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What Gets Lost in the Monetization of Self-Care    

What Gets Lost in the Monetization of Self-Care

Art by FISK

By Meadowlark Monaghan

I would like to believe that I try my best to view others compassionately and yet, here I am, one more face-mask-in-the-name-of-self-care post away from deleting Instagram entirely. I understand that I live in a capitalistic society and therefore, whether I like it or not, the commodification of mental health practices and terminology is inevitable, but that hasn’t stopped me from struggling with it for the past few years. 

Back in 2017, on one of the many mental health blogs I started (only to post about three to five times before inevitably deleting them), I wrote an essay entitled “The Monetization Of Self-Care” where I pedantically pranced across my morally-superior high ground that “real” self-care isn’t a face mask, its therapy. Well, my young and passionate ass was put in its place when, at the start of 2021, the self-care industry was said to be worth $450 million

So as I entered 2021, I decided to try (and am still trying) to lean more into having patience for the pace of societal awareness around mental health practices. As a California kid, I can easily take progressive action for granted and grow frustrated when (inter)national progress moves on its own timeline. That’s a part of my privilege that I am continuously unpacking. 

I vividly remember, for example, how a trip to a small Tennessee town two years ago introduced me to the reality of information deserts. If I couldn’t find a non-fast food restaurant for miles, how could I expect to stumble upon mental health resources? I was actually elated just to see a “Self-Care Gift Set” (which was just personal hygiene products) inside the Walmart two towns over. Though understanding may not be as deep yet as I’d like it to be, the truth is that the monetization of self-care has brought awareness to the concept of caring for your mind to places that had not been exposed to mental healthcare previously.

The trend has also played a major role in how we talk about our lives. I’ve always been an open book, so I’ve been sharing stories about my mental health experiences, like losing my older brother to suicide, for a long time. In the past, those conversations were rarely met with understanding or any emotion other than discomfort. In the last few years, as corporate America has begun to co-opt mental health language and reframe their pre-existing products as “anxiety reducing,” people’s openness to these tough topics seems to have increased.

So the truth is I am extremely grateful for how far mental health conversations have come. My die-hard optimism will always look on the bright side of this past year-and-a-pandemic and see it as the first time that people seemed to really understand the importance of paying attention to our collective mental health and investing in making it better. That validation of the work I’ve been doing and the way I’ve been living my life has liberated me in a way that I don’t think I’ve truly had the chance to step back and acknowledge deeply yet, and the dissemination of self-care terminology that happened when America saw the opportunity to commodify mental health was one of the driving forces behind the shift. 

Nevertheless, my hopeful college student voice is still in the back of my head begging for the “self-care” industry to go beyond the surface-level. Right now, when we think of the term “self-care,” images of skincare products, adaptogen-infused drinks, and aromatherapy candles are what immediately come to mind. The truth is that sometimes we all need a candle-lit night of face masks, ashwagandha hot chocolate, and a Netflix binge, I get that, but they’re not long term solutions for stress, anxiety, and depression. Many of the products and campaigns being sold to us around self-care are also more about other people’s experience of us than our experience itself. 

Putting on a face mask, lighting a “stress-relief” candle, and slipping on luxurious fuzzy slippers (usually documented on Instagram) is not so much about ourselves as it is about beautifying our external appearance and showing off the routine for others to consume. It’s about conveying a certain lifestyle rather than truly bettering our own. And how often are these moments of “taking a break” actually distracting us and numbing us out from whatever we’re feeling? 

It’s not our fault that we’ve bought into these habits. The only widespread representation of “self-care” is this framework of distraction and pampering, from that small-town Tennessee Walmart to beauty product-driven self-care campaigns. We are being sold an idea of self-connection, mental health awareness, and “a brand that cares” when, in fact, none of these products really help us get closer to the inner work that is necessary for our mental wellbeing. While daily relaxation rituals have their benefits, we need more than that in the long term.

True self-care isn’t structured around distraction and escape, it’s about leaning into the Self. It’s about allowing yourself the compassionate space to feel your emotions so that they may move through you more quickly. It’s about growing still and turning inwards when you feel triggered. In the words of writer Glennon Doyle, real self-care is about “dealing with the hard things in your life… it’s about making a life you don’t have to escape from.”

Self-care is making space for and practicing the hard work of growing as a person everyday. The harsh truth is that we’re not going to do that work during mindless Netflix nights. We’re going to do it by analyzing our core beliefs, questioning our preconceived notions or biases, acknowledging our mistakes, honoring our boundaries, exploring inner child work, and learning that we are not our thoughts nor our emotions. We can do that by working with a therapist, journalling, talking to a friend, sitting in meditation for five minutes a day, or going on mindful walks. 

Do I sometimes do those things with a face mask on? Of course, I’m an early ‘90s kid and we millennials love our multitasking. I just want the face mask I’m wearing to come with a truly educational marketing campaign that includes mental health resources and messaging that taking care of yourself on the inside is just as important as the work you put into how things look. 

Keep the conversation going by commenting on this story below. You can also connect with us about whatever’s on your mind by texting The Local Optimist Hotline at 310.299.9414.