How did self-care become a status symbol?

Refinery29’s new diary series documents millennial women’s desperate quest to feel good. But why do we feel so bad?

By Nicole Karlis

Senior Writer

Published June 30, 2019 2:00PM (EDT)

 (Getty/Marija Jovovic)
(Getty/Marija Jovovic)

First came the "Money Diaries": lifestyle magazine Refinery 29’s eye-popping series that offered a peek into the private lives of privileged millennials. Its most infamous diary entry,  “A Week in New York City on $25/Hour,” nearly broke the internet last summer as readers huffed over the oblivious privilege of a 21-year-old intern living in New York City who spent thousands on acai bowls and trips to the Hamptons — belatedly revealing that her family gifted her $3,200 for expenses and rent on top of her meager intern wage.

Refinery29’s editors must have noticed a common thread in the spending habits of these diarists, in that most women were spending a hefty percentage of their incomes on "self-care" — yoga classes, Soul Cycle, vitamins, face masks and the like. Thus, they've inaugurated a new series, the "Feel Good Diaries," to succeed the Money Diaries.

In this new series, Refinery29 purports to chronicle “the physical and mental wellness routines of women today, their costs, and whether or not these self-care rituals actually make you feel good.” The entries, similar to their money blog counterparts, span a range of incomes, occupations and locations. There is the 28-year-old Los Angeles–based publicist who makes $75,000 a year, but who spent $2,003 on her wellness routine in a single week. This included a 50-pack of workout classes at Barry’s Bootcamp, private surf lessons, lunch at Sweetgreen, and falling asleep with the help of an essential oil diffuser. Then there is the 25-year-old administrative assistant in Nashville who spent $454.93 on her wellness routine in one week (her annual income is $25,000). This included collagen peptides, a gratitude journal, a dinner with friends, and boxing classes.

I'm not one to judge when it comes to others' habits — although I confess to finding some joy in hate-reading about the rich — but if the Feel Good Diaries teach us anything, it is that self-care has become a status symbol reserved for those who can afford to indulge in such luxuries. It also shows how much money many millennial women are willing to spend to feel better, which is pretty darn sad. And by "sad," I don’t mean it in a pitiful way, but rather that it is sad that women of my generation are so stressed, anxious and depressed, that we are willing to spend large fractions of our paychecks hoping that a mix of $30-an-hour exercise classes and overpriced bath bombs can do the trick.

Don’t be fooled by the wellness routines documented in the diaries, as wellness is not precisely what us women are chasing. Rather, it’s some fantasy of so-called happiness that does not really exist, but which is imagined by our generation's positivity culture. Despite a heavy focus on fitness (which, yes, is important to some extent) in the Feel Good Diaries, the American Heart Association (AMA) released a report in March that said most millennial women are more worried about their mental health than their heart health — even though heart attacks among younger women have increased in the past 20 years.

I think it is worth asking if hundreds of dollars spent each week on Soul Cycle classes and beauty masks are really the solution to the problem, or if that time and money can be better spent elsewhere. Yes, studies show that even a little exercise can make us happier, and it is definitely important in this stressful world, but the problem seems to be deeper — perhaps more existential, more human. "Wellness," a phrase that implies making time for one’s physical and mental well-being, has turned into an $11 billion industry that is preying on women. Things like yoga, crystals and meditation retreats are heavily marketed to millennial women as forms of "self-care" — yet these things don’t necessarily ease the feelings of loneliness, depression and anxiety that come with living an isolated life. Sometimes turning inward, as one might in a yoga class, can perpetuate those feelings.

Twenty-something Americans spend a majority of their time in front of computer and phone screens, missing out on actual human interaction. Our screen time is said to be also affecting our self-esteem, memory, attention spans and creativity. The Western world’s 24/7 work culture, compounded with the most stressful political time of our lives, warrants self-care, but it is worth widening the definition of what that means. It is worth asking if it could include giving back, volunteering, being kinder, getting politically active, or just enjoying the important parts of life — like spending time with family and friends — a little more.

So perhaps many Millennials are looking at self-care the wrong way. The hedonic treadmill theory suggests that when humans seek out an extreme “happiness boost,” it doesn’t last as long or is as intense as one had hoped, causing a person to return to their baseline of happiness. Jean-Jacques Rousseau elaborated on this in his 1754 treatise "Discourse on Inequality": “Since these conveniences by becoming habitual had almost entirely ceased to be enjoyable, and at the same time degenerated into true needs, it became much more cruel to be deprived of them than to possess them was sweet, and men were unhappy to lose them without being happy to possess them.”

Ironically, self-care as we know it today has become a household social practice correlated with national political stress. According to Google Trends, more people began to search “self care” in November 2016. It peaked in popularity in September 2018. Progressive politicians like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) have even publicly discussed their need for self-care — though unlike Refinery29’s diarists, Ocasio-Cortez acknowledged the privileged nature of the self-care movement. “For working people, immigrants, [and] the poor, self-care is political — not because we want it to be, but bc [because] of the inevitable shaming of someone doing a face mask while financially stressed,” she said on Twitter.

Ocasio-Cortez was criticized for politicizing self-care, but self care has always been political. Writer and activist Audre Lorde said, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” In this definition of self-care, it is not a status symbol, but rather a way to insist, in an oppressive culture, that you are worthy. Do we really want to be part of a culture of young women who have to justify whether we are worthy of expensive workout classes? Or part of a movement that says we are worthy enough to fight for justice, be kind, and to merely enjoy life?

By Nicole Karlis

Nicole Karlis is a senior writer at Salon, specializing in health and science. Tweet her @nicolekarlis.

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