Self Care that ISN'T about Beautifying

Self Care Sunday, what comes to mind? Face masks and bubble baths?

Maybe you’re thinking a little more practical self care, and so you clean the house, organize the bookshelf, and rearrange the furniture, which you’ve been putting off all week because you’ve simply been too tired.

Maybe you’re out shopping for groceries, and you’ve had a stressful week, and so you splurge on something decorative for your apartment or a new outfit to wear this weekend or that expensive pair of shoes you’ve been eyeing for months.

Maybe you’re thinking about your whole body, and so you take that time to do yoga or a tough HIIT workout, or maybe you take that time to meal prep for the week. But where is your focus when you do these things? Is it on health and relieving stress with movement and nourishing food, or is it on looking better? Is this self care also with the hope that you will feel different when you look in the mirror, either today or months from now?

Whatever it is that you’re thinking about first or seeing on social media that’s labeled as self care, chances are it’s centered around beauty, either caring for yourself by beautifying yourself or caring for your self and home by tidying up.

Why is this? Why is our culture so focused on beauty and looks that we can’t even take care of ourself without thinking how it will look on social media?

Self care was an idea originally coined by black feminists as an act of political warfare, resistance, and rebellion: taking time for oneself outside of capitalist structures that only value womxn* as physical objects to be looked upon for beauty, as providers of “free” labor within the household as the primary caretaker (as opposed to using outside labor) to increase the overall monetary productivity of each household, as the primary shopper to utilize the capital earned (stereotypically by their husband) and put that money back into the system, as well as racially oppressive structures that make living life in a black body more demanding and tiring. Audre Lorde talked about self care as taking time to value herself in a world that othered her black lesbian body as less than.

So like many concepts that start out as an act of political and social dissidence in queer, black, and feminist communities, concepts that value humans as individual beings outside of their productivity and their fitting in with a socially acceptable mold of what a person should be, companies and specifically the beauty industry saw an opportunity to make some money off of turning face masks into something womxn should do to take care of themselves.

Here’s where things get complicated: if a face mask feels good and relaxing to you, isn’t it just as oppressive to tell you not to do a face mask because it is the capitalist machine’s way of valuing you only for your beauty and the money you spend on products, for making you fear aging and making you feel that it is your job to look good, as it would be to tell you to do a face mask to take care of yourself, with the knowledge that someone is profiting off your insecurities? 

I don’t have all the answers, but what I do know is that I’m making a conscious effort to be mindful of when my “self care” is centered around capitalist consumption and trying to mold myself to a socially acceptable standard of beauty.

I encourage you, if you take nothing else away from this post, make a list of all the things you currently do or think of as self care, and mark which ones are centered around beauty or consumption. Be mindful, and make sure the choices you make are for you, not how they will look to others.

If you’re looking for more than that, check out some of the videos and articles I have linked here to learn more about the origins of self care, its increased popularity in recent years since the 2016 election, and the current debate on the beauty industry’s profiting off of skin care as self care.

Summary articles and videos: -An article summarizing the debate, giving context for both sides

  • At the Times Magazine, Amanda Hess recently wrote about how the term “anti-aging” is going out of fashion: instead of youthfulness, advertisers promise radiance. This is not a revision of beauty standards, Hess observed: it’s a rebranding, in which “young” is positioned as a synonym for “natural,” despite the fact that nothing is more natural than getting old. Something similar is going on today with a certain popular beauty look, which we might label “Instagram model.” The look evokes both nakedness and airbrushing and is made possible by technology. A lot of the work formerly performed by makeup has been redirected into products and procedures—eyelash extensions, micro-current facials, injections of all kinds—leading to, and prompted by, an aesthetic of militant naturalness surrounded by an unambiguous aura of money and work. It’s a regime posing as a regimen. -A collection of tweets about the issue when this first blew up online

Problems with skin care as self care: -I have to admit, while I do get a kind of wonderful pleasure from skincare and products (I used to make “potions” by combining different soaps in the bath when I was little, and it drove my mother crazy because I shared her shower at the time, and she apparently did not enjoy finding a cup of goo that meant that half her body wash and bar soap had been used up, wonder why!?), I have noticed that my skin has been much “better” since skipping the 5-step routines and just sticking to mostly oils/serums, a simple face wash, and an occasional mask! But this could also be because I had severe hormonal acne in my later teenage years, and I also recently finished up with the extreme stress of school…

  • 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.

  • Studies show that habitual skin care routines can reduce anxiety, depressive thoughts and issues with control.

  • 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.

In defense of skin care (and womxn’s choice in how they care for themselves, aka beauty can be empowering):

  • An affinity for beauty, more specifically an intricate skincare and makeup routine, is often viewed as vapid or narcissistic. It’s a perspective that is practically ingrained in our culture, scorning women for engaging in “frivolous” activities or “vain” procedures while ignoring those who don’t fit the beauty ideal.
  • Having “good skin” was a way to garner compliments on my appearance even if I was anxiety-ridden with regard to my limbs. Perhaps this sounds vain in its own right, the idea that I needed adulation on the way I looked. But eating disorders distort so many different parts of you at once—robbing you of the things you like about yourself to accelerate its grasp. I picture it like a monster sleuthing and sliding all around my brain cells. Skincare seemed to halt its production for at least 10 minutes twice a day when I’d cleanse, tone, and moisturize.

  • But women also get into skin care for the same reason they get into knitting or “Call of Duty”: Because it’s fun.
  • “It’s a huge distraction from thinking negative thoughts, and I’ve been really encouraged by seeing positive results when adding in a new product or technique,” the original poster writes.

    “Kinda gross but I sometimes feel so down that I don’t want to shower and stuff like that,” writes another user. “My skincare kind of pushes me to do other basic self-care things because I actually want to get out of bed and go to the bathroom and do all my stuff.”

    Elaborate skin care combines the vaguely scientific with the pseudo-spiritual: there’s the meditative quality of lying down with a sheet mask on, the ritual of applying exactly the right ingredients in exactly the right order. There are also all those medical-sounding benefits, requiring the user to research and comparison-shop and pleasurably obsess over her own needs.

    Women on r/Skincareaddiction talk about the craving to put on a sheet mask at the end of the day rather than pour a glass of wine. They say things like, “I love being able to go into the bathroom, shut the world out, and just pay attention to what’s going on with my body.”

    What we’re talking about, when we talk about skin care, is not just female consumption or even female gender performance, but female pleasure.The fact that our culture devalues female pleasure is not new. As Lili Loufborouw wrote recently in a blockbuster essay for The Week, women are so socialized to ignore their own feelings that we’ve normalized even physical pain. But when the realities of female enjoyment collide with consumerism and capitalism, female pleasure isn’t just ignored — it’s cast as soft, decadent and frivolous in a way that male spending is not.

    But every night, I haul myself into the bathroom and spend an hour or two in the bath, trying to do something nice for my face. It’s the hour, not the face, that matters.

    Women deserve some pleasure in this mean world, and getting a little too excited about washing your face is far from the worst thing you could do with your time.

For more information on Self Care, visit my friend and previous colleague Shannon Johnson’s website:

If you want to chat more about these issues, shoot me a message! I love any opportunity to talk about all things at the intersection of health and feminism. Also, if you’re feeling confused and overwhelmed by this post, shoot me a message; I am more than happy to explain. I spent 4 years in undergrad at William & Mary studying these issues through my degree in Gender, Sexuality, & Women’s Studies, so the way I describe issues like these can get a little lofty and out there aka hard for anyone but me to read and enjoy, haha.


*womxn is used here instead of women or womyn to be more inclusive of trans or gender-noncomforming womxn-identified people of all races and sexualities, as opposed to just the typical cis, straight, white women’s experience

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About Ellen

Every body is a good body, and my goal is to help you feel your best!