It’s all over the media — images of white women pampering themselves in spas or going shopping in the name of self-care. If you were to trust the advertising of places like these, you’d think the only people who ever even need de-stressing were from places like Beverly Hills or the Hamptons.
It’s not often we see men or people of color giving themselves some much-needed rest and relaxation in the ways they enjoy most. In fact, the idea of self-care carries some stigma among certain communities. For many people, the term is associated with privilege.
But that simply shouldn’t be the case. The reality is that everyone deserves to take time for themselves, and should be able to openly acknowledge that. Why should white women be the only ones allowed the indulgence of self-care?
The term “self-care” was not always tied to privileged white women. The term was originally a medical concept doctors promoted in the late 1960s as a way for patients to treat themselves through engaging in healthy behavior. The term later began to circulate among the mental health community, who used it to encourage those struggling with mental illnesses to prioritize taking care of themselves and doing things that would allow them to relax and check in with their current situations.
Self-care came into the mainstream as movements for women’s liberation and other social justice movements began picking up steam. For many of the people belonging to these marginalized groups, declaring they deserved to take care of themselves in the face of adversity was a political act and a radical statement.
And according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, self-care isn’t just important for the individual — it’s vital to the health of the community as well.
“To be able to care for the people you love, you must first take care of yourself,” NAMI’s website reads. “Taking care of yourself is a valid goal on its own, and it helps you support the people you love.”
In some cases, self-care was even an act of militant resistance to existing power structures when it first emerged. Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, a professor at the New School in New York currently writing a book about the history of American fitness culture, says self-care often had to make up for the shortcomings of the medical system at the time.
“[It was a] claiming [of] autonomy over the body as a political act against institutional, technocratic, very racist and sexist medicine,” Mehlman Petrzela told Slate’s Aisha Harris in an April 2017 interview.
Since them, the mainstream market economy has largely commercialized the idea. If you flip through the most recent issue of Cosmopolitan magazine, you’ll see dozens of advertisements and articles encouraging women to “treat themselves” and buy the latest “it” bag, newest makeup or sex toy.
Advertisers target the magazine at privileged women — the largest demographic for Cosmopolitan is women between ages 18 and 34, with 62 percent of readers having attended college. And the models used in the ads to sell these products reflect that demographic — the magazine regularly uses white models as exemplars of taste and what is acceptable.
Clearly, brands and their advertisers fail to acknowledge the history of self-care, using it instead for financial gain and only marketing it to a select group of privileged people. If the media continues to associate self-care with expensive products or activities, people who cannot afford such a lifestyle or feel stigma attached to the term will continue to be excluded.
We should see self-care as something useful to everyone. It doesn’t have to cost money — in fact, what is relaxing to one person may not be to the next, and self-care can be as simple as taking a few moments for yourself. Since we live in such a fast-paced society focused on productivity, the term is often associated with the “weak,” and we need to change that definition. Everyone deserves to take time for themselves, for the good of their well-being.
The commercialization of self-care has made people see it as only one type of thing, when there are different definitions for everyone. Nobody should be ashamed to relax, and self-care doesn’t always have to come in the form of luxury.
This finals week, recognize the origin of self-care and the communities it came from, and then do something for yourself, even if just for a few minutes. It can make a world of a difference.