“Treat yourself!”…with kindness: Our capitalist conception of self-care

In an ideal world, to practise self-care, I would swaddle myself in a luxurious Egyptian cotton towel, smother myself with a face mark that’s so expensive it could be liquid gold (although, I’m not sure that would work wonders for my pores), and dunk myself into velvety, bubbly waters. Like most struggling students, however, this is financially a little out of my depth.

The self-care industry continues to grow and is now a $450 billion market. That being said, it has been morphed by capitalism, resulting in a distorted perception of what self-care really entails. When googling the term ‘self-care’ the first half-dozen results are all adverts.

Self-care poses a threat to capitalism because taking time for ourselves opposes the notion that we must work ourselves tirelessly and to the point of burnout. The solution, according to capitalism, is to monetise this practice and exploit our inevitable burnouts.

These days, self-care has become almost synonymous with the familiar chime “treat yourself”. Contrary to popular belief, a £50 Jo Malone candle will not be the cure to chronic stress. How many times have you justified buying something all in the name of “treating yourself” as a means to practise self-care?

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Whatsmore, self-care has been adopted by TikTok and has resulted in a strict conception as to what self-care looks like. I feel inundated by gorgeous montages of skinny white girls waking up at 5am, cycling to see the sunrise, preparing some gorgeous breakfast, etc. In other words, this year has seen the growing emergence of ‘that girl’. 

Urban dictionary describes this type of girl as someone who “meditates, drinks smoothies, …eating only healthy food, goes to the gym every day, and is successful in many ways…most likely rich too’. 

Bewitched by these girls, I desperately wanted a life like theirs, and so on particularly difficult days where just getting out of bed was a challenge, I felt so far away from the life I wanted for myself. Somehow, my happiness became dependent on whether or not I could be ‘that girl’.

Nonetheless, as much as I wanted to be the archetypal modern woman, I don’t have the money, nor the time to have such a lifestyle, but this should not be a barrier to self-care. At its core, self-care is the practice of doing anything that can help you look after yourself as you would a friend. 

It shouldn’t be an exclusive, elitist ritual, but one everyone can participate in. Exploiting our desperate need for a break when we are on our last legs from burnout, the capitalist notion of self-care offers an attractive solution for us to solve our problems by spending obscene amounts of money. 

Similarly, the capitalist solution for taking time away from work is to frame self-care as a means to re-energise yourself so that you can return to work more efficiently. We effectively invest in our own burnout. We pay for expensive bath bombs that momentarily give us peace, rather than devoting real time to ourselves to avoid future stress.

What we should be doing is participating in practices that protect our future selves. With more energy and happiness, perhaps together we can rebuild a community that never promotes burnout in the first place.

In the meantime, I’ve put together a small list of activities to practise self-care that won’t break the bank and will hopefully lead to long-term support for yourself:

  1. Make yourself a plan. Perhaps this sounds boring, but growing up, my Dad always repeated this phrase to me: “Failing to plan is planning to fail”, and I think if you opened up my skull you would find these words engraved into my brain. I am grateful, though, because I believe creating a plan is truly a powerful and effective act of self-care. Plan your time and that way you can really plan time for yourself. Even if you don’t stick to the plan, I am always comforted by the realisation that there is time to do everything and I can visualise my goals more easily, rather than watch my ever-growing to-do list spin around in my head.
  2. Cook food for the soul. I have a little list on my phone of foods that really nourish my soul, meaning they feed my heart, as well as my belly. Some examples from my list are: soup, baked beans, roast dinner, anything cheesy, and many more. This is, of course, quite a personal preference, but try to think of foods that make you feel comforted. Perhaps they remind you of home, perhaps they remind you of a friend, or perhaps it’s just mouth-wateringly and irresistibly tasty.
  3. Take a minute to ground yourself. Put your two feet onto the ground and really look at where you are.Your life does not have to be perfect for you to be happy. Whether you made it to the new, hip yoga class, or you’re still struggling to make your way into the shower, your actions do not define your happiness.
  4. Take time to do nothing in particular. Your happiness should not be dependent on your productivity. Take a nap, dance around to some music, watch a film (or two, or three…)

Sometimes self-care can feel like it must belong to a certain list of attributes, but it can be almost anything. It doesn’t have to be productive, expensive, high-energy, low-energy… It is simply what can heal yourself internally a little.

Most importantly, all these activities should be done guilt-free. Self-care is by definition an act of defiance against capitalism, and so sometimes it’s easy to forget that your life needs balance, including time for yourself. 

I wish everyone the best of luck with the rest of the semester and hope everyone is able to stay calm and relaxed. This semester seems to be flying by, and the distant whisperings of deadlines seem ever louder, and so more than ever it is important to give yourself the gift of time. Remember that there is no comprehensive list of objects or habits you need to fulfil in order to find happiness. It requires effort and time invested in yourself in order to build a better, happier version of yourself, and in turn, a better community.

Image credit: Sincerely Media via UnSplash