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The Paradox of Self-Care

The wellness market relentlessly targets women. How can we make smart choices?

Key points

  • Wellness and self-care can help improve people's lives, or add stressors to already scarce time and money.
  • Marketing aims to connect people's deepest emotional needs to products for consumption.
  • Health and happiness are tied primarily to things without a price tag, like family, friendships, and agency.
Image by Steve Buissinne from Pixabay
Source: Image by Steve Buissinne from Pixabay

Self-care and wellness are massive industries in the United States. From meditation to massage, from wellness retreats to anti-cellulite treatments, from juice cleanses to reiki healers, the vast majority of this sector is marketed towards women—particularly educationally and economically privileged women.

It seems almost anything representing wellness can be spun so that if you don’t include it in your life, you’re failing to value yourself, and your health will pay the toll. While some types of self-care, such as journaling, long walks or practicing mindfulness, don’t cost money, many of the things it may seem that everyone is doing are expensive, driving a need to earn evermore to afford to…uh, prioritize yourself?

Further, the reality of the lives of many women—who may be caring for children at home and ailing parents near or far, in addition to having full-time jobs—is the pressure to make time to engage in constant self-improvement guilt-inducing and impossible rather than restorative.

In 2016, the most chaotic year of my life, during which I was engaged in a difficult divorce while undergoing cancer treatments, parenting three kids, and scrambling to find a full-time job (and then, of course, working it), it seemed everyone I knew kept telling me how important self-care was for my recovery. “I hope you’re taking lots of time for yourself,” friends kept saying. Some sent books on rigorous special diets or referrals to alternative practitioners who weren’t covered by insurance. These well-meaning suggestions often left me with strangely heavy guilt, given that in reality, I felt lucky if I could carve out an hour to watch mindless TV at night before crashing, to wake up to another hectic day.

The messaging I internalized was that I wasn’t “doing cancer” the right way. If only I had more disposable income and worked less, this logic went, I would have a better chance of recovery. Yet, I’d had more disposable income and worked less outside my home in the very marriage I’d recently left because I’d been unhappy for nearly a decade. In other words: damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Or, as the writer Kristi Coulter put it, “There is no right way to be a woman.”

For many women, there is a period of life—let’s call it roughly between 30 and 60?—when the demands come from so many angles, it’s hard to find the time to run to Walgreens or buy stamps. Now, you’re supposed to be mastering Pilates, seeing a shaman, and Marie Kondo-ing your home too? Even if you aren’t sick, it’s easy to feel left out when your social media feed is full of people rhapsodizing about their Pelotons that cost as much as a used car. How—amidst a wellness industrial complex that seems to offer women inner peace by placing further demands on our money and time—can you find the right balance for you?

For starters, it’s important to demystify certain core truths of capitalism. Because nearly anything can be turned into a consumer market, it becomes the job of advertisers to connect our deepest emotional needs to potential purchases. Teens, who are especially barraged with images of perfection amidst influencer culture, are a core demographic. Still, as women age, we too become increasingly vulnerable targets to marketing that reinforces pre-existing cultural messaging that growing older will make us “invisible.”

Advertisers often appear to flip that script to a feminist one by framing uber-pricey products as empowering (hello, “Women of the world, raise your right hand”—the De Beers marketing strategy to part successful women from their money in response to declining marriage rates). Suddenly we aren’t spending a lifetime average of $225,360 on beauty products because of sexist double standards around aging; we’re doing it because we “deserve to feel good” and to “take control” of our images. We’re practicing intermittent fasting to rid ourselves of disease, not because we’ve been sold that thinness is the brass ring of goals. Where does the incline of things we must consume to be “well” stop, and how can we discern genuinely beneficial lifestyle changes from toxic messaging?

Amidst this confusion, one truth seldom considered is that crucial factors beneficial to health already come naturally to many women, such as talking about feelings with friends and valuing family and community. For example, (pre-Covid) research concluded that loneliness could potentially shorten one's life expectancy by up to 15 years; the equivalent of smoking 15 cigarettes daily. Loneliness can even play a role in cancer’s responsiveness to treatments and even quicken the brain’s decline—serving, according to a study published in JAMA, Association of Higher Cortical Amyloid Burden With Loneliness in Cognitively Normal Older Adults, as a predictive sign of Alzheimer’s. Yet despite the relentless marketing of self-help and wellness to women, loneliness and deaths of despair, such as addiction and suicide, afflict white males in significantly greater numbers than any other demographic. Life expectancy statistics still and have long favored longevity in women, too, even if it seems the goal of advertisers and marketers to pretend this isn’t so.

Of course, it’s not only how long we live that matters but also the quality of our lives. Well, women have a leg up there too. In a 2013 study based on a Gallup World Poll, Carol Graham and Soumya Chattopadhyay found that—excepting in countries where women are denied basic human rights such as a choice of who to marry, access to education, or the right to drive a car—women across races and cultures report higher levels of life satisfaction than men, even as we also consistently report “more stress.”

This gap between women and men’s happiness is most pronounced in “wealthier contexts, among more educated and older cohorts, and in urban areas”—ironic, considering that this market seems to overlap almost exactly with those who, in the United States, are being sold the myth of collective unhappiness to be manipulated into ever more spending on its attainment. Likewise, while stress is not positively tied to either health or happiness in general terms, and no study should be used to excuse heterosexual women’s male partners from taking on a fair share of domestic responsibilities, Graham and Chattopadhyay’s study also found that women who either became unemployed or moved out of the labor force altogether still reported higher levels of life satisfaction than their male counterparts in similar circumstances because of “women’s ability to multitask and to have multiple identities as mothers or caregivers, among other things, in addition to working.” While these multiple identities are often stress-inducing, note the authors, they can nonetheless be “protective of psychological well-being.”

So what does all of this mean? Put simply, certain core things are necessary for women’s happiness and health, and few of them are related to the relentless economic loop of the self-improvement market. Friendships, a sense of community, and an emphasis on women’s rights and agency are more key to women’s overall health and happiness than whether we can afford expensive plant-based meal delivery services, make like Eat, Pray, Love and hit up an ashram, or take on that expensive and time-consuming supervised juice cleanse. And crucially, encouraging the men in our lives to focus more on relationships and community too, and to resist the narrative that their jobs and income dictate their worth, may help address the paradox that although men hold more power, they are less happy and more at risk for both disease and despair.

Later today, I’ll be meeting with my physical trainer on Zoom. And no, I don’t plan to fire her because I’ve realized she isn’t the key to my bliss. As a cancer survivor with osteoarthritis and Mixed Connective Tissue Disease, I’ve decided she’s worth the investment, so I can keep doing many other things I love. Every woman deserves time away from the pressure of caring for others, whether this looks like a bubble bath with a good book, going for a run, or a night out with friends to whom we can say anything. Most importantly, if we allow ourselves a moment to assess what’s broken and what isn’t before throwing precious time and cash around as fixes, we’re truly empowered to make self-care and wellness choices that are right for us rather than jumping on the bandwagon fads or being manipulated by advertising.

As for me, I’ve come a long way from that place in 2016 when it seemed the “right choices” were elusive no matter what I did. What I cherish now is choice itself.