June 21, 2024
The self-care industry contributed to the loneliness crisis

Where were you the first time you heard the words “bath bomb?” What about “10-step skin care routine?” Perhaps you have, at some point, canceled plans in order to “unplug,” drink some tea, and take a bit of “me time.” Maybe you’ve ordered an assortment of candles meant to combat anxiety and stress or booked a rage room to exorcise your demons. 

A warped notion of self-care has been normalized to the point where everyday activities like washing yourself and watching TV are now synonymous with the term. Generally understood as the act of lovingly nursing one’s mind and body, a certain kind of self-care has come to dominate the past decade, as events like the 2016 election and the Covid pandemic spurred collective periods of anxiety layered on top of existing societal harms. It makes sense that interest in how to quell that unease has steadily increased. 

Brands stepped forward with potential solutions from the jump: lotions, serums, journals, blankets, massagers, loungewear, meditation apps, tinctures. Between 2014 and 2016, Korean beauty exports to the US more than doubled. The Girls’ Night In newsletter was founded in 2017, with a mission to share “recommendations and night-in favorites … all focused on a topic that could use a bigger spotlight right now: downtime.” YouTube was soon saturated with videos of sponsored self-care routines. By 2022, a $5.6 trillion market had sprung to life under the guise of helping consumers buy their way to peace. 

As the self-care industry hit its stride in America, so too did interest in the seemingly dire state of social connectedness. In 2015, a study was published linking loneliness to early mortality. In the years that followed, a flurry of other research illuminated further deleterious effects of loneliness: depression, poor sleep quality, impaired executive function, accelerated cognitive decline, cardiovascular disease, higher risk of coronary heart disease and stroke. US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy classified the prevalence of loneliness as an epidemic. By 2018, half of the country reported feeling lonely at least sometimes, according to a Cigna survey, a number that has only grown. 

There is no singular driver of collective loneliness globally. A confluence of factors like smartphones, social media, higher rates of anxiety and depression, vast inequality, materialism, and jam-packed schedules have been identified as potentially spurring the crisis. But one practice designed to relieve us from the ills of the world — self-care, in its current form — has pulled us away from one another, encouraging solitude over connection. 

How self-care became a commercial product

The self-care of decades past was decidedly less individualistic and capitalist. In the 1950s, self-care was a term used in health care contexts: activities patients and their families could perform to promote their health and well-being separate from the care of medical professionals. “To me, self-care is a subjective and dynamic process aimed at maintaining health and preventing diseases or managing diseases when they appear,” says Michela Luciani, an assistant professor of nursing at the University of Milano-Bicocca. In this context, self-care can encompass everything from getting annual medical screenings to eating well. 

In the years that followed, the Black Panthers stressed the importance of caring for oneself as a political act amid the civil rights movement. Through community efforts like free food programs for children and families as well as free health clinics, the Black Panthers focused on collective well-being. “[This] image of caring for your people and self-care,” says Karla D. Scott, a professor of communication at Saint Louis University, “evoked the African phrase ‘I am because we are’: ubuntu.”

For Black activists, partaking in rejuvenating rituals was crucial in order to survive within and to fight against racist, classist, and sexist systems. This approach to self-care is especially evident in the works of bell hooks and Audre Lorde, who is often referenced in the context of self-care: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence,” she wrote, “it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

This definition of self-care emphasizes the importance of engaging with others. Not only do we receive support from family, friends, and neighbors, but communing itself is a form of care. People report high levels of well-being while spending time with their friends, romantic partners, and children. Social interaction with trusted companions has been found to help stave off depression. Even chatting with acquaintances and strangers promotes happiness and belonging.

Buy a new eyeshadow, a bullet journal, Botox, a vacation to fill the need for care that never seems to abate

By the late 1960s, wellness entered the lexicon. Beyond simply avoiding illness, “wellness” as a concept centered the pursuit of a higher level of existence: a more emotional, spiritual, physical, and intellectual way of living. A wellness resource center opened in California in 1975; nearly a decade later, a wellness-focused newsletter from the University of California Berkeley helped legitimize the concept. This model of well-being features individuals, not communities, moving toward their “ever-higher potential of functioning,” as posited by Halbert L. Dunn, who helped popularize the contemporary idea of wellness. (Dunn also includes the “basic needs of man” — communication, fellowship with other people, and love — as integral to wellness.)  The ethos of wellness soon became synonymous with a sullied version of self-care, one that mapped neatly to the rising fitness culture of the ’80s through the early 2000s and the concept of “working on yourself.” 

The Great Recession of 2008 marked a shift in how Americans viewed their health and well-being. In her book Fit Nation: The Gains and Pains of America’s Exercise Obsession, Natalia Mehlman Petrzela argues that fitness became “a socially acceptable form of conspicuous consumption” during this time when social media and boutique fitness classes allowed people to broadcast their lavish spending in pursuit of their health. Gwyneth Paltrow’s wellness brand Goop was founded the same year, espousing occasionally unfounded health advice and recommending (and selling) “aspirational products which embody and encourage restriction, control, and scarcity,” according to one academic paper.

Commoditized self-care was here to stay, reaching mass saturation right around the time Trump was elected to office. Young people, disillusioned by polarized politics, saddled with astronomical student loan debt, and burned out by hustle culture, turned to skin care, direct-to-consumer home goods, and food and alcohol delivery — aggressively peddled by companies eager to capitalize on consumers’ stressors. While these practices may be restorative in the short term, they fail to address the systemic problems at the heart of individual despair. 

Thus, a vicious, and expensive, cycle emerges: Companies market skin care products, for example, to prevent the formation of fine lines, supposedly a consequence of a stressful life. Consumers buy the lotions to solve this problem, lather themselves in solitude, and feel at peace for a little while. Once the anxiety, the exhaustion, and the insufficiency creeps in again, as it inevitably does, the routine begins anew. Buy a new eyeshadow, a bullet journal, Botox, a vacation to fill the need for care that never seems to abate. 

Because buying things does not solve existential dread, we are then flooded with guilt for being unable to adequately tend to our minds and bodies. We just have to self-care harder, and so the consumerism masquerading as a practice that can fix something broken becomes another rote to-do list item.

Individualistic approaches to wellness promote isolation

This isn’t to say that solitary activities can’t be effective forms of self-care. Many people are easily depleted by social interaction and take solace in regular quiet evenings alone; solo time is indeed integral to a balanced social regimen. Conversely, people who are constantly surrounded by others can still feel lonely. However, when companies market genuinely vitalizing practices as individualized “solutions” to real problems (like burnout) requiring structural change (such as affordable child care), we increasingly look inward. “I worry that because of this ideology we live in, rugged individualism,” Scott says, “it lands in a way where folks feel that they’re deficient. It is deflating.”

Pooja Lakshmin, a psychiatrist and clinical assistant professor at George Washington University, calls this self-soothing capitalist version of self-care “faux self-care” in her best-selling book Real Self-Care: A Transformative Program For Redefining Wellness. Faux self-care manifests in two ways: I deserve to splurge on Doordash and binge Netflix because I’m so burned out and I’m going to push myself so hard in this spin class because I need to be the best.

Secluding oneself by summoning sustenance to our doorstep comes at the expense of the worker earning paltry wages to deliver you that food. The doors of our apartments quite literally separate those who can afford to “care” for themselves and those who cannot. While this form of restoration appears to be more isolating, the hyper-competitive version of faux self-care is equally as confining, Lakshmin says. “They’re not engaging or present,” she says. “They’re competing with themselves.” 

While many surveys and reports outline a recent rise in loneliness, researchers lack sufficient longitudinal data to definitively say whether people are lonelier now than in the past, says Luzia Heu, an assistant professor in interdisciplinary social sciences at Utrecht University. However, people in wealthier societies have more opportunities to spend time alone now, she says, whether through remote work, living alone, or participating in solitary hobbies. “We spend more time alone and we are more isolated,” Heu says. “That is where people immediately assume that loneliness must also have increased a lot.” Whether or not loneliness has grown compared to historical accounts, recent statistics show that individuals are reporting higher levels of loneliness over the last decade, especially in the wake of the pandemic.

“Self-care transformed into self-obsession” 

America’s loneliness epidemic is multifaceted, but the rise of consumerist self-care that immediately preceded it seems to have played a crucial role in kicking the crisis into high gear — and now, in perpetuating it. You see, the me-first approach that is a hallmark of today’s faux self-care doesn’t just contribute to loneliness, it may also be a product of it. Research shows self-centeredness is a symptom of loneliness. But rather than reaching out to a friend, we focus on personalized self-care and wonder why we might not feel fulfilled. Another vicious cycle. “Instead of self-care being this mechanism to take care of yourself so that you can then show up for others,” says psychologist Maytal Eyal and co-founder of women’s health company Gather, “self-care transformed into self-obsession.” 

The wellness industry wouldn’t be as lucrative if it didn’t prey on our insecurities. It must imagine new insufficiencies for us to fixate on, new elixirs and routines — like colostrum and 75 Hard — simultaneously meant to improve your mind and body by keeping them occupied in solitude. 

That isolation is detrimental to the self and to society. When people are lonely, they tend to distrust others — they’re on the lookout for social threats and expect rejection. Being so disconnected and suspicious of their neighbors, their communities, and institutions could impact their propensity to cooperate with others and act in prosocial ways. A lack of social belonging has been linked to a person’s increased likelihood of voting for populist candidates. Similarly, social rejection can lead one toward extremist views. This is especially good news for political figures who wish to sow discontent and chaos. A secluded electorate is an unengaged one. Those in positions of power have it in their best interests to keep workers, neighbors, and citizens separate, self-centered, and distracted.

As Scott mentioned, the tradition of American individualism doesn’t help. When people are told they are solely responsible for their own happiness and well-being, they increasingly seek it out via solitary means. If they’re lonely to begin with — if they feel disappointed in their relationships or don’t feel understood — they have a stronger tendency to withdraw, says Heu, the social and behavioral science professor. Perhaps they seek out a form of commodified self-care to cope, but “it’s not something that tackles the cause of your loneliness,” Heu says. “For many people, the cause of the loneliness will be something else.”

For women, to whom self-care is most aggressively targeted, the source of their loneliness may be tied to the demands of their lives. Even when they earn the same as their male partners, women in heterosexual relationships still do the lion’s share of housework, according to a Pew Research Center study. Women also spend more time on caregiving than their husbands, the survey found. An expensive candle won’t ease the burdens of home life or allow for more time to connect with peers outside of the household. 

The narrative that the only one we can depend on, and thus should prioritize, is ourselves perpetuates the idea of the personal above the collective — and reinforces the notion of self-sufficiency. Self-care is individual, says Luciani, the nursing professor: No one else can force us to get enough sleep or go to the gym. But it shouldn’t be individualistic. “Self-care is influenced by the support from others,” she says, like a partner who cooks dinner and cares for the children while you lie down with a headache, or a friend who advocates for you at medical appointments. Communal self-care means creating space for others to tend to their needs and supporting them when necessary. 

Despite the powerful forces working against us, we can reclaim self-care. We can choose to ignore compelling advertisements promising quick fixes. We can partake in revitalizing communal practices, whether they be a yoga class or a movie night with friends. We can avoid blaming ourselves for feeling stressed and scared and despondent in a violent, tumultuous, and unjust world. We can get to the root of our loneliness. True self-care involves connecting with others. Showing up for a friend in need or exchanging a few kind words with a stranger is more fulfilling than a face mask anyway. 

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