The concept of self-care has become such a prominent feature of the modern age that it’s not unreasonable to wonder if self-care has, in fact, mutated into self-obsession. An entire micro-industry enabling and encouraging us to take better care of ourselves has emerged in recent years, flooding the market with apps and books and kits and newsletters penned by Gwyneth Paltrow that, among many other things, extol the dubious benefits of vagina steaming. But while self-care is often dismissed as a symbol of neurotic millennial era narcissism, there is, arguably, a political undercurrent to the practice.
According to the New York Times, “self-care peaked in search interest popularity” to a five-year high in the week following Donald Trump’s traumatic election day victory in 2016, which, in the words of the New Yorker, gave rise to a “grand online #selfcare-as-politics movement” powered by “straight, affluent white women” who were “feeling a new vulnerability in the wake of the election.” And while some would frame this as a retreat away from political turmoil into solipsistic self-indulgence, feminist writer Audre Lorde once argued that “caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation and that is an act of political warfare.”
The viability of self-care as a political act is up for debate, but there can be no doubt that its recent faddishness is a consequence of our current political climate. Since the late 1970s, western governments have reneged on the post-WWII social contract and increasingly sought to transfer the responsibilities of the state onto the individual. Where once Britain’s National Health Service used to promise cradle to the grave care, repeated spending cuts by conservative governments have rendered it barely functional. For most of the past decade, the sole purpose of U.S. Republicans has been to strip its most vulnerable citizens of the meagre protections offered by the Affordable Care Act, preferring to let them die than diverge from conservative orthodoxy. The welfare state has been increasingly replaced by a hostile state that attempts to instil dogmatic self-reliance in its citizens by slashing away at the social safety net. Self-care might be traditionally seen as a lifestyle choice for moneyed eccentrics, but for some people it’s increasingly becoming the most accessible form of care available to them.
Now, I’m not suggesting that the self-care boom is a direct response to the erosion of the welfare state or a conscious substitute for universal healthcare, but I do think that it is a natural byproduct of the neoliberal agenda. It has been repeatedly implied over recent decades that fiscal prudence will always be prioritised over the lives and wellbeing of the public. With this sort of message trickling down from the top, I think it’s only logical that a society would develop an ever-present, latent fear of being unwell; a sort of unconscious hypochondria that makes it susceptible to private sector hucksters who peddle all-encompassing wellness solutions that, either implicitly or explicitly, promise to stave off costly physical or mental illness. I don’t want to sound like I’m advocating against self-care—because I’m sure that it’s a good habit to adopt, generally speaking—but ignoring its political subtext is precisely how we come to subconsciously internalise the values of the status quo.
Where the burden of care used to be shouldered by the state and the community, self-care places the onus onto the individual. It encourages us to turn our gaze inwards and to obsess over our own wellbeing, which, as a result, feeds the kind of rabid individualism that’s so fetishised by the conservative right. I get the uncomfortable feeling that meditation, breathing exercises and mindfulness apps are just a New Age spin on that old right wing mantra about pulling yourself up by your bootstraps—no wonder self-care is so popular in corporate workplaces where employers prefer to peddle neo-hippy agendas by equipping their employees with the tools to endure the stress that their business model places on them instead of changing the working conditions that are the cause of the problem. That’s my qualm with self-care: it only massages the symptoms of the predicament, rather than cutting away at its roots.
That’s not to say that self-care should be abandoned: the British journalist Laurie Penny makes a convincing left wing angled argument for self-care as a coping mechanism that helps with the “impossible effort of getting up and getting through your life in a world that would prefer you cowed and compliant.” So accept that employer-subsidised mindfulness course or yoga classes if you’re offered them, but don’t forget to get together with your co-workers and agree to walk out the minute the work day ends instead of compliantly accepting unpaid overtime as a norm. Self-care might be a good coping mechanism, but it’s certainly not the solution.
It’s no secret the 80s are back, and in acknowledging the resurgence of scrunchies and SoundCloud overflowing with synthpop there’s one trend that never really left: hustle culture. A recent New York Times article, Why Are Young People Pretending To Love Work, mentioned coworking giant WeWork, where it is common to find signs like ‘Hustle Harder’ and ‘Stop When You Are Done’.
Somewhere around Netflix’s Girlboss series adaptation, described as a “tone-deaf rallying cry to millennial narcissists”, hustle culture became a subject of mockery. Yet, here it is, still a dominant ideology in 2019 (people who worship Elon Musk are very much alive and well). They say culture is a pendulum, and so the more recent self-care phenomenon appeared to enter internet culture as a true antithesis to the daily grind. Although there were initially obvious benefits to this idea in its purest sense, (self-love and prioritising health = good), the rush-to-market approach taken by brands to repackage rest and mental health as purchasable (aka the self-care industrial complex) has created a new sort of essential oil-infused dystopian reality.
With self-care often pitted as the solution to hustle culture, you’d think the social media sphere would have polarised into contrasting ideologies. But these trends have more in common than appears. Both lend themselves equally to earnestness and commodification. They’re shaped around the concept of self-improvement, and they’re both powerful mechanisms for social identity construction, and the transition of ‘wants’ into ‘needs.’
In fact, many brands and individuals have chosen to champion them simultaneously. Nike, long-time pioneers of ‘just doing it’, recently co-hosted a ‘Self Care Saturday’ in LA with Urban Outfitters that featured crystal facials (whatever that might mean). And Girlboss—one of the pioneers of the glossier-but-make-it-corporate marketing of hustle culture—has a ‘wellness’ brand pillar.
Strangely, rather than living side by side, hustle culture and self care have come together in a strange marriage. It’s 2019, and you still need to get that bread, but also remember to use your meditation app.
Now both these cultures are likely also a response to an increasingly uncertain future. For young people, this has produced a kind of unapologetically paradoxical, post-woke, “material girl in a dying world” mentality. The consensus seems to be when the system is broken, all we can really do is focus on improving ourselves and our direct and online communities. And unfortunately, the reality of self-improvement in the late 10s is that there’s always something new to need.
While hustle culture and self-are both put the responsibility on the individual, we should seek to examine the systems that purposefully encourage hyper-individualism in the view of needing consumers to need—and shop.
Even as self-care reaches the end of internet-earnestness and joins hustle culture and Girlboss in the parody phase, it’s anything but the end for their collective cultural influence. The self-care meets hustle culture paradox will live on through years of future content, as we continue to shape a large portion of our identities through a branded hierarchy of needs.
This article was written by Pitch Portal for Screen Shot as part of its recent project in collaboration with Screen Shot and the V&A Museum: Let’s (Not) Get This Bread.