By Miranda Weindling
I will never forget the first time I taught a self-care module on a 200-hour yoga teacher training course. A few of the students had never knowingly encountered the concept, and fewer still had any sense of tangible self-care practices. But as the group grasped the enormity of what taking care of themselves could really mean, self-care, in that space, felt radical.
Every subsequent time I taught the module to new groups, the students’ were more and more familiar with the concept––a familiarity largely informed by the rise of the wellness industry. In fact, everyone was becoming so fully saturated in the self-care rhetoric from brands and the media, that it started to feel like a mundane, overworked topic.
My final time teaching the module last year exemplified the shifting relationship with self-care perfectly, thanks to a student. She shared that the billion-dollar multinational cosmetics company she worked for had seen its sales of skincare products overtake that of its makeup for the first time ever.
The Roots Of Self-Care
Wellness has become so ubiquitous with branding nowadays, it’s easy to ignore that our contemporary conception of it is rooted in a medical context, arising in the 1950s. Wellness meant re-evaluating what optimal health looked like, giving rise to self-care to achieve this. But self-care has a radical, political, history, famously summed up by the black feminist poet activist Audre Lorde. In 1988, having been diagnosed with liver cancer, following the double mastectomy she underwent six years earlier due to breast cancer, Lorde wrote:
“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
Contemporary self-care, in non-commercial spaces, is in some ways a watered-down notion of this political act. It is often defined as a way to combat life’s stressors, in an effort to take care of your entire being. It can be split into five categories: physical, social, mental, spiritual, emotional. To some, that might translate as going on a yoga and spa mini-break with friends, but it mainly refers to more essential (and cheaper) things like sleep, making time for friends and family, and stimulating and nourishing hobbies.
So, has the wellness industry just appropriated a concept from activists and the medical field, or do companies have your best interests at heart? That is the trillion-dollar question.
The Wellness Industry
Wellness, according to the Global Wellness Institute, is a trillion-dollar industry, but does self-care need to cost a fortune? Do brands and businesses really care, or are they just jumping on a lucrative bandwagon?
What the vastness and diversity of the wellness industry demonstrate is that it isn’t a clear-cut issue. Some brands and companies really do make well-intentioned products, motivated by their passion for humanity’s greater wellbeing––they may be advocating for ethical purchases, or helping you to establish a meditation practice.
With other companies, however, there are concerns that wellness just represents another lucrative trend to score PR points. This is seen particularly with mental health awareness and sustainability. Wellness is undeniably an extremely profitable business to be in, explaining the high costs and exclusivity of some wellness-oriented companies––$2,250 USD exercise bike anyone, ahem Peloton, and don’t forget your $39 monthly subscription. Working as a yoga teacher, I’m all too aware of how the practice has been culturally appropriated, stripped of its heritage, and rebranded for $25 per class.
Self-care, in its original radical sense, is deeply personal. My most cherished act of self-care is not only free but probably even saves me money. Saying ‘no’, ‘enough’, and ‘I need time out’––without feeling guilty––has been life-changing.
Alongside my free self-care practices like walking in nature, not eating my lunch in front of my computer while working, and making time for friends, are some of my more expensive methods. However, my weekly organic veg box, monthly massage (and sometimes holiday), feed me on a soul level. My skincare regime consists of some pricier serums, acids, and oils (that I also use for cooking), bringing me not just glowing skin, but joy.
I can’t deny that various brands, companies and platforms have informed my knowledge of greater health, as well as costing me dearly for their insight and products––but they are just a part of the self-care picture.
If a gym membership or moisturiser makes you feel like a better, healthier, happier person, then that is something to be recognised and celebrated. However, if your self-care regimen is causing financial strain, or you are doing it because your favourite influencer does––even though you haven’t noticed a difference––well, then, it’s not really self-care.
Instead, try tuning out all the wellness options and products we are bombarded with daily, and let yourself turn inwards to figure out what works for you. Self-care can be radical as well as mundane, it can be just for you or focused on your community, it may come for free or have a price tag. What matters is not what an industry is doing, but what you need when taking care of your own wellbeing.