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Self-Care, Self-Delusion, Self-Awareness: How well-being became a global concept and what it means

With exams approaching and various deadlines creeping up on us, think back to how many times in the last week you thought of a day off from studying, a food item, or a purchase as ‘self-care’. Personally, I bought a delicious pastry from my local Italian bakery because I felt that I deserved a treat for having worked so hard and that the sugar intake would also boost my morale enough to do something genuinely productive that day, beyond watching travel documentaries. It worked. Like so many people, I was engaging with the viral trend called self-care, or alternatively ‘treating myself’ as the term has been popularised by that iconic snippet from Parks and Recreation. For a cultural phenomenon that is so widely prevalent in our society, it is still a largely under-researched area of human behaviour. Why do we feel the need to assign a label to things as mundane as buying dessert? More importantly, what does it show about the state of our mental and emotional health?

Whilst there have been articles published on the topic of why indulging yourself is vital to overall health – a sentiment that I do agree with – I do not think that these have gotten to the true heart of the matter, which is the fact that we live in a society that actively encourages depriving yourself of enjoyment, instead of promoting a healthy balance between necessity and pleasure. By this, I am primarily referring to the mentality which celebrates overworked and sleep-deprived people as heroes of the workplace. The more productive you are, the more social recognition you will receive, and the better you will feel about yourself and the value that you are creating. So, we have created an atmosphere in which we laud people for pushing themselves to their boundaries because it shows their determination to go and achieve. We don’t need to go far for examples. Beyoncé’s 2018 Homecoming Coachella performance, recently uploaded to Netflix, had people talking about how monumental the performance was and how much work Beyoncéput into this truly phenomenal performance. Even when she reveals in the documentary that she had a difficult birth, that she went back to rehearsals a mere two months after having her twins, or that she limited herself to a very strict raw vegan, no carb and no sugar diet, only a handful of the commenters were talking about the dangers of her effort. Instead, people were congratulating her on being a multi-tasking mother-wife-performer-all around Queen. On another personal note, and without intending to liken myself to Beyoncé, I often find myself in the same thought process. I push myself to study even when my mind is elsewhere, I limit my diet to what I consider to be healthy even if I really crave something and so forth, purely because I believe on a subconscious level that this way, I can achieve that level of idealistic perfection that I’ve set for myself.

Goop Wellness Products (Image:

It is with this background that self-care and well-being became popular terms. The promise of brief moments of indulgence in an otherwise sanitised world are like a glimmering prospect for a moment of happiness. It is the voice that makes us choose £4 oat milk lattes instead of addressing the root cause of our problems. Self-care is a corporate empire, such as Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop monetising on the fact that people are becoming more and more aware that they should be doing something for their deteriorating mental and physical health before stress destroys them. Allow me to quote an article from the site:

“Dear goop, My plate is full, but I’m tired of people telling me that I need to give something up. I just want a little help to keep me going. – Jenny Y”

[The Goop writer’s response] “Same. I’m busy. Constantly. And I like it that way! But my schedule threatens itself sometimes. My job at Goop is often intense. I go back and forth from LA to New Jersey to visit family. My workout routine is pretty intense – yoga in the morning, cardio and weight training at night. […] Goop’s vitamin and supplement regimen made with busy people like me in mind, has become a big part of that. The multivitamins and omega-3s help round out my diet – when you don’t have time to sit down, let alone cook, eating really well can fall through the cracks. And there are four tablets in every packet that support a healthy immune system and energy levels.”

– Janay Smith, ‘Help for the Chronically Busy’,

Who knew the answer to society’s stress epidemic was as simple as purchasing a $90 packet of vitamins? Recently, other luxury lifestyle and well-being sites, like Kourtney Kardashian’s Poosh (where she only seems to advocate the benefits of collagen supplements) or Healing Holidays, which offers different types of detox, ayurvedic, and emotional health retreats in luxury hotels around the world, have been appearing. The issue is not that these sites exist or that they are cashing in on the idea of self-care, but that they are promoting their products as the be-all-end-all solution to very real and serious problems. Spending money on largely frivolous things, big or small, is equated with the idea of looking after yourself. This is where the ‘treat yo’ self’ mentality becomes dangerous. It can very easily make us believe that we are, indeed, taking good care of our mental and physical health by buying into products and services, but, like substance addiction, they only offer temporary relief from daily struggles. As with all addictions, we soon become dependent, not only creating further problems for our future selves but also leaving the fundamental issue untreated.

Illustration by Ariadne Diogenous

Insidiously, the concept of self-care has engulfed all of us. I cannot think of a single person from my immediate social circle who is not complicit in it. Before anyone gets the wrong idea, I do not think that well-being culture is all bad! On the contrary, it is incredibly important to do things for pleasure, but the language which we surround these actions does need to be revised, in my opinion. We should not feel guilty about taking days off, in fact, days off should be mandatory because no one should expect to work 24/7. ‘Cheat meals’ and ‘indulgence’ snacks should also be erased from our collective vocabularies because no food group is inherently more negative than others so long as they are incorporated into an overall balanced diet. Generally, we should strive for more balance instead of a pseudo-Pavlovian reflex of action-reward-sense of fulfilment. A step in the right direction is the recognition that mental health issues are very common in modern society, and that talking openly about them is highly beneficial. A panel discussion organised by MA Curating the Art Museum studentswith the Sackler Research Forum for June 4th, titled Art as Prescription: Mindfulness in the Museum, will examine the role museums can play in the future of mindfulness, whether they can become places where people can come to practice self-care. I find this prospect interesting. We should all try to normalise the idea of self-care as a necessity for healthy living rather than a reward. Let’s de-stigmatise prioritising relaxation before work, and incorporate well-being into our mundane daily tasks. Maybe that way, we will create a more balanced and happier society.

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