I pride myself on writing and posting about self-care. But, for the first time, I’m realizing that self-care is elitist.
My moment of reckoning came when I was getting a facial treatment. Every year for my birthday, my sister gifts me a hers-and-hers sister facial at a local spa and similarly, I gift her one. I don’t get any other treatments done throughout the year; a twice-yearly facial has become our birthday currency. It’s not something I can justify paying for regularly. Full disclosure: I can’t afford it right now and that’s okay.
The esthetician was looking at my file when she noticed the last time I’d been in for a facial was exactly a year ago. She said,
“Oh, you need to come much more often than that to reap the benefits. You should be getting a facial at least once a month.”
Once a month? Who was she kidding? If she could peek inside my bank account, she’d be singing a different tune. I’m a full-time graduate student paying the bills with freelance writing. A once-monthly facial I cannot afford.
I was there because it was a fun thing my sister and I did for a special occasion. On birthdays, we thought we deserved a little special self-care, but the pressure to “keep up” to take care of our skin, take care of ourselves felt alarming. I wanted to take care of my skin but the reality was I couldn’t afford that level of care. Whether it was healthiest for my skin or best for my mental health or not.
That’s when I realized how flawed the self-care industry is. I started to pay more attention.
Nowadays, anything can fall under the very nebulous umbrella of “self-care.” It can encompass everything from skincare and haircare to exercise to taking a mental health day from work. And while none of those things seem inherently nefarious (because they’re not), self-care is aligned with a level of elitism that’s mostly ignored.
Let’s be real: Self-care favors the wealthy. After all, it costs a lot of fucking money to prioritize your physical and mental health. Especially when it means keeping up with the Joneses. It shouldn’t be this way, but it’s what the industry has become.
It’s not really a new criticism. The wellness industry has long been scrutinized for its lack of accessibility. It costs money to buy the best and healthiest foods, to join a gym, take a yoga class, buy meditation membership, to get non-toxic, all organic skin care products that keep your face supple and young-looking without the help of parabens or phthalates, or to diffuse 100% pure essential oils.
We’re supposed to eat organic foods to take optimal care of our bodies, right? That also means avoiding processed foods. But organic is more expensive and processed boxed foods are usually the ones with 10 for $10 deals in the supermarket.
And mattresses? Buying a mattress might not seem like self-care, but conventional mattresses and pillows are full of unnatural toxins like flame retardants that we inhale while we’re sleeping. A queen-sized vegan mattress made from 100% latex rubber that’s Global Organic Textile Standard certified and free from polyurethane foams or fire retardants costs upwards of $1,400.
But I digress; the wellness industry is a huge beast and it is flawed in more ways than one. Even I, an active participant, can admit that. The tentacles of the wellness industry, however, extend to the more macro: the self-care industry. In the same way that mainstream wellness pressures people into making expensive choices for the sake of their health, mainstream self-care pressures people into making expensive choices for the sake of self-preservation and the social construct of “happiness.”
The strangest, maybe saddest part of it all is that self-care was “invented” for precisely the opposite reason. Self-care started out as something much different; it was initially “a thing” thanks to activists who encouraged marginalized individuals to use self-care as a way to preserve themselves during divisive times. It was conceived as a way for the marginalized to protest. It had humble origins, was meant to be a political response to injustices and inequalities, and was designed to protect peoples’ mental health.
But something crucial has been lost along the way and people are finally realizing how fucked up it is that this industry prioritizes one kind of person over another.
Sure, there’s the monetary expenses of self-care that can be quantified. A number in a budgeting app that lets you know: You’ve spent $400 in the category of “Self-Care” this month. Those are the literal expenses — a Lush bath bomb that’s nearly $12 because it’s vegan, made with only sustainably-sourced ingredients and no added synthetic fragrances; a plumping overnight facial oil that boosts collagen production, priced at $69 per 0.67 fluid ounces; an unlimited membership to that hip yoga studio that comes out to $110 per month.
But there is also a deeper layer of affordability. In addition to the quantifiable figures that represent how much “taking care of your health” actually costs, there’s also the sad reality that wealthy people can afford the time. Experiencing a slump of depression or a bout of anxiety? Of course you deserve a mental health day. But can you fiscally afford it?
Wealthy people can afford to take a day off work when they need a mental health day. If you work a job with a salary and benefits, it’s easier to do that. That’s what personal and sick days were designed for. But there’s something inherently wrong with failing to recognize that as privilege. Someone working a minimum wage job can’t afford that same luxury; after all, they have to feed their families, send their kids to college, make rent or mortgage that month. They can’t afford the day’s loss of pay. And for that monetary reason, their health suffers — their need for self-care is discarded in favor of making ends meet.
I am not denouncing self-care. You’ll often find me posting about self-care on Instagram — whether I’m penciling in a mandala in my adult coloring book or soaking in a bath while listening to a “Chill Vibe” playlist on Spotify. Self-care is genuinely important and I believe we should all make moments for ourselves in the interest of both physical and mental health.
That being said, what I’m not interested in doing is ignoring the innate level of privilege that comes with being able to take time for yourself and being able to afford taking time for yourself.
The things once categorized as luxuries — mani/pedis, blowouts, facials, spa treatments, massages, expensive pilates memberships at a gym with an indoor pool — have all been conflated with self-care. If $250 a month for a microdermabrasion facial is the standard for self-care, then we have to have the self-awareness to admit that self-care is for those privileged enough to afford it.
If that’s true, then we lost what the true meaning, the true intent behind self-care was supposed to be: a politicized response marginalized communities could enact in order to self-preserve during moments of unfairness, injustice, and oppression.
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Steph Osmanski is a freelance writer and social media consultant who specializes in health and wellness content. Her words have appeared in Seventeen, Life & Style, Darling Magazine, and more. She is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at Stony Brook Southampton and writing a memoir.