Why self-care should be more than bubble baths and candles

Recently there has been a huge increase in conversations on ‘self-care’. Self-care, in the simplest, most innocent sense, is about taking time out of your busy schedule to look after yourself. To engage in a little TLC and ‘me time’. In theory, it shouldn’t be problematic. On paper, it’s a nice phrase that encompasses the art of taking time for yourself. However, like most of life’s good stuff, self-care has fallen into the trap of commercialisation. Now, we don’t just engage in self-care as a stand-alone activity, we buy it. Thanks to some clever marketing tricks, we are left thinking that splashing some cash on a purchase or two (or three) is a fast-track ticket to instant happiness, relaxation, and leisure.

We buy into the idea that ‘self-care’ is an activity that we fit into the rest of our busy schedule. Self-care is a bubble bath. Or a chocolate bar. Or a glass of wine. Or a scented candle. We announce to ourselves proudly that we’re going to have a morning/afternoon/night engaging in the act of self-care. And then when we’re finished, when the soap suds in the bath fizzle and the scented candle burns out, we are quickly rocketed back into the mayhem and stress of normal life.

Something about this doesn’t sit well with me. I think the issue of ‘buying’ ourselves time off feels jarring because it is so entrenched in capitalism and consumerism. This means that the essence of what it means to care for ourselves has been lost a bit. The definition of ‘care’ has been cleverly warped to fit a neat, marketable niche (wrapped in pink tissue paper and scented with lavender).

Don’t get me wrong, I love indulgence. I am the certified Queen of patching up my problems with chocolate orange, burnt caramel scented candles, and the Mamma Mia soundtrack. I also don’t think there is anything wrong with giving yourself an evening off to regroup, destress, and take some time off. However, I do think that we should cast a critical eye over how ‘self-care’ has been marketed as a product for us to buy.

The problem, as I see it, is that buying self-care products may offer a quick-fix solution to some more damaging issues. Whilst having a bubble bath may provide an instant fast-track tick to Relaxville, it won’t necessarily fix anything. I now wonder, are there fundamental societal problems (like mental health or workplace stress), that are ‘covered up’ by self-care narratives? Self-care shouldn’t be an alternative to seeking help. It may be helpful but it is not necessarily ‘help’; I think the two are markedly different in subtle ways.

Take students, for example. We know that student mental health is an issue in the UK. There are stresses on current students that have never been seen in any other generation. We need to look after our students. More importantly, we need to look critically at the expectations and pressures put onto current students. Unfortunately, it seems that alongside the rise in student stress, there has also been a rise in a conversation surrounding so-called student “self-care”.

Rather than tackling entrenched inequalities, it is easier (and far more comfortable) to encourage students to look after themselves, spouting a narrative of ‘self-love’ and ‘time off’. What isn’t included in this discussion, however, is the idea that there are structural, institutional, even national reasons why student’s mental health is worsening. For me, it’s about commitment. A commitment to encouraging institutional stress and body image, for example, is needed, rather than putting the impetus on students.

The major problem, in my opinion, is that looking after ourselves is now almost entirely in the hands of consumerism. There are apps and books and classes you can take to teach yourself how to unwind. The blatant irony of this idea doesn’t seem to have been realised, either. As a student, if you’re feeling stressed about, say, your finances and exam stress. A quick Google search of ‘self-care’ will recommend pages of products and services you can buy to achieve a more rounded, happy, calm state of mind. Which, by the way, will probably cost you a fair bit (the finance worries will have to be put on hold…but at least you’ll feel good with your new lavender candle, hey?). How are we not getting what a big problem this is?

I have a major problem with the idea that all your worries in the world can be fixed with a Swedish back massage and a bikrim yoga class. There is also a huge difference between pampering, destressing, and ‘self-care’. Self-care shouldn’t replace mental health services. Or actual time-off. Or seeking help, in whatever form that may take. There are fundamental issues with this idea, and it’s a problem that can’t be patched up with the purchase of a vanilla scented candle.

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