You can’t buy self-care

The definition of self-care has changed from taking care of yourself to indulging yourself

Illustration: FREEPIK

Three years ago, when people went to get a manicure, it was a manicure. Today it is called 'self-care'. Earlier, taking a bath used to be a relaxing way to end a stressful day. Today a soak is also 'self-care'.

This is not a diss on beauty salons of which there are now too many to count in Kathmandu, but self-care is much more than that. Self-care is a common terminology in the field of psychology and is often used to see how patients are taking care of themselves physically, mentally, and emotionally.

Self-care is also subjective, what one person needs in their life is not the same for others. Before the pandemic, it was limited to taking proactive actions such as eating healthy, staying active, taking your medications as prescribed, and speaking with a therapist. They were intended to slowly change one’s habits so one could become happier and healthier.

Navigating the global market that is saturated with products geared towards self-care without ruffling a few feathers is tricky. Last summer, one of my mentors asked me what I thought of the present-day definition of self-care. Both of us have experience with non-profits where we worked with children and adults. Every program we worked on was geared towards improving people's lives, but before the pandemic, we did not ever think of suggesting that a manicure could be self-care.

Shainna Ali, Ph.D., LMHC, NCC, tells Psychology Today, 'Self-care is a continuous process of proactively considering and tending to your needs and maintaining your wellness.' She describes it as a holistic practice. A great example of self-care is a physical activity that you incorporate into your life because of the bodily and mental benefits. It is not a one-and-done act, you must stay consistent.

The oversaturated market has found a vulnerable niche, I admit I have myself fallen for it. After all, they deploy some of the cleverest tactics, promoting buying products to reward themselves 'because we deserve it'.

Of course, it is lovely to own a bathroom filled with skincare products and scented candles, but soon enough you will find the true meaning of self-care lost amid the piles of online shopping receipts. Go ahead and get yourself that amazing bubble bath, but you cannot buy self-care.

We have confused the real meaning of self-care as the Covid scare fades. I love having a vanity filled with luxurious skincare products, but that is not exactly self-care for me. That is more of an indulgence, which we all deserve from time to time. People actually need to self-reflect and analyse what they need in their lives.

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During the pandemic, a lot of people lost jobs and had to take care of sick family members. Many reported feeling depressed and hopeless. Soon, the value of mental well-being started to take precedence and people started indulging in self-care. So the term came to mean immediate gratification, but it does not guarantee a long-term solution.

One of my friends is a working mother but the distraction of home life affected her ability to work efficiently. Then she took up running, just an hour every day, as an act of self-care. It gave her time away from the household chaos but it also improved her fitness level. Eventually, she was happier with a better ability to handle the stress.

Another friend justified eating a whole box of cookies as an act of self-care. When the concept is blurred like this, people can define it in any way they want, even to their own detriment. Her choice of self-care ended with weight gain and lowered self-esteem.

No amount of rubbing lavender lotion on the skin is going to fill the void left by pandemic-induced loneliness. A bubble bath is not going to make up for it either, humans need family and friends.

It has been two years, and what started as a movement to take care of physical and mental health during the pandemic has taken a turn. Self-care has become a staple in the world of marketing -- synonymous with promoting consumerism.

If it makes you happy, go for it, but when did buying myself a pair of jeans become self-care? It will not help if you do not have a supportive environment around you. At most, self-care achieves the temporary well-being of your mind.

At the end of the day, you have to do what works for you. If practicing an act of kindness is helping you, go for it. But engaging in physical activity and eating ice cream every day cannot fall under the same category. The results of the two choices are vastly different.

Before we jump on the 'self-care' bandwagon, let us ask ourselves if our choice of self-care is indeed improving our lives or just an excuse to do whatever we want.

Anjana Rajbhandary writes this fortnightly Nepali Times column Life Time about mental health, physical health and socio-cultural issues.

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Anjana Rajbhandary