Feminist, civil rights activist and writer Audre Lorde once said, “Caring for myself is not an act of self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare” (The Huffington Post, “Self-Care Is An Act Of Political Warfare,” 10.26.2018). She used this phrase to describe her battle against liver cancer and as part of her intersectional feminist theories as a Black lesbian woman in the United States.
Today, however, this mantra has become a tagline for the “self-care” movement within the makeup and skincare industries, a way for corporations to sell the act of soaking in a bubble bath as a radical, political subversion of society’s constructs. Corporations have ironically capitalized on self-care—the very notion that one has value, regardless of wealth or social position—and made it valuable precisely because of the profits that it can bring. Rather than recognizing the importance of self-worth in a society filled with racism and misogyny, corporations have turned self-care into a label that they can stick onto brands in order to make more money.
Self-care is not a new notion. However, this concept may have made a huge comeback due to the rise of the Internet. According to one study, students often use the Web to identify strategies for self-care, alternative therapies and other wellness-related information. After the 2016 election, the researchers noticed a significant rise in the public appeal of self-care; Google searches for the term soared to the highest they had been in five years after the election (National Public Radio, “The Millennial Obsession With SelfCare,” 06.04.2017).
The younger generation took to the internet to describe their own self-care routines, treating them almost like rituals for coping in the current world in which we live. In one particularly prominent 2017 New Yorker piece, writer Jia Tolentino claimed that her skin care routine served as a means of dealing with today’s political climate. She stated, “For me, right now, [skin care] functions as part of a basic dream in which the future exists” (The New Yorker, “The Year That Skin Care Became A Coping Mechanism,” 12.18.2017). As this chaotic political state became the new normal, it seems that self-care and skin care did, too. The idea of caring for yourself and finding your own inherent value has now become vital to the idea of skin care.
However, skin care and self-care are about more than just politics: They have become a method of dealing with symptoms of mental health problems. The subreddit r/SkincareAddiction often features threads that discuss how skin care helps with mental health. From my experience frequenting the forum, many people talk about how an improvement in their skin has made them more confident, therefore alleviating their issues with depression and anxiety. Other commenters talk about how skin care pushes them to adhere to other basic self-care habits, such as brushing their teeth, or acts as a distraction from negative thoughts. This attitude toward skin care does have a scientific grounding to it: Studies show that habitual skin care routines can reduce anxiety, depressive thoughts and issues with control.
“Neurologically, there are processes in the brain that take place leading to anxiety,” said NYC-based psychologist Sanam Hafeez, PsyD. “It’s often recommended to do something pleasurable or productive to get the mind focused on positive activity and off negative thoughts” (Byrdie, “How Finding a Skincare Ritual Helped Me Move On From My Eating Disorder,” 06.08.2018).
Unfortunately, as consumers started viewing self-care as a vital part of skin care, corporations quickly took advantage of this trend. A blog post by makeup and skin care brand “Ofra Cosmetics” has advertised the company with the slogan, “Turn Your Skin Care Routine Into A Self-Care Ritual,” and the skin-care brand “I AM” has marketed their products as “skin care/self-care products that make you look and feel BE-YOU-tiful,” implying that product-based skin care and self-care are one and the same (Vox, “The skin care wars, explained,” 03.09.2018).
Whilst companies selling the notion of taking care of yourself may not seem like an awful message, it is important to recognize the underlying intention. Something which used to be about an individual reclaiming their value in a racist, misogynistic, capitalist society has become an easy way for skin care companies to rebrand themselves and make more money.
In the past, skin care brands have used women’s insecurities as a way to market themselves, pushing their customers to fight wrinkles that make them look old and banish that one pimple that everyone has definitely noticed. Now, companies have adopted the language of wellness and self-care to say the same thing, just in more discrete manner.
Not only that, the beauty industry has started to label its products as “all-natural,” “eco-friendly” and “wellness-promoting,” which are all essentially terminologies of the self-care movement. Corporations have stopped talking about lines and wrinkles, and instead started talking about “healthy” or “glowing” skin. Beauty expectations for women, particularly when it comes to aging, haven’t disappeared—corporations have just rebranded them. Rather than using the term “useful,” a variety of euphemisms have taken its place: “renewing,” “vitality,” “radiant.”
However, the implication behind these words is still the same (The New York Times, “The Ever-Changing Business of Anti-Aging,” 09.12.2017). These brands promote the idea that disdain toward aging isn’t due to the social constructs of beauty in society but rather that looking youthful is simply natural. This new self-care age dictates that women shouldn’t make a scene over aging or over trying not to age, because doing so should be easy.
Women who choose to embrace skin care, or even those who find their happiness in trying a new moisturizer, are not bad or wrong for doing so. The same goes for those who reject conventional skin-care routines: They are not gross or unclean. Yet, the ideology behind skin care and self-care is not just about products for your skin. This is about a system that preys on insecurity and makes women feel that any choice they make is the wrong one: Either they are gullible for falling for the skin-care scam, or they are committing some heinous crime by not using face wash.
Therefore, we should seek to help one another not only by fighting the appropriation of self-care by big businesses but also by striving to not judge others for the skin products they use if they obtain joy from using them. Women should have the freedom to choose how they view self-care without the influence of either companies or their peers.