The Guardian's Arwa Mahdawi categorizes self-care as in vogue, but vague. According to Mahdawi, self-care means "anything and everything: if an activity (or inactivity) makes you feel better, in body or mind, then it’s self-care. It could be yoga or cooking or simply turning off the news."
The culture of self-care has existed for many years, but the most recent phenomenon has risen in the aftermath of the 2016 election, which seemed to have wiped many millennials of energy and optimism. As Mahdawi puts it:
As the political climate has grown more turbulent, interest in self-care has risen.
Unfortunately, self-care runs the risk of becoming more meaningless than ever. It’s become co-opted by market forces and consumerized.
She provides some examples:
You can now buy self-care nail decals and cute self-care kits. A new line of massage chairs even carries the tagline 'the science of self care.' Self-care has also become a carefully curated lifestyle choice to show off: there are more than 1.4m photos hashtagged #selfcare on Instagram. Many of these seem to consist of skinny women doing yoga poses, legs in bubble baths, non-caffeinated-non-dairy hot drinks, gluten-free berry-based desserts, green juice in mason jars, that sort of thing. It’s basically Treat Yo’ Self in slightly superior clothing.
In this way, "self-care" as demonstrated by many millennials across social media, is not simply caring for yourself and ensuring that you remain healthy and positive—but rather, a demonstration of privilege.
Women seem to identify with the culture of self-care more than men, and according to The New York Times, they have good reason too. According to a 2016 study by the American Psychological Association, a gender gap exists between the amount stress men and women experience. The study shows that women are "twice as likely to suffer from severe stress and anxiety as men."
The Times's Kristin Wong looked to Erin Joyce, a women and couples therapist in Los Angeles, for insight on the study:
'The difference, however, is in the nature and scope of these responsibilities in the home environment in particular,' Dr. Joyce said. For example, the United Nations reported that women do nearly three times as much unpaid domestic work as men. The problem is, housework is often overlooked as work, even though it is often as laborious (or in some cases, more so) as any paid job.
Like domestic labor, emotional labor is generally dismissed and not labeled work, but research shows it can be just as exhausting as paid work. Emotional labor can lead to insomnia and family conflict, according to a study published in Personnel Psychology.
Given women's heightened stress levels, it makes sense that the culture of self-care would be far more appealing to them, rather than to men. Indulging in a long bath, going outside for a walk or eating healthy are all things that can relieve stress, and they are all examples of self-care culture.
According to the Pew Research Center, millennials are making more commitments to personal improvement than any generation before them. They spend their money on things like workout regimens, diet plans, and life coaches—all in an effort to improve their wellbeing.
In reality, the more vapid acts of self-care (like indulging in a face mask or getting your nails done) may do wonders for one's mental state, but labeling them as "self-care" diminish the term's original meaning and purpose. According to The Thirty's Audrey Nobel:
The term 'self-care' originally came from a medical concept. Doctors described it as a way for patients to treat themselves by engaging in healthy habits under the supervision of a professional. It turned into a politically charged term associated with the Civil Rights and the Women's Rights movements when health was a privilege to white males.
Morris and Wortham define self-care as a means 'to actively push back against systems that break you down and institutional ways of not being cared for.'
The New Yorker's Jordan Kisner expands on the historical significance of the term and its role in fighting for civil rights:
In 1988, the words of the African-American lesbian writer Audre Lorde became a rallying cry: 'Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.' In this formulation, self-care was no longer a litmus test for social equality; it was a way to insist to a violent and oppressive culture that you mattered, that you were worthy of care. Lorde’s quote remains the mantra of contemporary #selfcare practitioners.
Those who have transformed self-care into an excuse for indulging in certain behaviors are highjacking the term and diluting its original significance.
But for some, society's increased focus on self-care represents an overdue shift towards prioritizing mental and physical health. And as NPR's Christianna Silva points out:
Self-care comes from comparison on the internet and social media.
Millennials are inundated with images of perfection not just from fashion models on the covers of magazines, but from friends using portrait mode on Instagram. Most try to put their best foot forward on social media, and the consequences of seeing so many people in perfectly-edited pictures can be severe when it comes to overall mental health. Self-care is simply one strategy towards regaining a bit of that esteem lost.