Trend Z: the evolution of self-care

by Semira Arora (’25) | February 3, 2023

Art by Chloe Shin (’25)

As the cold, flabby sheet mask marinated my skin, I sat with my own thoughts for fifteen minutes. While staring at the ceiling, I came to a realization that I hated to admit. The face mask was in fact not solving my life problems. Nor was it smoothing my skin. But what else was I supposed to do to “take care” of myself?

In the 1950s, the phrase “self-care” emerged. According to an article in Slate magazine, the term was intended to support patient autonomy for institutionalized peoples. It became a medical term for patients which promoted regaining self-worth through positive affirmations, exercising, and healthy food options.

In the 1960s, self-care gained more traction and was popularized by the Black Panther Party, a civil rights group. The Black Panther Party was an African-American revolutionary party founded in Oakland in the 1960s to mitigate police brutality in African-American neighborhoods. The group actualized its intent to support communities by distributing food and establishing educational programs and health clinics.

The Black Panther Party sought to create systemic change by supporting marginalized groups with various resources. This concept of self-care was driven by a sense of community and a mission to heal one another. However, the actual term “self-care” was most notably popularized by activist and poet Audre Lorde who championed the movement in the 1980s. Lorde’s work focused on not only recognizing differences among people in order to recognize marginalized communities but also analyzing underlying causes and connections to unify people for a common cause.

In contrast to its history, today’s self-care is all about isolating the individual from the rest of the world to focus on the self. Self-care, once community-driven, has shifted to an independent activity where people immerse themselves in their own interests. While this can be a beneficial way to return to one’s authentic self, social media perpetuates a skewed version of this by promoting consumerism. Today, products serve as a remedy to “patch up” any issues one might face. Instead of sleeping, try using under-eye patches to get rid of those dark circles. Instead of doing your regular, boring routine, you definitely need a hundred-dollar hot towel warmer.

This modern rendition of the concept has created a sharp divide between economic classes solely with the cost of items. Furthermore, it lets those with more money generate more profit as these videos with the fanciest, most expensive products tend to get more likes, creating this never-ending loop. Additionally, several vloggers on social media platforms show their self-care routines by flashing a brand-name product; these vloggers also have checklists of items to complete and achieve their self-care routine. The idea of self-care has been optimized into another must-have to add to one’s daily life, thus assimilating into a productivity-driven world.  

Moreover, the modern independence promoted by self-care only masks the inherent problems in our systems. It places accountability on the person rather than the institution—for example, self-care advice recommends taking breaks when dealing with burnout. The responsibility of balancing life is now in the hands of the person. Rather than calling out companies that promote hustle culture, or advising reform for supportive work environments, self-care today further strays from the Black Panther Party’s mission to improve organizations in order to support one another.

So the next time I massage in the serums and whatnot from my face mask, I won’t be expecting a life-changing physical transformation, but one that allows me to understand what I stand for and represent. One that reminds me of what the medical world created, what the Black Panther Party represented, and what Audre Lorde furthered. One that lets me strive to create positive change, just as the people in the decades before did.

Categories: Column, Opinions

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