Navigating the $400 Billion Self-Care Industry

Angela Colley

Self-care is nothing new. The Ancient Greeks practiced it. The yuppies of the 1980s reveled in it. In a world in which dictators threaten missile launches while the U.S. president spends his time tweeting out tacky GIFs, is it any wonder we all seem newly obsessed with carving out some self-maintenance these days? (Not surprisingly, the term self-care hit a five-year-high after the 2016 election.)

At its core, self-care can be a very good thing. “Deliberate periods of unplugging as well as mindful engagement in healthy practices may be the best preventative health care intervention we have,” says Dr. Ramani Durvasula, professor of psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, and author of Should I Stay or Should I Go: Surviving A Relationship with a Narcissist. Devoting yourself to some “me time” can lower your stress level, improve your mental health, keep you in better physical shape, and possibly even ward off complications from illnesses.

But your doctor, therapist, and loved ones aren’t the only ones invested in your self-care efforts. Marketing gurus are hoping you’ll spend more time, and money, focusing on yourself, too. Marketing analytics firm IRI recently declared self-care a “burgeoning $400 billion industry.” From subscription boxes delivering luxury personal care items right to your door, to Coca-Cola wanting you to choose happiness (and a Coke product), to the forever trend that is adult coloring books, consumer goods want you to know that they are here for you in a way that no simple deep breathing exercise, cathartic cry, or lazy Sunday morning ever could be.

These days the line between “self-care” and “treat yo’ self” is getting as blurry as product-hawkers want it to be. While The Hairpin devoted a thoughtful, regular column to women from all walks of life explaining what self-care meant to them, countless outlets churn out listicles about all the things you can buy to truly love yourself. (Et tu, Bustle?)

Unsurprisingly, the experts are skeptical that the business world is really so concerned with customers’ well-being. “All marketing is designed to cut us down so their ‘stuff’ can build us back up. Many of us, especially women, are getting the message that we do not do enough self-care, and that is making us bad at caregiving, work, relationships, and hurting our health,” says Durvasula. The irony of this message is twofold, not only do we suck at caring for ourselves, but that ultimate goal of caring for others (as every good woman should) is hampered by our lack of a fresh pedicure as well.

Just like that, self-care, and all its attendant products and experiences, can start to be overwhelming, even when its core ideas are simple. “As a psychologist, I view self-care as activities that enhance mental health and involve slowing down,” says Durvasula. “A nap is a nap. A walk is a walk. And if you want nature sounds, go into nature.”

At the same time, even skeptics admit splurging a little can give you a boost. “An occasional new dress to put a spring in your step, sure,” concedes Durvasula.

But deciding which path to follow is getting difficult as #selfcare is being run into the ground. Do you wage a scorched-earth campaign against Goop and its ilk, even though you’ve gotta admit an aromatherapy treatment that promises to “instantly dispel irritability” sounds preferable to stewing in a pissy mood? Or do you throw in the towel and let the capitalism wash over you? For every listicle packed with Amazon links to Himalayan salt lamps, there is an expert telling you that you’re being tricked into spending more than you need on stuff you don’t really want. And there’s truth to both sides. Laurie Penny said it well:

““When modernity teaches us to loathe ourselves and then sells us quick fixes for despair, we can be forgiven for balking at the cash register. Anxious millennials now seem to have a choice between desperate narcissism and crushing misery. Which is better?””

The key is to know when you’re buying something for you, and when you’re buying something because “[marketing companies are] telling us we need things to engage in self-care because it benefits their bottom line,” Durvasula says.

Determining that boundary is tricky, but not impossible. Durvasula has a steadfast rule for knowing when to pass. “When it becomes overly indulgent, costly, and pulls you from other responsibilities—it may be going beyond what is considered healthy self-care,” she says. Of course, “overly indulgent” and “costly” are in the eye of the beholder. A Caribbean vacation certainly sounds indulgent, and likely expensive, but if that’s your personal reward for completing a tough work project or something you’ve been dreaming of for years, subbing in a long weekend staycation isn’t likely to provide the same sense of satisfaction.

An easier guideline might be to “sit and ask yourself what feeds your sense of well-being. In nine cases out of 10 it costs very little, if anything,” Durvasula suggests.

For the nine cases, Durvasula recommends a break before hitting “check out” on your online order, international flight tickets, or Whole 30 meal delivery service. “Take a deliberate break. Not just sneaking off to look at your Facebook feed to avoid working, but a deliberate break to take care of you and change your perspective,” she says. Taking a walk, meeting up with a friend, even petting your dog while you binge-watch Twin Peaks: The Return may be all you need to reboot yourself.

But hey, if you still want to buy that self-care kit sitting in your Etsy cart when you’re done, we won’t judge.