that doesn’t tell the whole story.
For millennials, self care takes many forms: journaling, attending a spin class, or doing a face mask, to name a few. But while these are all common modern forms of the practice, the idea of self-care existed long before millennials co-opted it as their own. Many trace the origin of self-care to Ancient Greece, originally an attempt to create a population that was likely to care for others as well. In the 1960s and ‘70s, self-care was redefined in the US as a way for people with emotionally taxing occupations to better cope with stress. Social workers, EMTs, and trauma therapists all had to learn to properly take care of themselves before they were able to care for others.
Then, during the era of second-wave feminism and the Civil Rights Movement, the discourse surrounding self-care suddenly became politicized. In Alondra Nelson’s book Body and Soul, she discusses how, because the US healthcare system has historically and systematically failed women of color, LGBTQ+ people, and disabled people, these groups decided to take it upon themselves to create their own support systems.
After Trump’s election in 2016, the interest in self-care sharply increased, with the Google searches for the term reaching a five-year high. Only recently has self-care been adopted into mainstream culture as celebrities and influencers have started to advertise and consumerize this new brand of wellness culture.
In 2008, actress Gwyneth Paltrow kick-started her brand Goop, whose tagline is “make every choice count.” The company sells beauty, fashion, and wellness products at a steep cost. Likewise, Jessica Alba’s brand The Honest Company markets its personal care products as “Happiness, Delivered” playing into our generation’s obsession with the idea that happiness is something that can be bought.
According to the Pew Research Center, more millennials reported making “personal improvement commitments” than any generation preceding them. In 2015, they spent twice as much as baby boomers on self-care essentials such as workout regimens, diet plans, life coaching, and apps to improve their personal well-being. Entire businesses have created complex marketing strategies that speak to self-care to sell products, contributing to the now thriving $10 billion self-care industry.
“The genre of people that partake in self care [is] heavy consumers,” first-year Rhea Lieber says. “We are the demographic that will buy workout classes, face masks, and go to brunch. Social media influencers are also this demographic.”
The boom of self-care Twitter bots has also added a technological component to the self-care movement. But what should really qualify as self-care? Searching “#selfcare” on Instagram turns up over 12.9 million posts, mainly composed of lifestyle bloggers doing yoga poses, bathing in bubble baths, or eating gluten-free berry-based frozen yogurt––all of which reflect how the #selfcare movement has become a type of status symbol.
What millennials understand as self-care typically aligns with aesthetically pleasing activities not necessarily geared towards self-improvement. Is this movement really striving towards emotional health, or is it simply an expensive, capitalist, and consumer-driven act disguised in kale smoothies, yoga mats, and Lush face masks?
The practices of self-care advertised by mainstream media reveal a very narrow depiction of what life is like. And, for most, this image doesn’t quite fit that bill. Large consumer-driven self-care and “wellness” movements tell people that the best and even only way to care for oneself is through buying expensive items, like Goop’s $570 silk pajamas. In reality, this is a privilege that only the wealthy can afford.
But, according to senior Elana DeSantis, self-care doesn’t necessarily have to be expensive; it can come in many different forms, whether that’s changing into freshly laundered clothing, relaxing, or eating healthy food. Even though some of these things are still underlined by the privilege of class, there are ways to forgo investing in consumer-driven self-care products and still be kind to yourself. “[Self-care] is just attending to self and understanding what you need; it does not need to be fun in the moment,” she said.
By understanding our own needs, we build a sense of what others may need as well. However, DeSantis’ perception of self-care differs from what is often depicted by mass media influencers, celebrities, and even our college peers. DeSantis highlights the importance of working towards caring for oneself, while Instagram influencers emphasize indulging oneself. We should start asking more questions like, does a $250 floatation tank therapy session for 45 minutes of “zen” really guide us towards self-care, or towards self-indulgence?
As sophomore Owen Lasko put it, “Face masks don’t lead to emotional intelligence.”
Psychologist Guy Winch gave a TED Talk in 2015 emphasizing how human beings tend to favor their physical needs over the emotional ones almost all of the time. “We’ve been taught physical hygiene since we were five years old,” he said.. “But what do we know about maintaining our psychological health? Well, nothing. What do we teach our children about emotional hygiene? Nothing.”
Essentially, Winch is saying that self-care has become the means by which we are taught to tend to our “emotional hygiene.” Whether self-care takes the shape of spending 10 minutes to meditate every day or attending a group fitness class, many find it beneficial to do “things for yourself that allow you to be more successful as this will allow you to succeed in other areas in your life,” Lieber pointed out.
Lieber’s preferred method of practicing self-care is going to CorePower Yoga to feel “grounded and refreshed.” When asked whether she foresees CorePower as being her consistent means of self-care in the future, she responded, “It will probably die out, and when it does, I will also probably be tired of going.”
The way in which people practice self-care ebbs and flows with pop culture’s current obsessions. As millenials, we often latch onto these trends in pursuit of living an aesthetic advertised by our favorite icons and celebrities. But as the concept of self-care becomes more integral to the mainstream conversation, it is important to recognize that practicing self-care often revolves around leisure, and an assumption of privileges that is only afforded to some groups.