In May 2019, Ulta Beauty launched “Wellness” sections in 350 of their stores that included products ranging from butt masks to natural deodorants. Ulta Beauty’s website simultaneously launched “Self Care and Wellness,” a corresponding area on its website that really leaned into the increasingly popular “self-care” concept. Ulta Beauty is not the only brand capitalizing on a self-care trend that’s been softened within the mainstream. Free People has a “Beauty & Wellness” section on its website, which includes a $29 Euphoria Spirit Elixir alongside a $34 glass dildo; Anthropologie offers “Self-Care Products” within The Wellness Shop category that includes products ranging from a $50 CBD-infused gel pen to a $70 hemp oil; lululemon launched a self-care line made up of basic balm, sweat reset face moisturizer, and no-show dry shampoo, which all range in price from $14 to $34. In 2019, it seems that brands that want to reach women, especially Gen-Z and millennial women, are adopting the language of self-care to sell their merchandise.
Self-care originated in spaces like activism and medicine. In 2016, Bitch’s former Popaganda host, Sarah Mirk, explored the importance of self-care for Black women. Within that piece, Mirk shared a poignant quote from Angela Davis: “Self-care has to be incorporated in all of our efforts. And this is something new. This holistic approach to organizing is, I think, what is going to eventually move us along the trajectory that may lead to some victories.” Self-care retains its radical roots among Davis and other activists; in a 2016 interview, Davis told Yes! magazine that, “Self-care and healing and attention to the body and the spiritual dimension—all of this is now a part of radical social justice struggles.” In this context, self-care keeps activists motivated in the face of burnout and blowback.
The concept of self-care has also been used in the realm of medicine. In a 2015 article for The Atlantic, Ester Bloom writes, “After bubbling up through academic communities in the ’80s, the term ‘self-care’ accumulated health-related connotations as it gained mainstream renown. In the ’90s, it referred to the way that patients could take supplementary responsibility for themselves in conjunction with their doctors, nurses, and pharmacists.” Here, self-care focuses on our ability to take care of our health and our bodies, especially when we’re sick or navigating a chronic illness.
No matter the context, however, self-care is always going to look differently for different people. A nurse who works long hours will approach self-care differently than a CEO who has monthly vacation time and r an undocumented woman who lacks access to quality healthcare. When brands and people alike start throwing around the phrase “self-care” without context, it loses any and all meaning and becomes a one-size-fits-all solution to problems that are so deeply tied to our economic status, racial identities, and the overall ways we are marginalized and disempowered. Self-care has become a tool that brands and marketers use to sell us products. It’s a way of distracting us, keeping us from having the tools to reshape the systems that leave us feeling exhausted.
We should be more critical of the brands who are using the umbrella of self-care to push products. What are their labor practices? Do they offer healthcare benefits and reasonable time off so that their teams can pursue their own wellness?
Of course, there’s value in taking a pause: Jenny Odell’s recent book, How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, emphasizes the importance of doing nothing for people from marginalized communities. For some of us, the act of doing nothing looks more commercialized. Instead of judging ourselves for electing to buy a butt mask (your butt is fine the way it is, but do your thing) or spending $10 on a juice that has cute packaging, we should be more critical of the brands who are using the umbrella of self-care to push products. What are their labor practices? Are their staff overworked and underpaid? Do they offer healthcare benefits and reasonable time off so that their teams can pursue their own wellness? Who actually creates that bath bomb that helps you distract yourself from the microaggressions you’re facing day in and day out? And what are the products made of? Just because a vaginal wipe appears in the self-care section of a retailer’s website doesn’t mean it’s going to stop giving people with vaginas yeast infections.
It rings similarly to brands that use rainbow-colored branding during Pride Month while also donating to anti-LGBTQ legislators. If your brand claims to value mental health and wellness, then it should go beyond lip service.
For example, the Gwyneth Paltrow-founded lifestyle brand Goop sits at the center of the conversation about self-care being commercialized in harmful ways. The company settled a lawsuit in 2018 for claiming its vaginal eggs assisted women with their sexual and emotional health, and refunded customers who purchased a “flower essence blend” that they said could prevent depression. At SXSW in March 2019, Paltrow joked that she’d sell her company to Amazon, according to the Daily Beast; Amazon has some of the most popularly contested work conditions around the world, with workers from Germany to the United States striking during 2019’s Prime Day to contest unlivable wages, lack of time afforded for basic needs like bathroom breaks, and an overall abusive work environment. Paltrow’s willingness to sell to a company like Amazon proves that many brands pivoting to self-care and wellness are just in it for the money—the moment the concept is no longer in favor, they’ll just pivot in another direction.