white text saying redefining self care under coronavirus orange bubblebath background, a white mock iphone is next to it with an instagram grid of beauty products

What Is Self Care In The Time Of Coronavirus?

Something is happening on Instagram. Face mask selfies are still in abundance, albeit hasty pre-online lecture ones, and there’s still a thousand different brands pushing into the feed with at-home spa routines you can create with their products (carefully hash-tagged self care, ofc).

But there’s also something else. 

Online meditations, free for anyone with WiFi. Lifestyle influencers swapping PR hauls for encouragements to consume less, and to leave enough for others. A lot of baking, cooking, reading, yoga, cleaning, dancing, stretching and… doing nothing at all. Suddenly, almost overnight, self care is getting demonetised.

Almost too much digital ink has been spilled about the co-option of the phrase “self care,” and what actually constitutes it. For the quickest refresher course, self care used to be defined via the world of health care as the necessary functions that are controlled and deliberately enacted by an individual. Taking a medication before bed? You’re literally caring for yourself, not a bath bomb in sight. 

As early as 2015, a piece in The Atlantic chartered the sly co-option of self care as a fevered, consumerist edict: you might be working yourself into depression, but it’s your duty to try to stave it off with a “series of indulgent yet somehow necessary purchases of cosmetics, electronics, and fast food.” You know the phrase: treat yo’ self. In this version of self care, using stuff, and the right stuff is imperative. The skincare industry in particular has pulled off the feat of turning itself from a cosmetic category that’s really, mostly optional (with the exception of sunscreen and a cleanser to take it off) into a necessary and essential self care tool.

On an individual level, definitions of self care vary greatly―and are probably in constant negotiation with the pulls of consumerist (or minimalist) marketing machines. It also makes sense, given the fact that the selves we’re caring for when we’re practising self care are very different. One person’s careful layering of body oils might be a way of honouring the melanin in their skin, or a practise in accepting hyperpigmentation. For another, that’s just moisturising. 

Speaking with some of our long-time favourite beauty journalists and a social media expert painted the complex face of self care today, especially as it exists under social distancing and self isolation during coronavirus.

“It’s hard to find any positives in the current coronavirus pandemic, but if there is one, it’s this: it’s going to change everything,” Jessica DeFino (@jessicadefino_) told Syrup. “Social distancing is going to force us to confront how we define self-care, what feeds our sense of self-worth, and what deeper needs we’ve been ignoring by focusing exclusively on output and productivity.” DeFino is a beauty journalist known for her in-depth, thoughtful critiques of the beauty industry, and she too has observed, “people turning inwards a bit―choosing meditation over a face mask, or taking a walk in nature instead of watching TV.”

When speaking about the beauty space specifically though, she believes “people are still in panic mode and falling back on this very superficial idea of what “self-care” means. I see so many articles about how to give yourself the best at-home facial, or at-home mani, or at-home bang trim.” She’s absolutely right, especially about beauty in the digital media landscape: “There is an overwhelming amount of content about soaking off your gel polish at home, or FaceTiming your hair colorist to keep your roots touched-up in between appointments, or continuing to put on makeup every morning in order to feel “professional” and “productive.”” 

“It’s as if we’re so attached to these beauty ideals that we cannot bear to give them up, even when we’re at home alone,” she says. It speaks to the nature of the 24/7 social media panopticon, even when we’re alone there’s a whole world in our phones that, if we wanted to, we could show off that we’re living our best and brightest self-caring life. Part of me does wonder if the content is truly reflective of what people want (or need) right now, or whether the perpetual motion machine of digital media is simply hastily trying to adapt in a world where the need to “keep up appearances” has been replaced with keeping indoors alone.

Still, to DeFino’s points, no man is an island and overcoming the conditioned urge to online window-shop for a soothing dopamine hit is a difficult thing. I’ve been wearing nearly exclusive yoga pants for a fortnight, I’m not going anywhere anytime soon, but I still scroll through Depop every few days. Even if it is because I’m dreaming of a return to normalcy where I feel motivated to dress (somewhat) up, why is it expressed through aspirational scroll-shopping?

We also spoke with Sable Yong (@sabletoothtigre), the chunky-highlit beauty journalist of xoVain (RIP) and Allure (she was their digital beauty editor). For her, consumption that’s still happening in the era of coronavirus lockdowns is about self-soothing indulgence. While she states she doesn’t know if people are or aren’t buying more beauty products, she does think “some people are indulging in buying things to cheer themselves up (and because they figure they’re not going to be spending money on restaurants and entertainment for a while).” 

Yong has also observed “a lot of folks are saving their money now because everyone’s a bit uncertain if they’ll still have their jobs soon, if they haven’t already been laid off temporarily or permanently from the economic effects of Covid-19.” She added, “I have noticed more people cooking elaborate dishes and sharing home workout tips, which is nice and helpful for everyone!”

“I’ve also been seeing more content of people taking time to do full-on skincare routines and face masks on social media, as well as doing really creative and fun makeup looks for the hell of it,” says Yong, “because we’re all bored at home and what better to do during that time than preen?”

Maybe there’s also a distinction between the fevered urge to keep performing things I’d put more in a ~societal pressure dictated~ self maintenance category (like shaving/waxing or touching up your roots as mentioned by DeFino) versus the kind of meditative play-time makeup can be for some people?

“I think preening has a self-soothing effect. I’m not a doctor, so I can’t speak to any psychological validity of that, but I always feel soothed when taking care of and adorning my body, and I really do think others do as well,” explains Yong. “If nothing else, keeping your hands and your mind busy does actually help with anxiety. Makeup is very good for this. I imagine we will all eventually emerge from our quarantine cocoons with blindingly radiant skin and the sharpest winged liner skills ever.”

And so we circle back to: self care really be hittin different for everyone. Untangling why the things that soothe us are soothing is complicated. Whether a cosmetics-oriented self care routine is maintained because it reminds us of the security and beauty of our mother’s one, keeps a transgender person’s body dysmorphia at bay, or is a deeply ingrained consumptive reflex is really only knowable by the individual performing it. 

While coronavirus has sent us to our rooms to think about what we’ve done, it’s an opportunity for taking “isolation self care” however you want to, if under terrible circumstances. Emily Ryu (@emryu), a PR and social media expert who created RyuCreative and runs the wellness Instagram account @ryupure, reflected on the perspective the coronavirus crisis has given (or forced) on us. “Our days are so filled with people and projects, works and to do lists, homes and holidays, that we can struggle to distinguish the important. We lose ourselves in the midst of our lives,” she says.

“Perhaps this crisis is showing us what to concern our lives with,” Ryu posits, “Perhaps it’s teaching us what’s really important in our lives and what is vanity. Perhaps it’s helping us to distinguish between what’s meaningful and meaningless. Perhaps the coronavirus is teaching us what really matters.” Over the last week I’ve watched an outpouring of people recreating Ryu’s nourishing baked goods and everyday salads, sharing them with their families and housemates. While a lot of people probably just do have a lot more (locked) downtime for baking projects, it’s certainly a testament to her theory that when we’re threatened and scared, quality family time and nourishing our bodies is going to be more effective self care than a bubble bath.

DeFino offers this: “If you’re lucky enough to have your health, I think it’s a perfect time to go deeper and ask yourself if you’re actually practicing self-care.” Sheet-masks are nice, “but they’re only self-care if your “self” stops at the surface. Which it doesn’t.” 

“The self is deeper and messier and more complicated than that—and that deep, messy, complicated self is the one that truly needs to be cared for right now,” she says, and we agree wholeheartedly.

Whether you are putting on your most over-the-top bio-glitter eye makeup for you and you alone, or unpacking where your commitment to beauty-oriented self care comes from and finding an alternative self care that serves you better, we hope that it begins to come from an authentic place of self compassion and self understanding.

screenshot of we're not really strangers tweet about self care
Via @werenotreallystrangers.

Monisha Rudhran (@monishamay) is a writer and chronic Pisces. Formerly at Syrup, she's now a Digital Content Producer at ELLE and marie claire Australia. She’s into trying to be a better person and sparkling water.

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