Face masks, green powder and trendy water bottles: What is self-care, anyway?
12 November 2018 06:50
It’s 6.30am. My alarm went off at 6am. The first thing on my to-do list is to drink around 500ml of water, from the 2.2l BPA free, bodybuilder-esque, environmentally-friendly, smugness-inducing water bottle that is by my bed. Next, I pop the kettle on and then mix a tea spoon of Udo’s Choice Beyond Greens into a different reusable bottle. It’s a concoction of organic fermented barley, oat, wheat and alfalfa grasses, algae, spices, vegetables and seeds that I have grown to enjoy, but am scolded about every time a friend invests in the magic powder upon my recommendation, only to tell me it tastes like dirt. I drink this as the kettle starts to squeak and squawk in the background. I plop a teaspoon of instant coffee into my mug (the posh stuff with the orange top – you know the one) and add a dash of soy milk (because they didn’t have oat). Of course, before I caffeinate, I move my body through a few yoga mobility poses for five-ish minutes to wake me up, and then I am on to my third beverage before 7am. This isn’t rock ‘n’ roll. This is ‘self-care’.
Like a lot of content that Instagram ‘influencers’ – of which I am one – produce, the above is a true but somewhat misleading account of my daily routine. A highlight reel, if you will. It is my routine on perhaps three out of seven days of the week; on the other four days, I am usually in camp ‘fuck, that’s my alarm’, before hastily dry shampooing, brushing my teeth, and running out of the door.
It sometimes seems like self-care is actually synonymous with smug Instagram posts about face masks, bath bombs and inspirational quotes: ‘If Cauliflower can somehow become pizza… you, my friend, can do anything’. In fact, when you search for the hashtag, there are over 9.1 million posts on the social media platform. However, self-care isn’t as much of a self-aggrandising fad as you might expect. Often, our British stoicism operates as a barrier, preventing us from actually wanting to practise self-care at all – especially when the goal of ‘developing, protecting, maintaining and improving health, wellbeing or wellness’ is being prescribed to us by a YouTuber who lives at home with their parents, makes 30k a month, has perfect skin and is 15 years old – I get it, I promise.
In recent years, the re-entry of ‘self-care’ into our lexicon (yes, re-entry) occurred around the time of the US presidential elections in 2016. The term crops up frequently in various articles looking to aid voters in dissipating the anxieties brought on by the divisive time: ‘For individuals who struggle with anxiety or have experienced trauma, grief or loss, the stress of election night – and the tumultuous weeks that lead up to it – can be especially hard.’ In articles such as this one, the advocacy for self-care takes the form of practical advice that promotes being present, mindful and positive – all very sound pointers. As with all well-intentioned endeavours, as self-care picked up momentum, it was only a matter of time before it became monetised; in the past five years alone the value of the health and wellness market in the UK has increased from 22.6 billion to 26 billion. On the surface, it would seem like our piqued interest in health and wellbeing can only be a good thing, but when companies are capitalising off our new appetite for quality of life, with dodgy or useless products, it can in fact have a negative impact. As we know, social media can incite all kinds of insecurities, and this pressure to attend bank-breaking boutique gym classes in luxe activewear at 4.45am, before heading to cryotherapy, before heading to work, only acts to further perpetuate them.
So, what is self-care, and how do we practice it without taking out a loan and only eating kale? The key goal seems to be that instead of prescribing self-care to those who have already reached a state of ill-health (the elderly, the sick or the injured), we are now focusing on preventing reaching that stage in the first place. Fundamentally, it is a quest to improve our quality of life – something we can all probably agree is a good idea. Our basic needs as humans for a fulfilled life are food, water, sleep, exercise, sex and social interaction. Ironically, we can do most of these things on a fairly low budget – at least, you can if you’re from a good socio-economic background with a decent job, are able-bodied, sufficiently educated on nutrition and exercise, and able to source time. However, even if you feel as though you are ill-equipped to achieve the enigmatic, evergreen buzzword of the wellness industry, ‘balance’, I am here to tell you that it is actually very simple to observe how certain mutable factors might impact our lives, and how we can rectify this. Instead of willing our tiredness, irritability or low mood to disappear on its own, or actively self-medicating with alcohol, retail therapy and other consumption – the equivalent of spraying Febreeze over a bad smell – let’s break down the small ways we can make changes to make our lives that little bit more pleasant.
Starting with the basics, water is so fundamental to so many of our bodily functions, that neglecting it is downright reckless – 2-3 litres per day, please. Next up, sleep is a major factor: if you haven’t yet, I thoroughly recommend reading Why We Sleep (2017) by Matthew Walker, who prescribes no less than 8 hours per night. Also not to be dismissed, of course, is nutrition; nothing fancy, simply aim to eat sufficient carbs (potatoes of any colour are always good, as well as rice, pasta and bread), proteins (poultry, meats, fish, tofu, pulses, legumes – protein powders can be good, if you can afford them and like them) and fats (avocado, nuts, oily fish, seeds, oils). I can’t avoid mentioning that dark green leafy vegetables are truly slightly magical for us, this means spinach and, yes, kale – pop it in a smoothie if you don’t like it, bananas act as a fantastic flavour disguise. Lastly, for your enjoyment of life, please do not neglect to enjoy the foods that are less nutritious but more delicious – every food has its place in a diet, it’s just a matter of prioritising the ones that give us the most energy, vitamins and minerals, over empty calories.
With the obvious indispensables covered, let’s talk about the fun stuff: sex and social interaction. That’s right, sex and orgasms are bloody good for our mental health, whether you’re doing it with a partner, yourself or a willing stranger – it doesn’t really matter as long as it’s consensual and safe. And, as much as we love to romanticise our solo ‘Netflix and chill’ nights, social interaction is incredibly important for humans. We have evolved to gossip and create networks of others within our species, so take a leap and join a book club, sports team or another group activity.
Self-care isn’t selfish or pointless, nor does it need to be expensive or exclusive. True self-care isn’t fixing first world problems with first world fixes, it is simply trying to function optimally, the way we are designed to. It’s not rock ‘n’ roll, but it makes me feel great – and that’s what counts.