The self-care industry is worth over $450 billion dollars. But are we overfocusing on the aesthetic and not enough on the actions?
There are over 50 million Instagram posts and 11.6 billion views on TikTok tagged with #selfcare. They depict everything from yoga on beaches to towelled selfies with glasses of wine. Pinterest is another social media site awash with this trending “self-care aesthetic”. The most popular images consist of women in fluffy robes applying mud face masks and sipping green juices and coffees against crisp white bed sheets and artfully drawn bubble baths.
That’s not to say there is anything wrong with this carefully curated version of self-care, but it does beg the question: are we in danger of self-care becoming a performance that women have to look good while doing?
The origins of self-care
The optics of self-care may seem indulgent, but the term actually has medical roots. Coined in the 1950s, “self-care” was used to describe activities that allowed institutionalised patients to preserve some physical independence – simple tasks that helped nurture a sense of self-worth, such as exercising and personal grooming.
Since then, it’s grown into a £320 billion industry, and between 2019 and 2020, while there was a global pandemic, Google saw a 250% increase in self-care related searches.
There is something to be said for the joy in romanticising your own life and unashamedly exuding main character energy, but if self-care becomes more about the presentation than it is the action, is it really self-care at all?
Is it damaging to make self-care an aesthetic?
Alexa Escobedo regularly shares self-care routines with her 220,000 followers on TikTok. She says that the aesthetic of self-care is actually used to bring awareness to the beauty of being able to prioritise yourself.
“The aesthetic of self-care is so highly sought after because it means investing in yourself and taking the time to take care of your body and mind, something that is often overlooked,” she tells Stylist.
She doesn’t think social media changes how we view or enact self-care, but highlights it and makes it more appealing – which she considers a positive.
“It helps inspire and motivate people to give self-care a try, not for the aesthetic but for the way it will leave them feeling after practising it. By adding self-care into your routines and building those habits, one can begin to see and feel the benefits of putting yourself first,” she explains.
However, she does stress that it doesn’t matter how luxurious your products are or how perfect your pictures come out when you are practicing self-care, it’s all about prioritising yourself.
“More than anything, self-care should be viewed as a habit; habits you build that make you feel good,” she adds.
Annyah, a content creator from London, defines self-care as “eating fruit loops because it reminds me of being eight years old and carefree as much as it is jade rolling expensive oil blends into my face.” For her, self-care in its simplest form is giving ourselves what we need, when we need it.
Why do we aestheticize self-care?
“I think it has a lot to do with keeping up appearances, and the notion that if it looks fine on the outside then it is fine on the inside,” Annyah explains.
“We often compare social media to a highlight reel. It is a place where we have complete control of the image we portray to the world and naturally we want to portray one where we are thriving and taking care of ourselves, even if that isn’t the reality.”
“When you focus on the aesthetics of self-care and solely what it looks like, you miss out on all the good things it is doing for you on the inside.”
“It’s not wrong to practise self-care and share it, but it is wrong to neglect your mental self-care while doing it, or to place pressure on self-love to have it be perfect.”
Self-care is not a performance
Indeed, there seems to be a recognition that self-care doesn’t have to involve beautifying yourself and looking beautiful while doing so. We’re not really strangers, an Instagram account with over three million followers, recently shared a video captioned “self-care that isn’t just bubble baths and face masks.”
“Self-care is not a performance and not for the benefit of others,” Lauren Mishcon and Nicole Goodman, co-hosts of the Self Care Club Podcast, tell Stylist. “It is also not about what you look like. Self-care is a feeling not just an aesthetic. It is about finding the things that bring genuine contentment, value and balance to your life.”
“In a world where women are already overburdened, self-care has become yet another chore to keep up with. With endless products and trends to keep up with, many women can end up feeling like they are underachieving, failing and even more anxious, which defeats the true purpose of self-care.”
“That is why we set up the Self Care Club podcast: to test what actually works and what is just another waste of time, money and energy.”
Then why do we romanticise acts of self-care so much?
“Everybody wants a quick fix and the fairytale belief that a single action or product can transform you. This can be very appealing, but also very destructive,” say Mishcon and Goodman.
They stress that self-care isn’t a one size fits all, but instead about tuning into yourself and your emotions. “We as women have to learn to take a moment, to stop and think “what is it that I need right now?” That’s where the true power in wellness and self-care lies.”
Annyah agrees. “The notion of self-care can be isolating if you aren’t actually doing it for yourself and just performing for a crowd on social media. If you don’t actually focus on yourself as an entire being during self-care, you’re just going through the motions,” she explains.
“Self-care stops being fulfilling the moment you stop actually doing it for yourself. It stops it being an act of service to yourself and becomes something you are doing for others.”
“The focus needs to be on how it truly makes you feel and not what it looks like.”