I’m uncomfortable admitting out loud that I practice self-care. If you were sitting in front of me, I wouldn’t be able to say it while making eye contact, and I’d probably have to follow up such a cringingly earnest statement with a dry, dismissive joke— my go-to tactic for deflecting things that feel uncomfortably heartfelt or sincere. But I really want to unpack this discomfort I have with the phrase self-care and my begrudging classification of my own habits as such because I don’t think I’m the only one who feels it.
My qualms with self-care are probably contradictory, and many of them are likely tied up in some of my less-than-desirable personality traits— my tendency towards cynicism and skepticism and my instinctual avoidance of anything too touchy-feely, effusive, or emotional. The phrase feels unnatural coming out of my mouth, even in internal dialogue. It’s too new age-y, too mushy, too corny. Saying that I practice self-care just feels discordant with who I am as a person, and I don’t think the people who know me really well would disagree.
But I think the more pressing issues I have with self-care exist outside my own personality and preferences. Self-care has a marketing and commodification problem. Despite its prevalence in my life, the phrase is so troublesome to me because somewhere along the line, self-care somehow became nearly synonymous with spending money or buying specific products. The internet is abound with lists of things you can buy for your self-care routine.
Foot creams. Cashmere blankets. Essential oils. Sheet masks. Silk pillowcases.
I love Parks & Recreation with all my heart, but ‘Treat Yo’Self’ has become problematically pervasive as the go-to reference for self-care.
So let me be clear here: You don’t have to buy any product or service to create a self-care routine. Maybe your self-care habits involve small acts of consumerism or are product-driven, and that’s fine. But mine don’t. At all. In fact, they’re pretty mundane, which is probably why I’ve been so resistant to the rhetoric of self-care, but we’ll get into that a little later.
Let’s back up a little by looking at a few different ways self-care is defined:
- “The activities, individuals, families, and communities undertake with the intention of enhancing health, preventing disease, limiting illness, and restoring health.” — World Health Organization
- “The constant repetition of many tiny habits, which together soothe you and make sure you’re at your optimum—emotionally, physically, and mentally.” — Ellen Bard, Tiny Buddha
- “A few basic habits that are crucial to your functioning .” — Kristin Wong, Lifehacker
- “Activities and practices we engage in on a regular basis to reduce stress and enhance our well-being.” — Catherine Beard, The Blissful Mind
It’s pretty simple: all the things you do to make yourself feel less stressed and more joyful, centered, and well-functioning can be called self-care. Notice that there aren’t products or specific actions listed in any of these definitions. The practice of self-care is defined wholly by the practitioner, which is key to its appeal for a lot of people. It can be whatever you need it to be!
But if self-care can be anything, though, it also runs the risk of becoming meaningless.
One writer indicates that we should think of self-care acts “like a spa menu with lots of lovely treatments to choose from.” But I think this understanding of self-care— that it’s any variety of acts or products you can pick and choose in the moment— limits itself to the fluffy realm of self-indulgence that I tend to back away from.
A key facet at least alluded to in most of the definitions I listed above is the importance of making self-care a habit. It’s not scheduling yourself a mani/pedi only because you’ve spent weeks working 13-hours days and are on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and neither is it going on a shopping spree after after a breakup. These are simply in-the-moment decisions to do something that makes you feel better; they’re all about instant gratification. I’m not saying they won’t work— they absolutely might. But will looking down at your freshly painted nails help make those long days at work less stressful? Will they help mitigate your next breakdown after you’ve yet again stretched yourself too thin? Again, I’m not going to rule anything out, but I’d still guess no.
My issues with the common understanding of what self-care is is similar to issues surrounding the word diet. Both are short-term commitments, temporary breaks from your usual bad habits that don’t typically ensure long-term positive results. I don’t necessarily find individuals at fault for this pervasive misconception about self-care, though. When the internet is full of self-care tips that focus on promoting consumerist indulgences or hocking a menu of hokey or unrealistic self-care acts to pick and choose from when the need for self-care strikes, how are we supposed to know or do better?
Self-care should be a lifestyle, a mindset that pervades your daily and weekly routines.
I have a really hard time relating to depictions of self-care on social media, internet lists, and tv shows and movies because, in one way or another, these offerings are simply unrealistic for my lifestyle. I don’t have the expendable income to make facials and trips to the nail salon a regular habit. Not to mention that the part where the technician trims your cuticles really freaks me out. And neither am I going to spend my morning commute on a Beauty Scavenger Hunt, as one list suggested, looking for unexpected beautiful things on my way to work. I’m sorry, but that’s just not happening. Nope.
More realistic for my morning commutes: Listening to music or an audiobook or podcast, depending on what I’m in the mood for. It’s a concrete thing I can do within my normal routine that makes me feel good.
And really, that’s all I strive for. My self-care has little to do with indulgences. I am human, of course, and like to occasionally treat myself to a breakfast of sweet potato tater tots at the cafeteria at work. But I don’t count those little moments of permissiveness as self-care. For me, self-care is practical, habitual, and realistic within the confines of my lifestyle and budget. Here’s what I consider the core tenants of my self-care routine:
- Working out
Physical activity is one of my go-to stress relievers, and I’m generally happier and more comfortable in a body that’s strong and in good cardiovascular shape.
- Taking my dog with me wherever possible
My dog always comes with me when I walk or drive to do short errands, and where he can either enter the location with me or wait for me safely outside or in the car. Mundane activities are so much more enjoyable when I can watch him greet people on the sidewalk, hang his head out the car window, or beg for treats from people behind counters.
- Taking care of my appearance, including hair, makeup, skincare, and clothing
I could fill multiple posts on these aspects of my self-care routine alone, but in a nutshell, I just like to feel put together. And what that looks like depends largely on what I’m doing that day. If I have a special social event on the weekend, I like to get ready at a leisurely pace and apply way too many different shades of eyeshadow. If I’m grocery shopping on a Saturday morning, I’ll just brush my teeth and put on a clean pair of leggings. I don’t feel discernibly better about myself or my appearance in any of these given situations because I consistently feel like I’ve put in the appropriate amount of time and effort into my appearance for each.
- Meal Prepping
I cook all of my meals in advance and then portion them out for the week. Having ready-to-eat food in my fridge means that I’m not often tempted to order takeout. It’s both healthier and cheaper in the long run. Having this routine means I only cook only twice during the week, which also frees up a lot of my precious hours outside of work.
It sounds pretty lame, right? Nothing fancy whatsoever going on in my self-care habits, but for me, that’s exactly the point. Because none of them require extra time or money set aside, I can do these little things every day or every week, and they make me feel content and human in my daily life.
I must admit that I didn’t necessarily acquire my understanding and practice of self-care consciously. I’ve gradually picked it up piece by piece, and I can’t really identify where it originated or when it even started. The internet, largely, has not been useful in helping me identify my habits as self-care, and they especially didn’t succeed in encouraging me to tout them as such. There was always such a gulf between what I was reading and seeing in the general media and what I was actually doing. The specific resources that actually proved helpful in changing my perception of self-care were always in the form of thoughtful and grounded discussions— often interviews— that focused specifically on the interviewee’s personal theory of self-care and what they actually do in practice.
The Hairpin offers a tremendous repository of such pieces with an interview series by Sara Black McCulloch and Fariha Roísín that discusses with a variety of other women self-care routines, focusing on “more holistic ways of self care, and routines, but also the struggles that come when you’ve been socialized to equate an act of self-love with solipsism.” The entire series is worth a read, especially if you’re like me and love hearing other people’s makeup and skincare product recommendations. I was also inspired with the way Jenna Lee Forde, co-curator of the webzine Self-Care for Skeptics, discusses self-care as it pertains to self-sufficiency in an interview I stumbled upon through a random Google search.
I found these interviews insightful because the women’s accounts of self-care were so rooted in their individuality. I tried to capture the spirit of those interviews here, rather than provide yet another uselessly prescriptive list of suggested self-care acts. It took me a lot of reluctant introspection to arrive at my begrudging embrace of self-care, but I encourage you to ignore that niggling suspicion that self-care can only be practiced by buying the right products or services. Instead, really think about the habits you could realistically integrate with your existing lifestyle to reduce stress and promote well-being. You alone can define what self-care means and looks like for you, and rest assured if it doesn’t look like anything else you’ve seen. That just means you’re probably on the right track.