What is Self-Care?

This week’s topic is self-care, another co-worker suggestion (thank you!). I thought that self-care tied in well to last week’s topic of resilience, and that it was especially important in today’s world.

As usual, I asked our lovely followers if they think self-care is important, and 19 said yes while 0 said no. This isn’t surprising to me; I had a feeling everyone would think self-care is important! I also asked, what do you do for self-care? And I got lots of different answers; exercising, meditation, journaling, colouring, dog walking and reading! Clearly, what people consider self-care is very broad and can include lots of different things. But it did get me thinking, what exactly IS self-care? What does it mean?

The $4.5 Trillion Wellness Industry

Self-care = taking care of yourself, right? Examples of self-care I often hear or see are things like taking a bubble bath, having a glass of wine, lighting scented candles, using a face mask, even reading or listening to self-care themed books. When I think about it more, however, the majority of things on a ‘self-care list’ are commodities. Bubble bath, wine, candles and face masks all come with a price tag. And likely due to the popularity of self-care products, in recent years, the wellness economy has become a “multi-market mega opportunity” (Source 1). In fact, the wellness/self-care economy is worth $4.2 trillion US dollars. (For reference, Canada’s GDP last year was $1.7 trillion USD).

The largest portion of this industry is personal-care, beauty & anti-aging, which is worth $1.08 trillion dollars (Source 1). This is often pushed by fashion and beauty magazines and celebrities. Vogue’s YouTube channel is well known for their celebrity 25-step “beauty and self-care routines”; one of which starts with Liv Tyler tying her hair back with a $232 scrunchie. I think celebrity videos really highlight how exclusionary this version of self-care is. Most people don’t have the money to afford celebrity skin-care routines, but as well, not everyone has the money or time for bubble baths or wine! So maybe it’s time to think about self-care a little differently.

The History of Self-Care

So, what was self-care before this massive wellness industry? It’s almost hard to imagine self-care apart from spending money! But in fact, the idea of self-care has existed for thousands of years. “Many trace the origin of self-care to Ancient Greece” (Source 2) and philosopher Socrates, and his self-care looked very different. He is quoted as saying, “are you not ashamed for devoting all your care to increasing your wealth, reputation, and honors, while not caring for or even considering your reason, truth, and constant improvement of your soul?” (Source 3). It’s almost as if he’s calling out self-care gurus and beauty influencers from the past! “His self-care brand was questioning power . . . and he advised ambitious youths to seek high office, but only once they'd worked on themselves” (Source 3). For Socrates, self-care was political; about questioning authority, and encouraging people to active improving their soul before they became leaders.

This idea resurfaced in the 1980s with French philosopher Michel Foucault, who encouraged his students in a way similar to how Socrates did. He said, “you should pay heed to yourself, apply your mind to yourself, be aware of your qualities. And in this way, you will be able to participate in political life” (Source 3). This idea of self-care was also picked up later in the decade by “New York poet laureate, Caribbean-American writer and self-described ‘black lesbian feminist warrior mother’ Audre Lorde . . . You might have heard Lorde's most famous self-care quote, from A Burst of Light: ‘Caring for myself is not self-indulgence. It is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare” (Source 3). For Lorde, the act of self-care was revolutionary, and living “as fully and sweetly as possible” was a fight against “the many forms of anti-life surrounding us” (Source 3). Lorde, as a black female lesbian, brought Socrates’ ideas into a new time with an incredibly new perspective.