These days the term self-care seems to be applied to anything that can bear a price tag and theoretically make you feel good.
From gold leaf facials to boutique celebrity fitness classes, modern self-care has strayed far from its origins. The term, coined in 1950, has deep medical roots. Its original purpose was to help institutionalized patients gain some physical independence by completing simple tasks that created a sense of self-worth. These practices included basic grooming and light exercise. The term would later take off in the 1970s when the Black Panther Party promoted its practices as a way for Black people to stay strong and resilient while experiencing racism in every facet of life. They encouraged yoga, martial arts and mediation.
And more recently the term has gained new momentum during the COVID-19 global pandemic. The day to day of life has become increasingly overwhelming and add in the systemic issues plaguing our society, a 24-hours news cycle reminding us of those problems, and then sprinkle on top mass marketing targeting our every click, like and view.
And the increase in people practicing self-care isn’t the only thing growing. In 2014, the self-care market was valued at $10 billion, and today that valuation is over $450 billion. And where there is money to be made, there are people ready to make it.
“More tricky are the blogs and Instagram accounts of influencers that seem benign, but are often incentivized to promote products or services,” said Selin A. Malkoc, Associate Professor of Marketing at Ohio State University, who’s research looks at consumer behavior. “So, it is really hard to get objective information – especially in a domain like [the] self-care industry where objectivity really does not exist.”
Choosing how to practice self-care is a personal choice, but how and why we choose what we do is not so simple. Malkoc says that pushing the noise away is hard but knowing the intent or motivation behind the source you are choosing to consume self-care from is key, and that your intention behind your practice determines its value.
“Time spent on self-care can be perceived as beneficial, if one believes its value to well-being. Or wasteful, if one finds it frivolous,” she said. “My work finds that if consumers do not believe in the benefits, they also do not get the benefits. It is really important to believe in the restorative value of self-care activities.”
So, what kind of self-care practices can you do today that don’t buy into consumerism, but actually work? We’ve got a list just for you. Just remember, treating yourself with something only you can provide (that typically won’t cost a thing) is the ultimate form of self-care.
Sleep in or take a nap,
Sleep is restorative and squeezing in some extra Z’s can do wonders for your body and your mind. Give your body the rest you don’t always have time for.
All you need is a piece of paper and a pen to get started. Journaling can help you understand your thought patterns, work through specific emotions and cultivate gratitude for your daily life.
Mediation is one of the best ways to reconnect with your mind and body at the same time. There’s free apps and websites that offer guided mediations. Or try silent meditation whenever you need it.
Dance for two minutes.
Turn on your favorite song and just move your body.
Fresh air, regardless of the season is restorative. Take a walk around your block, sit in the grass, hike a local trail and feel the sun on your face.
Practice compassion for yourself.
Speaking positive thoughts to yourself is something you can do anytime, anywhere. Start by placing your hand over your heart and speaking kind words to yourself.
We often think of self-care as a practice we do on top of our daily routine, but it can also come in the form of things we choose not to do. Start setting boundaries and practicing the magic word of “no.”
Unplug from the online world.
Make the decision to disconnect and put the devices down for a few minutes or hours each day.
A version of this story was published December 2021.
Before you go, check out a few of our favorite mental health apps (a number of them free!) to help you prioritize your mind and body: