Health And Wellness

How The $11 Billion Self-Care Industry Is Failing Women

Photo: JLco Julia Amaral / Shutterstock
woman on bed putting lotion on face

Self-care encompasses a lot more than just mani-pedis these days; it’s bloomed into an 11-billion-dollar industry, one that’s been capitalized on by almost every other consumer industry: spa, bath, water, beverage, skin care, essential oil, travel, food, home design. 

You name it, everybody’s got a hand in the self-care market. And yet, it seems that the more products and services we purchase and practice, the more stressed out and exhausted we become. The more we focus on well-being the more unwell we actually feel.

So what gives?  What’s not working in our self-care model?

The fact is, there’s nothing wrong with self-care or what it offers — who can argue with a lavender-infused body wrap? Products and services can replenish us for an afternoon or evening.

And yet, self-care as we know it is an inadequate remedy for what fundamentally ails us as women, the wrong solution for the disconnection we feel from our authentic selves and our real vitality. 

Our self-care industry offers short-term symptom relief for what is a far deeper and more systemic problem: the problem of women’s exhaustion.  

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In truth, women’s depletion starts early, in large part, because of our cultural conditioning.

From the time we can hold up our little girl heads, we start learning that we need to make ourselves likable, to be safe, valued, and accepted.

We learn to take care of what everyone else needs, but along the way, lose touch with (and interest in) what we need. Our conditioning teaches us to focus our attention outward and attend to our relationships with other people at the cost of our relationship with ourselves.

And so, we learn to take care of ourselves, in short, by abandoning ourselves.  

Self-care then steps in to help, offering us cashmere sheets, chocolate facials, and alpha-wave sound baths. But at the end of the day, while swaddled in luxury and smelling delicious, we’re essentially pampering a selfless self, a self that’s gone missing.

The self-care industry is problematic, however, not just because its solutions are superficial and fleeting, but more insidiously, because it strengthens the very beliefs and system that create our depletion.

Self-care, as we know it, solidifies the bars of the likability cage in which we imagine we’re trapped. On the surface, self-care sounds great and wise, but at a deeper level, the industry and its subtle messaging end up untethering us from our true vitality, and most importantly, from ourselves.

To begin with, self-care has become yet another should on a woman’s to-do list. 

“But are you taking care of yourself—really?” is used as an accusation as much as a question, a way of suggesting that any exhaustion you feel is probably your fault because you’re not taking care of yourself in the way you should.

Self-care becomes your responsibility, something you have to do for the people you care about, to demonstrate that you are a woman who takes care of herself.

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So too, self-care supports the idea that, as we are, we’re inherently lacking, missing something external that we need to be well.

If we could find the right guru, body scrub, empowerment song, or stretch session, we’d be okay, replenished, and well.

The underlying message is that our well-being and wholeness rely on something and someone else, which then strengthens the disconnection and dissatisfaction we feel with ourselves; it keeps us turning away from the real relationship that needs rebuilding: the relationship with ourselves.  

Simultaneously, our self-care market keeps us happily preoccupied and distracted from the deeper questions: what we’re really longing for and really need, underneath the hemp seed scrubs and gold-flecked powders.

The seduction of pleasure and pampering kidnaps our attention as we seek more feel-good experiences and more endorphin highs. Enjoyable though these experiences may be, they divert us from investigating our real longings that the massages can’t provide.  

Furthermore, self-care strengthens the exhausting and exhaustion-perpetuating belief that we women fundamentally need fixing.

In truth, when we talk about self-care, what we’re really talking about is self-improvement. We should participate in all this self-care, not just because it makes us feel good, but because it will make us a better version of ourselves.

Self-care products and services are marketed as gifts to ourselves, but underneath that marketing is a perpetual reminder that we can never rest, never get comfortable in our own skin, and never step off the self-improvement hamster wheel.

There’s always more work to be done on the ultimate project: ourselves.

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The real problem with our self-care system, however, is the basic premise upon which it’s built, namely, that self-care is something we buy or do — as opposed to something we are — as in self-caring.

Our culture focuses us on what we can give ourselves in the way of gifts, but not on how we relate and listen to ourselves internally—the attitude we bring to our own feelings, wants, and needs.

We treat self-care as if it were an outside-in event when in fact it is an inside-out practice, a way of being on our own side, aligned with our wants and needs, and curious about our truth. The core problem in our approach to self-care is that we think it’s reasonable to need a post-it note on our computer screen to remind us to pay attention to and take care of ourselves. Do we need that for anyone else we love?

Self-care products and services feel good, but they’re not the answer to what truly ails us as women.

They won’t nourish the fundamental depletion that results from our having learned to abandon ourselves, to be pleasing and likable at all costs, so as to keep ourselves emotionally safe.

And worse, if we’re not aware of the subtle messaging, they can reinforce the core belief that if we tried hard enough and sought long enough, we would find the answer to what’s broken in us, an answer that undoubtedly lies somewhere outside ourselves.  

The key is to enjoy the delights of the self-care market, get the massages, and take the bubble baths, but not let them lull us into a pampered sleep or distract us from the real work of learning to pay attention to our real wants and needs, our authentic self.

Self-care is not something we buy or do that exists outside of us, but rather a way of being in a relationship with ourselves, on our own side — standing in our own truth.

Ultimately, self-care is a path back home to value ourselves, and practice—a way of being in the world such that we longer need a post-it note to remind us that we matter.

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Nancy Colier is a longtime student of Eastern spirituality, a psychotherapist, an interfaith minister, and the author of The Emotionally Exhausted Woman: Why You’re Feeling Depleted and How to Get What You Need.

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