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I think about self-care more than the average person. I’ve been a wellness writer and editor for more than half a decade, and in that time I’ve published probably hundreds of stories on managing burnout, stress, self-esteem and anxiety. I can recite data on mental health more easily than I can recall my mom’s cellphone number. I’ve tried my best to help people live better, happier lives. However, I’ve also noticed ― as a journalist in this space and as a consumer in general ― how oversimplified self-care guidance really is.
Self-care isn’t some new concept (although Americans have Googled the term more in the last three years than ever before). Hell, it was discussed long before I was even born ― first medically, and then, during the civil rights movement, more politically. But the concept of self-care has shifted toward the notion that improving our well-being is only a product away. Take one look at Goop, with its suggestion that adding moon dust to your morning smoothie can help boost “your spirit.”
That’s not nearly adequate to help us survive in the world today.
A bubble bath may help my muscles relax but isn’t going to wash away the dirtiness I feel after a man brazenly gazes at my breasts on the subway. A face mask may remove my blackheads but it isn’t going to extract the shame I carry over my student loan debt. Going for a jog may take my mind off my to-do list for a little while but it isn’t going to help me outrun the emotional labor I have waiting for me at home.
Self-care shouldn’t be reduced to a fleeting activity or dispensable product. It shouldn’t even just be considered a wellness phenomenon. For women, it’s a difficult but necessary act that helps us survive in a world with work demands, family pressures, duties at home, rampant incidents of sexual harassment, a relentless news cycle, financial worries and more. Inner reflection takes time and energy ― resources we’re already lacking. Self-care is hard work.
This is rarely acknowledged. There’s something missing when we talk about self-care, both in the media and on our own. So I asked several women what they find problematic with our collective discussion about the concept ― and what taking care of yourself actually means to them. Below is their advice. Consider it a real guide to real self-care (no purchases necessary).
Self-care is... ‘not attending some extravagant spa day with the girls, but rather being able to identify when I need to slow down and perhaps cancel that spa day.’
Katie McCartney had practiced what she thought was self-care for years, sometimes turning to articles on how to have a better life. But the Michigan resident said she had a terrible sense of self-worth, often not extending herself compassion or respect.
That finally shifted about two years ago, when she decided to go to therapy and learned the way she was treating herself undid anything she did for her well-being.
“For me, it was a learning experience that took a brutally honest self-assessment leading to awareness, which led to motivation for change,” McCartney, 33, said. “It is often falsely assumed that as women we should know these things, but in truth ... there is a tremendous need in this country for a reassessment of what it takes to take good care of ourselves.”
It is often falsely assumed that as women we should know these things, but in truth ... there is a tremendous need in this country for a reassessment of what it takes to take good care of ourselves.Katie McCartney
That means ignoring alluring ads and articles promising a better mentality could come from an expensive product or day out.
“In my opinion, self-care is not attending some extravagant spa day with the girls, but rather being able to identify when I need to slow down and perhaps cancel that spa day,” she said.
McCartney also said an hour of mindfulness meditation and getting adequate sleep each night is critical for her.
“I’ve never needed these skills more than I have currently with global morale seemingly hitting an all-time low,” she said.
McCartney said she hopes women ― especially those with a public platform ― continue to discuss what self-care habits work for them as a way to normalize the subject. She pointed to the discourse around women in politics and how they publicly talk about what eases their stress.
“I don’t want to see our president make fun of Elizabeth Warren for being herself and putting out a video where we see her genuinely happy at home with her husband,” McCartney said. “I want Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to be validated by the media for being able to recognize that she needed a break.”
“Life is hard,” she added. “It is high time we drop the glittery facade and accept that, while happiness very much is a choice, it is dependent on our individual understanding of ourselves.”
Self-care is... ‘based on age, demographics and lifestyle.’
S. Angelique Mingo is tired of reading the same narrative.
“I find mainstream media doesn’t speak to women of color about self-care,” said Mingo, a 40-year-old from New Jersey. “Self-care is a broader conversation based on age, demographics and lifestyle. ... Our stressors are different and we are constantly burning the candle at both ends like, ‘You can do it all, #BlackGirlMagic.’ So finding ways to take care of ourselves when we’re usually taking care and putting others before us doesn’t feel very realistic.”
Our stressors are different and we are constantly burning the candle at both ends like, ‘You can do it all, #BlackGirlMagic.’S. Angelique Mingo
It wasn’t until about a year and a half ago that Mingo realized she was burning out. She said she had adopted unhealthy habits due to a busy schedule, which included working on new projects as the creative director at a lifestyle and communications agency as well as serving as a part-time caretaker for her grandmother.
“My mom had been nagging me to take care of myself for a long, long time. ... She sat me down for a frank conversation where she said, ‘Where is my daughter? I no longer recognize you,’” Mingo said. “That evening, I looked at myself in the mirror and did not recognize myself either. It was at that moment I had to re-elevate how I was treating myself and do something about it.”
Mingo started by examining her relationship with food.
“I was always eating on-the-go, having something delivered or dining out,” she said. “When I looked at myself in the mirror, I could physically see the problems with living that way.”
She began cooking more regularly, which became a self-care ritual she can no longer live without.
“I spoil myself by indulging in my flavor cravings or trying a new recipe I see on my social media feed,” Mingo said. “It is my time to pay attention to what type of fuel I am giving my body to nourish my insides and satisfy my tastebuds.”
Mingo hopes there’s more diverse public information on what it means to take care of yourself, including advice on “how to squeeze in self-care as parents, caregivers, entrepreneurs and as we age in our retirement years.”
“More importantly, [we need] a more inclusive conversation so black and brown people no longer feel like the media does not speak to them,” she said.
Self-care is... ‘about mitigating what harm cannot be avoided.’
For Stella Sacco, self-care is a taxing act that requires being aware of ugliness ― both in personal habits and in society.
“It’s being cognizant of feelings or behavior that harm you in some way ― overwork, self-hate, conflict avoidance, etc.,” said Sacco, a 33-year-old American now living in Denmark. “Of course, in everyday life, some degree of harm is unavoidable. I will always be tired after a week of work, for example. Self-care is about mitigating what harm cannot be avoided. As a trans woman, I recognize that I will never be free of the psychic harm that transphobia causes. I cannot avoid it, so through self-care, I have to try to mitigate it.”
As a trans woman, I recognize that I will never be free of the psychic harm that transphobia causes. I cannot avoid it, so through self-care, I have to try to mitigate it.Stella Sacco
She does this by tapping into a supportive community and reframing damaging thoughts when they pop up.
“If transphobia has made my dysphoria particularly bad one day and I start zeroing in on things that are ‘masculine’ about my appearance, I recontextualize it [by reminding myself] almost anything I could hate about my body, a cis woman somewhere is feeling too,” Sacco said. “If I see the government using its power to diminish and frighten me, I recontextualize it [by thinking about how] black folks have been dealing with these kinds of monstrous laws for centuries. ... History tells us there is power in solidarity, so finding it and taking it seriously is my self-care.”
Sacco said the concept of self-care “has been co-opted and marketed mostly to well-off white women” and she detests the idea that it implies avoidance ― especially when that can be more harmful in the long run.
“I hate that it tends to be portrayed as just doing whatever you feel like doing,” she said. “Part of self-care is understanding your own patterns of behavior and trying not to do things that will feed into negative patterns.”
“For example, opting not to wash the sink full of dishes today might feel like self-care when you’ve had a long week and feel like you need a break. But will those dishes sitting there contribute to you feeling bad tomorrow?” she said. “Sometimes, self-care means doing the dishes.”
Self-care is... ‘typically more difficult and less glamorous than treating yourself.’
Emily Bilek is on a mission to have her patients ― and herself ― view self-care as something greater than the “treat yo’ self” mentality on social media.
Bilek, a clinical assistant professor at the University of Michigan’s Depression Center, said the Instagram version of self-care and what it actually means to take care of yourself are two very different things.
“Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with treating yourself, and it has an important place in the priorities I set for my own time and money. However, conflating self-care and ‘treating yourself’ is misguided and potentially harmful,” Bilek, 34, said. “When self-care becomes a competitive and performative ritual on social media, it defeats its purpose.”
When self-care becomes a competitive and performative ritual on social media, it defeats its purpose.Emily Bilek
Bilek, who is also responsible for helping others come up with strategies to protect their mental health, personally chooses self-care in the form of enforcing healthy lifestyle habits. (And then breaking or adjusting as necessary.)
“Good self-care is typically more difficult and less glamorous than treating yourself,” she said. “It means doing things like having good sleep hygiene, getting a little more exercise, staying hydrated, taking medication as prescribed, eating at regular intervals, creating healthy boundaries and taking a break from social media.”
Ultimately, Bilek has to remind herself and the people she treats that self-care is hard work that’s only going to be rewarding in the end. No clever status, flattering photo filter or hashtag is going to enhance it.
“Self-care isn’t glamorous. It’s the everyday work you do for yourself to make you a little bit happier and healthy,” she said. “If I had a self-care Instagram account, it probably wouldn’t be very popular ― there are only so many creative ways to take pictures of a water bottle or broccoli ― but self-care isn’t for other people, it’s just for you.”