Is It Self-Care, or Just Aspiration?
As we said way back in the beginning, a major reason why the term “self-care” can raise the hackles is that self-care is so often linked with what the kids today are (prematurely? we don’t know yet) calling “late capitalism.” Consumer acts like getting pedicures and shopping for underwear—procedures that used to take place more privately and were thought unremarkable, certainly not worthy of assembling a crowd of witnesses—are now Pinned and Instagrammed all day, the world over.
Commerce, or some form of exchange, is a major feature of life on Earth. It’s not a bad thing, by itself. Documenting our lives: also not wrong. But the marriage of the two—every consumer act greeted by an audience of a size once reserved for weddings and funerals—is causing some complicated feelings. And some more material conflicts as well.
Because of course, it’s not just nail-color puns and homemade breakfast pudding we’re clicking on, but nutty things like dried-and-powdered fungi in a heartstoppingly beautiful bottle bearing a label that with gentle knowing irony hints—no promises!—that the unicorn tears within will fluff your aura, confer enlightenment and make stretch marks disappear.
We all know: this is gonna cost us.
Sometimes the naked lust of all this savvy imagery pushes us away. But sometimes it hits us just in the right place, at the right time, and we go nuts with seemingly attainable desires. Social media is so democratic! Surely there’s more room up there at the top. We too want to reach this place of peak beauty, peak #goals. We too want to be Living the Dream! Preferably in an expensive caftan clutching a sunset-colored drink on a white-sand beach on a trip that someone else paid for. With our willing Instagram husband at the ready, to catch it all at our best angle.
As a rather graspy person with limited funds and an Instagram feed full of glittering objets, I’m always thinking about the intersection of self-care and consumerism. Always having to exercise that muscle of restraint—not the one that stops me reaching for my limited funds when I spy some glam lipstick, but the one that stops me feeling victimized by those perfectly livable limits. The one that stops me feeling self-pity and envy, which a somewhat lean childhood left me unsympathetically prone to.
So I was fascinated by the recent New York Times Magazine profile of Gwyneth Paltrow, Ultimate Envy Object, and her business, a piece which I strongly recommend—in part for the can’t-look-away evidence that major celebrities are so not just like us, even when they think they are, and partly for the critique of haute girly consumption of products that can’t deliver anything even close to what we hope they will. (Ask me about the criminally expensive sunscreen I bought on Goop this summer, hoping it would be the one that didn’t turn me white as a Miyazaki ghost. Result: disappointed.)
The piece, written by Taffy Brodesser-Akner, is quite respectful to Gwyneth, who comes across as a lovely person, in no way a shallow presentational layer, but kind and thoughtful to a completely un-Instagrammable degree. But Taffy, bless her, is unsparing about Goop the Business, and the effects of all this aspirational pitching on those of us who can’t afford what’s for sale.
Taffy visits Gwyneth at her house, gets a load of her skin up close, has a pleasant dinner with her, and goes home feeling bad about herself. Because when a gal compares herself to Gwyneth Paltrow, or the next person in her feed, she comes up short.
I have the antidote for this! And I’m passing it around. The antidote is real self-care, not stagey social-media self-care or the purchase of Internet goods, however fun that may be.
Real self-care is kindness. It’s turning away from impossible comparisons, like us versus celebs. It’s seeing the engine of desire for what it is: someone else’s need to earn money.
Self-care might make use of a potion now and then, but it is never the potion itself.
And this too bears repeating: self-care is not just an amusing side project for the rich. Self-care is an attitude of being on our own side, it costs zero dollars, and it is for everyone.
Further Reading (and Listening)
Still Processing: We Got Goop’d (a New York Times podcast discussion with Taffy Brodesser-Akner)