I recently engaged in “retail therapy.” My goal was to celebrate the fact that I had completed a difficult summer semester at my university. I hadn’t been shopping in a while and some of the items in my closet were beginning to look faded, so I embarked on an adventure to one of my favorite stores. One of my rules while shopping—including for groceries—is that I allow myself one or two items that are not on my list. I’m a major homebody, so this is my way of rewarding myself for getting out the door.
My “extravagances” on this run were an oversize beach towel and pair of earrings that were on clearance. As I shopped—and I typically am not a particularly excited shopper—I began to experience the thrill that drives the masses—especially women—out into department stores or onto retailer websites every day.
However, when I got home, I noticed that my excitement began to quickly fade into another oft-described emotion; “buyer’s regret.” I began to scrutinize the mini backpack I had bought, wondering if I had spent too much money, even though the item was on my list and was on sale. I worried that the earrings I picked out would irritate my earlobes and whether I should have swapped them out for another pair I had been eyeing.
In the last couple of years, many articles have come out condemning the way we tie self-care to consumerism. The adage, “treat yo’ self” (treat yourself) gained popularity in the early 2010s thanks to an episode of the TV show Parks and Recreation. Two of the main characters on the show, Tom and Donna, expressed how they would spend one day out of the year “treating themselves” to anything and everything that they wanted. It isn’t coincidental that there was a huge price tag associated with that.
While humorous on a sitcom, the reality of self-care being tied to what we can purchase and afford has serious implications in real life. If you are unable to afford fancy gym equipment, designer handbags, expensive massages, or pricey bath bombs and candles, does that mean that you are excluded from being able to “care” for yourself? When we put a price to entry on self-care, we ignore the reality of poor and working-class people for whom these luxuries are often out of reach.
There is also a certain gendering of self-care in corporate advertising; anti-aging products and creams, healthy eating, and various beauty products are hawked almost exclusively to women. Men are expected to “tough it out” even though men have shorter lifespans than women. Men are often encouraged to develop muscular, athletic bodies, regardless of whether the means of achieving that is healthy or unhealthy. For women, it is assumed that if you are not thin and traditionally beautiful, you have “let yourself go,” and many self-care companies claim that they can help women maintain a youthful and beautiful visage for as long as possible.
However, trying to escape aging is not self-care. Aging is a reality that will happen to every one of us. In a world where so much is expected of us, self-care once was—and can be—a revolutionary act. The term self-care, adopted by the medical community in the 1950s, was picked up and politicized by the Black Panther Party in the 1960s and ‘70s. Many Black activists—including many LGBTQ+ members—emphasized the need to care for the body as well as the mind in an age when they and their bodies were being treated with such disregard.
We live in a culture that is obsessed with productivity. Choosing to take time to breathe, move our bodies in a way that we choose, or even lay down and relax can be subversive in a culture that expects us to continuously labor. Prioritizing our health can be difficult, but we must realize that self-care is a lifestyle, not a series of products that we purchase. Even if you do not have access to the healthiest food, the best gym equipment, or an assortment of pricey ointments and potions, you can still take steps to take care of yourself today.
For example, you can do physical exercises that require no gym equipment. You can cook healthy foods on a budget. You can drink more water (seriously). You can journal or meditate for clarity of mind. You can spend a few minutes outside if you are able to do so safely. You can laugh and joke with your co-workers to make the day go by more easily (yes, this is a form of protest, too; read more here).
Am I happy with my shopping haul? Mostly. I also love collecting journals, even though I could get by with plain notebooks. However, I realize that buying things—by itself—will not lead to long-term satisfaction or a healthier state of mind. Next time I want to “reward myself” and my mind goes to buying new clothes, stationary, or a decadent treat, maybe I can consider if there is an alternative way to take care of myself and still acknowledge the accomplishments I’m making in my life.
Image Credit: Angela Roma at Pexels.com