It’s Thursday night and you’re scrolling through your Instagram feed, hoping to catch some respite from the seemingly endless pandemic week. Every so often, you find posts like these: a documentation of someone’s wind-down routine, an influencer sharing a “game-changing” essence, or a punny quote about the importance of “me time.” Then, of course, there are the ads for health supplements, meditation apps, and athleisure. If you’ve stumbled upon this perfectly curated world of bubble baths, scented candles, and crystals before, then you know all about “self-care.” But, despite its name, the idea of taking care of one’s self has transformed what was once a deeply personal experience, into an entire industry.
Management consulting firm McKinsey estimated earlier this year that the “global wellness market” is worth a whopping $1.5 trillion, with annual growth of 5 to 10 percent. As your social media feeds tell you, wellness has turned into products to be consumed. When did wellness become all about buying more things? How did it become so wasteful?
Some trace back the growing self-indulgence of today’s self-care industry to the way the term itself was co-opted. It’s believed that the term “self-care” originated within Black activist circles in the 1980s, by way of feminist Audre Lorde, who famously wrote: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” At the time, taking back healthcare into your own hands was a political act against the racist, sexist institution of healthcare.
This once-radical act called self-care, meant as a way to fight the system, has since been watered down, co-opted by capitalism and white corporate feminism into something that supports the system instead. If wellness can only be achieved by consuming products to take care of ourselves, isn’t self-care then just a temporary respite from capitalism? Making us take breaks just to become more productive human machines again?
According to writer and historian Daniela Blei, modern wellness culture can be traced to the European middle classes, who, during the 19th century, saw industrial society as degenerative. They created a wellness culture called “life reform,” involving raw food diets and exclusive retreats, among other practices. This turned wellness into aesthetics and products to be consumed—the beginning of the wellness industry that we’re familiar with today.
This European idea of wellness, of course, is remarkably different from those formed in other cultures before the 19th century. Today, you might see spiritual and traditional practices mixed into our modern wellness culture. The product of this mixing is a wellness industry that borrows practices from other cultures (think: yoga, burning sage, and “turmeric lattes”), but focuses on aestheticizing and obsessing over the self—completely opposite to values embedded within the cultures it borrows from.
For example, yoga is often stripped down to mere physical exercise, when in fact, it’s about so much more than perfecting the downward dog or a handstand. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali—one of the quintessential texts of yoga history and philosophy—provide an eight-limbed path of yoga. Asana, the physical practice, is only one of the eight. Meditation, breath control, even how to go about your daily life, are other essential components that serve to go beyond merely making your butt look great. Yoga is also about union—uniting us with our true selves and with the world.
It’s not just yoga that has such anti-capitalist, holistic origins. The idea of mindfulness in Buddhism and Abrahamic prophetic teachings actually teaches letting go of ego-attachment, and being compassionate to all beings. But today, it has turned into corporate wellness break activities, to help ourselves temporarily destress, or get focused.
Indigenous spiritualities, too, often root themselves in communal and ecological awareness. They have a reverence for the earth, which is why they are known as land defenders and protectors. Smudging sage, for example, is a practice that has nothing to do with the “room cleansing” and “good vibes” that it’s used for in modern wellness. Within Indigenous cultures, it’s used as medicine, in ceremonial practices, and even in prayers to show gratitude to the earth. Unfortunately, capitalism has appropriated these practices and eliminated these contexts.
Many self-care products within our modern wellness culture are deeply disconnected from the earth. For example, many popular athleisure brands are rated “Not Good Enough” on the platform Good On You, which rates brands according to their impact on people, the planet, and animals. Many that espouse wellness and self-care ideals actually don’t invest in emissions-cutting efforts or adequate living wages for workers.
Crystals like rose quartz and amethyst, which have become staples for wellness enthusiasts, are more often than not sourced unethically, unless stated otherwise. According to investigative reporting from The Guardian, the crystal industry involves dangerous, life-threatening mining without regulation, and rock-bottom salaries paid to miners.
Modern wellness is often so focused on self-care that many forget about caring for others, including the earth. It’s no wonder that despite the amount of money we’re collectively spending on wellness, on nourishing our bodies and improving our health, we’re still hurtling towards climate catastrophe.
So how do we fix this? Sustainably sourcing wellness products and acknowledging the origins of wellness practices—as individuals and in the industry—is a start. But we also need to look inwards, divesting from the commodified wellness and self-care culture by not thinking about wellness as products we can consume. Instead, learn from holistic wellness practitioners, detach from materialism, and care for the community and for the earth. To truly heal ourselves, we must be invested in healing each other, and healing the planet, too.
Follow Tammy Gan on Instagram.