“A Face-Mask Will Do Me Good”: What We Get Wrong about “Self-Care”


“A Face-Mask Will Do Me Good”: What We Get Wrong about “Self-Care”

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

My early lockdown days could only be illustrated as relics of internet trends. With not much to do and nowhere to go, I found myself neck-deep in IGTV videos and popular TikTok clips that encouraged me to delve into “self-care”. This idea was strategically re-introduced with the topical plug of the pandemic and how it was important to care for oneself now more than ever.

Having fallen for the “treat yourself” philosophy in the past, I had an idea about how this would pan out. Pre-pandemic times, I had unscrupulously indulged in shopping for clothes because “it made me feel better”, spending extravagantly on meals and drinks because “ I was having a good time” and buying expensive hair and skin products as “an investment in my future self”. As I jumped head first into this, I was slowly but surely hemorrhaging my bank account under the guise of “self-care”. I solemnly believed that these commercial fruits which let me indulge would bear me happiness. Come lockdown, when I saw not only influencers but also regular plebeians like my friends (and myself included) wanting to experiment with the promising fads of sheet masks, face rollers, and stone jewellery, it only made sense to see this challenge through. I added some more expensive goods to my growing repository of trinkets that I can no longer locate in my room. All in the name of “self-care”.

Somehow it didn’t make my anxiety go away. With the passage of time and a sinking heart, I realised that I had become a product of what I was consuming. On social media, I was incessantly being fed the idea of a utopian perfection – of being therapised by superficial activities – that I almost believed I would achieve it. This farce perpetuated by these new ideals of self-care is only the tip of what is a consumerist iceberg. But could you always buy yourself some “self-care”?

Self-care as a concept is not new. In the past, philosophers have necessitated the need to focus on oneself before indulging in worldly wealth. Socrates, in his last days, allegedly said that “…yet are you not ashamed for devoting all your care to increasing your wealth, reputation and honors while not caring for or even considering your reason, truth, and the constant improvement of your soul?” For so long had I submitted to the idea of #SelfCareSunday that the counterproductive nature of these practices had been lost on me. Furthermore, this concept can be traced to a racist past. Self-care had become the yardstick of capabilities. In 1851, this “incapability” to care for oneself had become a justification for slavery in the United States. Thus, for the African-American population, self-care has largely been a political journey.

With the passage of time and a sinking heart, I realised that I had become a product of what I was consuming.

Repopularised in the 1970s and 1980s, the concept had undertones of protest and defiance. For Black women of the time, it became a means to oppose a culture that thought them unworthy of care. Self-care was a warcry and assertion of self-identity. In 1988, African-American poet, Audre Lorde, wrote: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” Given its layered history, it makes one wonder where the self-care of today is being channeled.

Taking a step back from this literal picture-perfect perception of caring for myself that had been created, I realised that I was doing it wrong. My manicured nails with quirky colours or my Zara dress costing only half my paycheck was only a mirage of happiness that quickly vanished as the novelty wore off.

Given our tendency to turn towards retail therapy for a shot of dopamine, “self-care” has evolved into a whole industry. There are so many rules to follow, self-help books to indulge in, and self-improvement classes to attend that we have inadvertently contributed to a $10 billion industry. It made us believe that in order to care, you must show everyone that you do.

While our idea of caring is an “investment”, it just isn’t a lucrative one, neither in the short-run nor in the long. Ironically, I did not feel healed or cared for after all the splurging; all I was left with was the feeling that I should have felt better by now. Finally came the time for me to confront my bills as well as the fact that these indulgences would never make me feel better. In reality, self-care has so little do with possessions and so much to do with mental and physical health. The actual investment could only begin if I stopped coddling myself with impractical ideals and re-assessed the very definition of self-care.

Given our tendency to turn towards retail therapy for a shot of dopamine, “self-care” has evolved into a whole industry.

In an interview with The New York Times, Leigh Stein, author of the novel “Self-Care”, says, “I don’t want to say self-care is bad, because I do think we do need to take care of ourselves, but I believe that true self-care doesn’t cost anything: drinking water, getting enough sleep and going outside occasionally to get vitamin D.”

The truth is that caring for oneself today need not be an elaborate gesture. Real self-care is not so much about the dark circles under your eyes as much as the dark thoughts that haunt your mind. For me, an inward focus on my emotional needs and personal boundaries helped harbour my sanity through trying times. By setting small but achievable goals for my emotional growth and actually fulfilling them made me feel far better and at peace than any impromptu holiday or gold-laced facial ever could. The road to self-care is rocky and riddled with innumerous roadblocks but it became imperative to listen to my needs before my wants.

There’s a long way to go. But there’s one thing that I know: Self-care isn’t Instagrammable!