Self-care has reached critical mass: It’s the subject of both a New York Times trend piece and a growing backlash, and all this happened while men were barely included in the craze.
Self-care is a real thing. It’s important to take care of yourself so you don’t burn out. It can mean meditating, going for a walk, cooking some soup or even just taking a deep breath. It can be going to the doctor or indulging in a spa treatment. Anyone can do it, yet it’s overwhelmingly directed at women, written by women, hosted on women’s sites, and phrased in a language that sounds tailor-made for women in its focus on emotional, physical and spiritual betterment. Even the term itself is strikingly close to “self-help,” a genre that’s earned billions targeting the perceived insecurities of its female audience.
From a cultural standpoint, it makes sense. Women have been largely defined by their ability to nurture others and put everyone but themselves first. When a standard Nyquil commercial laments that “moms don’t take sick days,” it’s clear that women, more than men, have historically needed to be given a break because they can’t or won’t take them otherwise. Some research, though, suggests that men need self-care too. For instance, men still don’t live as long as women, and many still wait as long as possible to see a doctor.
“Men are naturally looked at as strong, impenetrable and pride-driven creatures who build their worth on how much they can ‘bear’ or handle, so it’s perceived by many men as weak for needing to take care of themselves or take downtime that doesn’t make them seem lazy,” Eliza Belle, a psychologist who focuses on men’s health, told me via email. “[That’s why] it’s taken society a long time to outwardly recognize the need for male self-care.”
Ironically, just as male self-care seems to be showing up in the search results, female self-care is facing backlash and fatigue. “It’s no longer enough to just do a face mask or go for a walk, the act of self-care has become yet another thing women are expected to be good at,” Amil Niazi wrote at VICE last month. “Did you use the right filter for that ‘gram of your impeccably prepared açaí bowl? Are the candles you just lit in your Snap story made from organic hand-poured soy or are they that mass-produced factory shit?”
In another VICE article, author Melissa Broder asks, “Why does “self-care” piss me off so much? Maybe, because it’s been co-opted into something to be sold, like so much else that begins as a revolutionary act. Sorry, but it seems unnecessary to have to rebrand the action of taking a deep breath into a listicle.”
While every post on self-care will remind you that the term itself has its roots in a 1976 treatise from French philosopher Michel Foucault, who deemed “caring for the self” as necessary to caring for others, it’s more heavily associated with women — specifically black lesbian poet Audre Lorde, who defined it, in 1988, as “not self-indulgence,” but “self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” The former tends to be associated with achieving an “idealized state of being” in the philosophical sense, whereas the latter is a critical component of surviving in the real world as an embattled minority.
In the Bitch magazine interview linked by Broder, writer Evette Dionne explains what self-care means for black women and why it was, and is, so important: “Black women, we don’t have time to take care of ourselves. Many of us are poor, many of us are working ourselves into graves, early graves particularly, and many of us put everybody before ourselves…. Because health, particularly chronic illnesses like obesity, like heart disease, like diabetes, are killing black women in droves. So when we say that our health matters and that we want to live as long a life as possible through self-care, it means that we’re going to the doctor, it means that we’re going to the gym, it means that we’re eating healthier, if that is what it takes to preserve our health. It’s all about putting your health first. So whatever that looks like, whether it’s making sure that you get annual pap smears or making sure you have physicals just because, that is literally a matter of life and death in extending your life.”
In other words, a black woman’s self-care might mean going to the doctor because her access to medical care is greatly limited. A man’s self-care might mean going in spite of the stigma that makes him less likely to seek care in the first place.
But you wouldn’t pick up on either instance on Instagram, where the some million posts under the #selfcare hashtag prove it’s also a marketing scheme and a luxury brag, with nary a dude and few activists in sight.
There’s rose-petal filled bathtubs:
Celebrations of body acceptance:
And intense yoga poses:
The lone man I found in the first few pages of posts was associated with #LGBTQ activism and #FTM transitioning, which makes the simple act of shaving as self-care far more political and necessary than standard-issue grooming:
The majority of the posts reinforce gendered stereotypes about indulgence, including the standby trope of eating sweets as pampering:
While a national study of men’s health claims guys want to take more control of their individual health in spite of stereotypes that paint them as “reckless or clueless fools,” it seems the prevailing sentiment is still that they don’t care, or can’t admit it:
While Belle says men could benefit from much of the same self-care advice given to women (e.g., journaling and deep breathing), they often end up opting for unhealthy stress relievers like watching ESPN all day because of the guilt associated with self-care for men.
That’s interesting, because, as the Times notes, at this point, self-care can be anything; it’s lost all meaning. “Things that get branded as self-care now have nothing to do with taking care of yourself, like detoxes and juice fasts,” the author of the Goop parody “Glop” told the Times. “I do them because I hate myself, not because I’m taking care of myself. It’s poised to be wrenched away from activists and turned into an excuse to buy an expensive bath oil.”
But if that’s the case—and it appears it already is—we should expect more guy-style self-care tips that include high-end watches or fast cars, or other things driven more by insecurity than any real notion of taking care of oneself. Perhaps that’s where true understanding between the sexes comes from: mutually understood self-loathing.
Or, as Broder put it in response to the idea that one act of self-care often recommended to women is to get dressed up and take some new profile pictures: “This is probably the worst idea ever,” she writes. “Changing my profile picture means spending the rest of the day online, alternately waiting for likes and berating myself for letting people know that I care how I am perceived.”
Who can’t relate to that?