Friday 26 June 2020

Self-Care is Not Pretty | Rethinking Wellness

When you hear the phrase ‘self-care’, what comes to mind? Maybe a bubble bath, a facemask, a ‘treat yourself’ moment, a pamper sesh with your best gal pals. Those images are only an illusion of what self-care actually is.

In our current society, self-care has been marketed as something luxurious, and has become increasingly part of consumer culture. Indeed, we can see how this has happened throughout the growth of the ‘wellness’ industry in recent years, with a focus surrounding yoga, face masks, self-help books and luminous green smoothies – and is overwhelmingly dominated by thin rich white women (and yes, I'm very aware of my position writing this as a middle class thin white woman). With this commodification of self-care, mental wellness becomes seen as something which is at the same time both exclusive and elusive. It is reserved only for the elite. If you can buy that new smoothie blitzer, you can be happy! 

The commodification of individual mental and physical welfare is incredibly dangerous. It removes the responsibility of our mental wellbeing from the government, and places it solely on the individual, who then is blamed for their struggles with mental health. When mental health services have been decimated by a decade of austerity, that depoliticisation becomes deadly. The government needs to be held accountable. (To read more on why mental health awareness and wider systematic change is needed, I'd highly recommend this post by my friend Martha).

That’s not to say bubble baths and face masks aren’t great. Don’t get me wrong, I love me some yoga and it really does help me with my self-care, but it’s only a part of a wider picture and practice, and one yoga session won’t solve anyone’s problems, especially if their mental health issues are more complex and deep-rooted. In reality, self-care is nothing like the Instagram-filtered, candle-lit bath, face mask and mug of green tea. When you remove the filter, it becomes clear that self-care does not fit the desired aesthetic often promoted as the ideal – it is ugly, it is an inconsistent journey, and it’s f*cking difficult. 

Self-care is making sure you brush your teeth every morning and every night. It’s showering regularly, making sure you don’t spend the whole day in your pyjamas. Self-care is dragging yourself out of bed earlier than normal to get in the queue for the sexual health clinic before it’s reached capacity. Self-care is letting yourself cry when you need to cry, and not being afraid to use the ‘block’, ‘mute’ and ‘unfollow’ buttons on social media. Self-care is acknowledging that you need help and putting yourself forward for therapy. 

Self-care is taking care of yourself when you may not want to or even feel capable of doing so. Self-care is hard work.

I think the moment when I fully understood what self-care actually is, was when I applied for therapy and sat crying in my living room. It wasn’t fun, it wasn’t pretty, but it was necessary. 

The realities of self-care are not things which you always want to share on social media, so they get hidden, hushed up and become taboos. No one really wants to share moments like when you’re crying uncontrollably as you submit an application form for therapy, or the aching of your back when you’ve been sat in the same seats for hours waiting to be seen by a doctor, or when you feel heavy but force yourself out of the house to see a friend even if you don’t want to move from your bed. Those moments have all taken courage, and are ones you should be proud of even if they are uncomfortable, sometimes even painful. 

For me, self-care is also dismantling the inner systems of oppression within yourself, working to become a better ally in whatever way you can and to critique what you have internalised. Question your inner monologue – is it helping you? Is it helping others? Is it kind? If the answer to those questions is no, think about how you can go about changing that. By being kind to yourself, you can be kinder to others. And yes, that’s so much easier said than done, and I’m not saying that doesn’t take a lot of work to get to the point of being kind to yourself (I know I’ve still got a long way to go before I get to that point), but I think it’s true nevertheless. 

Another one of these systems is capitalism. Right now you may be thinking, ‘blah, blah, blah, here she goes again, going all anti-capitalist’. I mean, yes, I’m not exactly going to say capitalism is great am I? So many of us have internalized capitalist ideology so that we equate our self-worth with our productivity levels, and put ourselves down when we’re not making constant use of our time. I know I am very guilty of this, and it’s something I’ve been trying to dismantle within myself a lot lately. As I was told in therapy: we should focus on being rather than doing. 

This attitude surrounding productivity has been something which sky-rocketed at the beginning of lockdown, with the discourse of ‘free time’ now being used as an opportunity for everyone to learn a new language, improve their cooking skills and finally write that novel. I repeatedly saw figures such as Shakespeare and F. Scott Fitzgerald, being used in many tweets, as examples of people who used pandemic situations to produce fine art which would be remembered for centuries! But that’s not the entire truth. Shakespeare had female relatives and servants to ensure that he lived in a clean environment, had clothes and food available to him, so that he could focus on his plays and poetry. I don’t know about you, but it’s unlikely that Shakespeare would have been able to write King Lear during a pandemic if he’d had to do all of his clothes washing, source and cook food, care for his children and everything else which comes with simply living. We cannot hold everyday people to such standards of productivity without looking at the situation holistically. And productivity is not what defines our worth as individuals. It’s difficult to deconstruct the capitalist ideology which most of us have internalized, but it’s crucial that we try to look beyond it, and learn how to value ourselves for who we are as people, and not just for how much we can achieve in a short amount of time. 

Of course, everyone copes with things differently, as we’ve seen with the pandemic. Some people go into hyper drive and do loads, other will do very little. Either way, we have to be kind to ourselves over our reactions, and ask what we can all do to take care of our mental health. I like to have things to do, I like to be useful, busy and have an impact – cooking and baking is something which I actually find helps with my self-care, although I’m now trying to train myself to not view that as something productivity, and simply as something I enjoy and which is calming to me. I also recognise that I have the tendencies to take on too much, and how damaging that can be. For me, it’s about finding balance, doing things whilst also ensuring that I’m not being busy as a means of drowning out my emotions or negative thoughts, and that I have the time to just be with myself and get to grips with where my mental health is at. 

It’s time to re-examine what self-care is, and what it means for each of us personally. It will look different for everyone and will change throughout our lives. It needs to be de-commodified and we need to dismantle the capitalist structures which hold many of us back, before we can carry it out effectively. 

If you liked this post you might like: 5 Comfort Watches to Help You Get Through Lockdown


  1. I think self care is different for lots of people. It depends on what your individual struggles are. For example, I find it really hard to stay in my pyjamas all day, and getting dressed is relatively easy. However, I find that making sure I eat healthily and exercise a bit harder. I think it's important to identify the areas you struggle with because not everyone is the same. Great post!

    Ashleigh xxx |

    1. Exactly! It depends so much depending on someone's situation.

      Jemima x