(Barbara Kruger – I shop therefore I am, 1987)
“By feeding off insecurities, advertisers have pushed the notion to the public that in order to be happy we must spend more; that we’re always just one purchase away from perfection.”
We are in the age of the self-care revolution. Self-care has become one of the most talked about topics while simultaneously being the most misunderstood. Self-care has been a sentiment many have clinged onto in order to preserve some form of normalcy in the least normal of times; a bubble bath to wind down in the evening or a new hairdo to welcome in your next life chapter. But as the self-care revolution grew in popularity, big companies took note.
Self-care and consumerism are profoundly intertwined and the idea has become more so in the social media age. Though self-care has recently risen in popularity, it’s always been heavily present in societies. From egyption pharaohs once bathing in milk and applying makeup encased in gold packaging, to Kim Kardashian promoting the vampire facial (costing a whopping $1500) and former Love Islander Molly-Mae ‘treating’ herself to a £3.6k bracelet. Society has been shown that to indulge in some self-loving we must be incredibly wealthy or at least be prepared to spend some hard-earned cash.
Self-care has been skewed as showing yourself appreciation by treating yourself. That in order to love yourself, you need to pamper your skin with expensive products or buy yourself expensive items because you’ve worked hard to earn the right to take this time. While that sentiment may ring true to many, it’s heavily deviated from the true origins of self care. The 21st century’s self-care revolution has become a capitalist notion used to coerce consumers into self-indulgence with the promise that their products will make you feel better about yourself. The very idea of self-care has been redefined by brands in order to sell unnecessary products by marketing them as essentials. Products like a £28 ‘wellness journal’ that claims to contain activities and motivations to help you on your self-care journey, if you can afford it, adult colouring books to put your mind at ease in those stressful moments or any of Gwyneth Paltrow’s GOOP products or recommendations.
By feeding off insecurities, advertisers have pushed the notion to the public that in order to be happy we must spend more; that we’re always just one purchase away from perfection. Consumer driven self-care can be seen as an easy way out of our problems; wouldn’t it be nice if whenever you’re feeling down you can drop a couple months rent on a spa day and be happy again? In reality, facing and solving our problems is far more complex.
“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” - Audre Lorde
At its bones, self-care is any practice that you do for the purposes of maintaining your own physical and mental well-being. Self care looks different to everyone and we must be cautious of reducing this deeply complex and personal concept down to a purchase.
Practicing self-care means moving away from what you are ‘supposed’ to do towards what you need to do - having the choice and confidence to make that choice to actively care for yourself. For women forced into pigeonholed roles of nurturers and caretakers, the practice of self-care naturally becomes a feminist statement. When we are expected to care for others ahead of ourselves and when our bodies and decision-making power is not our own, making the decision to appreciate yourself with full autonomy is feminist in principle.
Self-care is not just having a pamper because you have a free evening one Thursday. It’s acknowledging that you have needs and that those needs are important and deserve to be met. It’s listening to what your own mind and body needs at any given time then choosing to hear yourself instead of everyone else.
In 2020, women spent an average of $714 on self-care products while men spent closer to $297. It’s no surprise that companies capatalised on the feminist driven self-care revolution, and clearly it’s working for them. Feminism and consumerism are, and always have been, heavily intertwined despite being fundamentally at odds with one another.
Autonomy is at the heart of all feminist movements, reclaiming everything we have been told and re-defining it for ourselves. This includes reclaiming activities once reserved for men as well as reclaiming femininity and feeling empowered in short skirts and make up. Having the power to make our own choices and do what we want is essential, but are we really making our own choices? Are we doing what we want to do or are we doing what we're told we want to do?
The links between consumerism and feminism do not start, or finish, with companies cashing in on t-shirts displaying female-centric quotes; “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun-damental Rights'' and “We Should All Be Feminists''. The ties run far deeper and have embedded themselves in near everything women do. What began as shaming women into purchases and exploiting insecurities through subliminal messages, has now weaponised feminism to again, exploit insecurities - but in a softer sense, shaming women under the guise of ‘female empowerment’. It has always been a game of manipulation in order to sell products.
One way this has been achieved is the manipulation of the 80’s feminist sentiment “You Can Have It All”. The ‘80s saw women joining the workforce in their thousands. More women than ever before had their own income, meaning they were able to rely on themselves not only for stability but for recreation. They could do what they wanted and more importantly buy what they wanted, which swiftly became the feminine ideal - the woman who had it all thanks to her own work. But how would people know you had it all if you didn’t show it off? Companies took the idea of the autonomous woman and manipulated it to sell self-indulgent items that allowed you to prove your wealth to the world. Soon these self-indulgent items became a necessity - “You Can Have It All” was quickly drowned out by “You Must Have It All”.
This was where marketing buzzwords such as “empowerment” and “independence” replaced more obviously misogynistic selling tactics. In the 1910’s, when razors were first advertised to women in order for these companies to grow their customer base, women were introduced to a problem they never knew they had. Female body hair was never an issue until advertisers told them it was. Over 100 years later, adverts promoting razors tell women to “not settle for sandpaper skin” or to “shave like a lady boss”. Tricking women into believing they can empower themselves at the checkout reproduces the ideas that keep women performing gender in ‘appropriately’ feminine ways - keeping women subdued and consuming - stopping them from asking questions about why they actually need these items.
You’re constantly being asked to prove your values based on what you buy, though you may not fully understand your values or the values of the product you’re buying. Is your feminist slogan t-shirt really announcning your dedication to the cause when overseas garment workers - 80% of whom are women - are treated unfairly, paid below a living wage, working in dangerous conditions and shown no repect?
The agency of feminism directly contradicts these manipulative selling tactics. If women are being coerced into purchases, they’re not acting autonomously. There is no way to remedy the toxic relationship between capitalism and feminism, one must take the leap and walk away.
Feminism doesn’t have a neat and tidy definition however much people want to simplify it. If you want to shave your legs and that makes you feel good, buy those razors and go for it! If you want to grow that luscious hair out, then you can rock that too! Neither one makes you a better feminist. There is no one vision of feminism. Feminism is yours, find what it means to you as an individual and don’t allow anyone to influence your choices. Feminism can be confusing and messy and sometimes overwhelming, that doesn’t make you a bad feminist, it’s just a part of navigating the world.
Step away from toxic environments, find the time and space needed to heal, do it in any way you want to. This being said, you cannot buy into feminism solely through material objects, and turning self-care into an ideal that can only be brought leaves self-care feeling inaccessible to those who need it most.
Article by Charlie Elizabeth Culverhouse