The English language has a proliferation of hyphenated compound words revolving around “self”. There’s “self-confidence,” “self-reliance,” “self-consciousness,” “self-indulgence” and “self-control” to name but a few — all of which deliver a fairly straightforward meaning. Then we have “self-care” — a term that is decidedly broader and seemingly everywhere you look, especially if you’re looking on social media.
You’ll find over 23.4 million #selfcare usages on Instagram — and that’s counting posts that are made public. What are these hashtags describing or identifying? Oh, so many things: You could be posting about happy hour with coworkers, or a solitary glass of wine at the end of the day, or about sobriety. You could be posting about french fries or broccoli or eye cream or butt masks. The options are endless and so too, is the marketing around this catchy buzzword.
The term “self-care” has become so big and amorphous that it can be difficult to suss out what it really is at its core and why it matters. For me these days, self-care increasingly feels like yet another thing to do more, and to do better — as well as yet another thing to spend money on. Outside of reporting, I don’t even much like to use the word “self-care” anymore; it seems to reek of privilege and money and time.
How did we get here and what can we do in our own lives to reclaim self-care so that it makes sense again (or perhaps even for the first time)?
‘Self-care’ dates back to the mid-1500s, but had a different meaning
We might begin by learning about the term “self-care” and how it’s developed over the years.
“The term ‘self-care’ is recorded as early as the mid-1500s, but its original meaning was different than how we use it today,” says John Kelly, senior research editor at Dictionary.com. “Back then, self-care was a synonym for self-interest or self-regard — things done to advance one's own interest. Around the mid-1800s and early 1900s, we find self-care meaning more about caring for one’s health and wellbeing, particularly in a religious context.”
Kelly notes that 1860s cites for “self-care” can be found in “Bible Class Magazine" and the "Sanitary Commission of US Army”, where the term particularly deals with personal hygiene. For some cultural context, Kelly points out that it was around that time that “Kellogg’s cereal rose in promoting breakfast as a form of spiritual purity (drawing from Seventh Day Adventism) through aiding digestion [and] Calisthenics [rose] in the US around via Catherine Beecher as a part of women’s education.”
Additionally, in his late 1800s sermons, Henry Ward Beecher, influential preacher and abolitionist, discussed the moral philosophy of self-care “in a love yourself to love others kind of way,” Kelly says, adding: “I don't know the research extensively here, but there may be a relationship between that idea of self-care and a spreading relationship between health and religion in the mid-19th century, though this is just a hypothesis.”
Another compelling hypothesis, courtesy of Kelly: Self-care underwent this philosophic and moralistic shift as sanitation improved — and as the middle class saw more wealth.
‘Self-care’ picked up steam as a buzzword around the election of Donald Trump
Self-care became a “thing” in the mid-19th century, and enjoyed boosts of attention as the self-help movement gained traction in the late 20th century, but self-care as Americans know it today (as kind of ubiquitous prescription for wellbeing and a prolific hashtag) didn’t come into full bloom until the 2010s.
“It was around 2015/2016 that we saw ‘self-care’ spread on Twitter,” says Kelly. “Some journalists pin it to the aftermath of the election of Donald Trump and how people could manage that; whatever it was [that triggered it], in the mid-2010s we were all talking about self-care and we were all writing about it and practicing it.”
The more we talked about “self-care” the more we started to identify exactly what constituted self-care, as we individually understood it. “It evoked something quite specific for [those posting about it]: having a cheat day on a diet, muting people online, taking lunch instead of working through it, binging on Netflix, or going on a hike,” says Kelly.
Self-care became, as Kelly sees it “something specific that does not take too much time and allows us to exercise small forms of control over a world that can feel fast-changing and dominated by chaos.”
This is the pattern that #selfcare as a trending hashtag has taken, but from a mental health perspective, it means something more integral to daily thriving and stress maintenance.
“As a therapist, I find myself always having to define with my clients what it means to do and feel self-care,” says Samantha Heuwagen, a marriage and family therapist in Atlanta, Georgia. “Self-care is a way for us to give back to ourselves and release everyday pressures. It doesn’t require you to buy anything, like many marketing/social media entities would lead you to believe. It can be taking a quiet moment to process or making a simple cup of tea. As long as you’re present and focused on slowing down, it can be self-care. A lot of clients think its bubble baths and face masks, which at times it can be, but you can’t stop what you’re doing at work to take a bath.”
Self-care isn’t something you can buy — any therapist worth her salt will underscore that — and yet, that’s how it’s so frequently spun in our society.
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The job of a marketer is not simply to sell you something, it is to sell you something that you need (or believe you need, which in marketing, is the same thing as genuinely needing it). And so, the more consumers talked about self-care online, the more companies recognized the need for it and tuned into the word so as to commodify it.
“Once a particular term like 'self-care' gains online traction or outpaces a similar term, the content creators who believe in 'keyword stuffing' will predictably weave that attractive term into their content, even in places where it doesn't belong,” says David Pring-Mill, a consultant who has written about marketing for business trade publications such as DMNews. “Marketers will try to capitalize on the trend. The digital economy is partly responsible for mass anxiety, and now that same economy is more than willing to propose cures to the masses, in hyper-targeted ways, based on past user interactions with content and hashtags.”
Sounds like many companies are just practicing self-care in the 1500s-sense of the word: for self-advancement.
4 ways to discover the true meaning of self-care in everyday life
If like me, you’re feeling ironically burnt out on the idea of “self-care”, chances are you have fallen into the void that is self-care marketing. It’s time then, to get back to basics of this crucial practice, a practice that conceptually, as Barbara Riegel, Ph.D., professor and Edith Clemmer Steinbright Chair of Gerontology at the University of Pennsylvania, School of Nursing notes “goes all the way back to Hippocrates.”
Here’s how to understand self-care so as to practice it authentically:
Know the difference between self-care and self-soothing. “Marketing confuses self care with self-soothing in its promotion of purchasing spa experiences, alcohol and other consumer-oriented products that might relieve stress in the moment,” says Teralyn Sell, Ph.D., a psychotherapist in Wisconsin. “Real self-care in its purest form has little to do with indulging in goods and services. Self-care starts from within: Your thoughts, your experience of moments, etc., [and] is designed to build a sense of self and of calm so you are more resilient. Self-soothing using goods and services is about marketing the message of 'do this thing right now and you will feel better’.”
Self-care comes down to a set of routines. “‘Self-care’ is a set of ritual routines of behaviors and activities that you perform regularly that contribute to your ongoing care,” says Fran Walfish, a family and relationship psychotherapist in Los Angeles. “These things include hygiene, diet/nutrition, getting enough sleep, exercise, maintaining social connections, work and healthy open communication.”
Keeping tabs on your health is the essence of self-care. “Self-care centers upon the idea of being aware of yourself every single day and asking yourself questions like, ‘Did I get enough sleep? Did I eat right? Did I get in some exercise?’,” says Riegel, who co-authored an extensive review on the state of self-care that was published last year in The International Journal of Nursing Studies.
Anything that helps you reflect and process stress can be self-care. “The ‘treat yourself’ mentality is everywhere because we live in a capitalist society [that says] we need to spend in order to feel whole,” says Heuwagen. “That’s simply not true and should have no bearing on real, helpful, authentic self-care. Anything can be self-care and adding it to your everyday life can be easy once you have an idea of what you need and how it will work with your life. We’re all different and self-care is a reflection of who we are and what we need to process stress.”
That said, if you’ve got your essential self-care needs covered, and a $28 butt mask won’t break the bank, then why not? Sometimes a seemingly shallow splurge is just what we need to give ourselves permission to do nothing and simply be in the moment.