The great global self-care factory

The great global self-care factory

As the year begins, all of us yearn to start on a good note. In comes self care. Is this another online fad? Or is this something to be wary of? Savitha Karthik hunts for answers

Everything is self care.

If you are on any social media platform, chances are you have seen the selfcare hashtag. If you have been on Instagram, you certainly wouldn’t have missed it. There are over 22 million posts with #selfcare as a hashtag. There are also #selflove, #pamperyourself, #sayno, #wellness, #loveyourself and #youmatter — all closely related to self care.

The images these hashtags conjure — face masks, bubble baths, essential oils, scented candles and spa sessions, among others. The posts are no less. “Eat an entire banana split” followed by #selfcare. While some posts encourage you to “buy yourself something nice”, others insist that, “self care is a priority, not a luxury.” On Twitter, one post says, “drinking a whole bottle of wine in your room alone is self care.” Someone else talks of yoga, keeping oneself hydrated, eating healthy organic food, turning vegan...

Self care, as we learn from social media, is anything and everything. Anyone who is feeling low is being told to take a shower, go for a walk, watch some Netflix, be nice to yourself and get some chocolate.

Brands too seem to be riding piggyback on the self care bandwagon. As a Euromonitor International white paper on ‘Top ten global consumer trends 2019’ observes, “consumers treat shopping as a way to look after themselves and feel good.” Another trend is that consumers who want to look after themselves seem to be shopping in a more sustainable manner, and as the paper puts it, ethical consumerism is now turning into a form of self care. This explains the market for products that come with labels that are in the ‘wellness’ space, which is another booming industry in tandem with the cult of self care.

Sonaksha Iyengar, illustrator, book designer and graphic recorder, is an Instagrammer (@sonaksha) with a large following. She explains how the self care narrative lays the onus on the individual. We are constantly told we have to be productive, she says, adding that the whole start-up culture and the glamorisation of consistent productivity and the need to be in a constant hustle is making us stressed.

Thanks to the vagaries of modern-day living, the individual is seeking do-it-yourself ways to find solace. The Euromonitor white paper terms this the ‘I can Look After Myself Trend’. Sonaksha observes that it is in this space that brands get into the self care conversation and begin marketing products. “That’s why it is important to look at where we get our self care resources from,” she adds.

Not just scented candles 

Different people seem to cope with the stresses of our times in different ways. If one set of people seem to be turning to peppermint teas, bubble baths or staying in and Netflixing their way out of a bad patch, there are others who practice self care with exercise and diet. Like the Director of Restore, a Bangalore-based retail design firm, Lisa Mukhedkar, who has a hectic schedule. Stress, she knows, is going nowhere, and she says, “it’s a part of life.” And so, she works at building physical and emotional strength to cope. She describes her self care routine. It’s a combination of six days a week at the gym and three days a week practising yoga. She avoids eating any meal after sundown and the sweet fixes are only in the morning. “Self care to me is taking definitive action to ensure that I am emotionally secure and physically fit.” For Sonaksha, self care has been an important part of her mental health journey, coping and living with a mental illness, as she explains. The things that matter for her are often seemingly little but important — getting enough sleep, drinking enough water, eating fulfilling meals, getting out of the house once or twice a week and going for therapy.

So, what’s not to like?

Ahla Matra, Associate at The Alternative Story, a well-being services organisation, explains the origin of self care. She points out that the term “was originally used in feminist activist circles as a method of self-preservation against an exploitative system.” While noting that a bubble bath or a face mask is not inherently wrong, and can in fact be relaxing and rejuvenating, she says that this understanding can become dangerous in certain situations. What happens when it is used as a tool to silence people who might actually need help, she wonders. “It is dangerous to assume that anxiety or depression can be treated just with walks, bubble baths and talking to a friend,” she adds.

By framing self care as a consumerist concept, where buying products and leading a certain lifestyle is the answer to problems like anxiety, we are in fact leaving out a huge chunk of people who may have serious mental health issues. According to a recent paper published in Lancet Psychiatry, one in seven Indians is affected by a mental health issue. This translates into nearly 19 crore people suffering from some sort of mental health problem. These individuals may need accessible and affordable therapy or counselling.

The popular narrative around self care equates it with self indulgence. While self-indulgence may feel good and sometimes even necessary, self care is not necessarily feel good all the time. “Replacing harmful coping strategies with adaptive ones, cutting off toxic people from your life, working on unhealthy relationship patterns are all self-care,” Alha says.

Self care could also be about “making decisions that are hard in the moment but healthy in the long run,” she adds.

Self care is often messy, and can’t be shared on Instagram, Sonaksha says, and she may just have summed up the entire self care narrative — the popular and the more layered one — in that sentence.

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