Instagram is astonishingly quick to tell us what we owe ourselves. The images on our feed shriek in brilliant colour, each adding to a dizzying collection of ideas advertising all the ways we should be caring for both our bodies and our minds, spanning everything from intense workouts to week-long retreats or simply a soak in the bath. After all, don’t we deserve that much?
The simple answer is, of course, yes. A buzzword of the past few years, the concept of self-care is supposed to champion relaxation, encouraging us to carve out time in our hectic schedules and commit to peace and self-improvement. We are permitted, by influencers and friends alike, to really ‘focus on ourselves’. Against the heaviness of everyday responsibilities and the distant red sky of political and environmental issues, positivity shimmers on the horizon. We are told to seize an opportunity to find a quiet space with which to distance ourselves from the relentlessness of the news, to switch off from work or academia, and to acknowledge our achievements. Yet self-care culture is permeated not only by damaging ideals of productivity and efficiency, but by the damaging undercurrents of social media itself. Scrolling innocently through ‘#self care’ means traversing a perfect grid of 26.1 million posts. The hashtag ‘me time’ offers up 6.4 million smiling faces, reading books and drinking tea or posing in running gear under a Hollywood worthy (although heavily filtered) sunset. It seems we can’t actually take time for ourselves without feeling the need to document it. And when ‘self-care’ – in any of its innumerable forms – becomes just another thing tacked on to a neverending to-do list, doesn’t the entire concept collapse?
Stripped of its glossy idealism and false perfection, self-care is fundamentally another form of productivity. While its goal is entirely personal and supposedly positive, it is essentially just another thing we tell ourselves we ‘should’ do. And this kind of pressure is already rife; we are all too familiar with a relentless feeling that we must be using our time efficiently, completing tasks to high standards and using any time left over (a novel concept!) to get a headstart on other projects. Faced with the collective silent shrieking of millions of people on social media reminding us to take time for ourselves, self-care is hammered into schedules already bursting at the seams, tacked optimistically onto busy evenings, or forced between tasks until we can barely come up for air. Cunningly posing as an optimistic sentiment about what we deserve, self-care dictates how we should be behaving, and our downtime must not only be meaningful but worthy of documentation. We become convinced that relaxation only matters when it yields a direct result, when we have something to show for it – and something we can share online. And so the cycle continues. Relaxation must be photogenic; the time we take to rest and recharge – as precious as it is in itself – is now manufactured, crammed into our polished online showreels of experience. Rising from the ashes of our own exhaustion, then, is an entirely new marketing opportunity: we are sold candles and skincare by the beaming people in the photos and on the blog posts; we are told which workouts to do, which spas and treatments will provide maximum relaxation. Flaunted online, self-care becomes simply something to be sold, the vestige of a capitalist agenda centred on both productivity and consumerism.
The pressure to be productive can be traced back to education, namely since it hurls at us near-impossible agendas and leaves us juggling tasks expected to be completed to perfection, despite their overwhelming volume. It is at school and university that we are convinced of the importance of continuously working; we have been told from far too young that we owe it to ourselves to work efficiently and relentlessly in order to achieve a prescribed goal. But this idea landslides into more corrupt and unshakeable ideals, namely of self-criticism: if we are not as productive as we ‘should’ have been, the guilt can be crushing, and it rarely eases.
Such guilt is only worsened by what is seemingly the rival of self-care: hustle culture, or the concept of ‘the grind’, which is also incessantly promoted by social media’s brightest stars and most vocal self-made millionaires. It encompasses dedication and commitment, holding up success as if in a vacuum, a kind of glory that materialises with enough passion and sleepless nights. Yet both ‘hustling’ and self-care are rooted in forms of productivity, as they remind us to focus on specific tasks in order to feel rewarded. Both inadvertently create pressure to ‘get things done’, dictating what we should be working on and why it matters. The concepts converge at a damaging point that exacerbates the burdens we all bear as students, battling to reach goals and meet deadlines. Always feeling that we have never quite done enough to warrant a rest, we must also suffer the guilt that now comes along with not resting. These conflicting narratives of productivity conveniently cancel each out to leave us exhausted and yet never satisfied.
Taking care of ourselves isn’t an easy feat. Sacrificing ten minutes to rest or even to do something other than work can feel impossible, and yet we are compelled to find both meaningful and scenic ways to reward ourselves, even if all we really feel like doing after a day of work is lying facedown in bed. The pressure to take time out – and to document it when we do – only adds to guilt we already feel, guilt that resides in the very fabric of institutions like education, as well as in our communications with each other and with ourselves. ‘Self-care’ masquerades as vital and positive but it is, underneath it all, another shame-inducing trend. When we engage in self-care we should be doing it for ourselves, and, where we can, consciously separating our actions from any other agenda, returning to the fundamental focus on the individual rather than manufactured notions of productivity and validation. Perhaps all we can hope for is to briefly shout above the noise, and find our own space among the alluring but ultimately hollow ideals constructed by social media.