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People attend a Goop League event on Oct. 12, 2019 in Austin, Texas.RICK KERN/Getty Images

At a bookstore recently, I happened upon a selection of goods curated for the “wellness minded,” a group the shop’s signage described as those who treat self-care as a way of life. There were jigsaw puzzles and hardcover journals alongside kits for knitting and reflexology.

With roots in the medical world, self-care is a term used to describe activities and behaviours that promote well-being. The practice of setting aside time to develop a better awareness of how you’re feeling can be a powerful tool that has the potential to affect our mental health. But the store display is just one small example of how the self-care concept has also become a mass marketing ploy. As a result, we run the risk of corrupting its meaning and devaluing its effectiveness.

Today’s self-care phenomenon took off in 2016 as people unhappy with the results of the U.S. presidential election looked for ways to cope with their distress. Layer on growing concerns around career burnout and social media-sparked anxiety, especially among young adults, and it’s easy to see how it became such a buzzy concept. The 2016 National College Health Assessment, a report from the American College Health Association that surveyed students at 41 Canadian institutions, found that 65 per cent of Canadian higher-education students experienced overwhelming anxiety, up from 57 per cent in 2013.

What’s emerged under the guise of helping them is a massive self-care marketplace, products and services that make up part of what the Global Wellness Institute says is a US$4.5-trillion worldwide wellness economy. Companies have been quick to come up with ways to get us to open our wallets in the name of feeling more centred. Lululemon named its new line of beauty products Selfcare. At online retailer the Lake, bathrobes and mindfulness puzzles are offered up to boost your intimate self-care routine. The New York Times’ website even has a section devoted to self-care that covers topics such as the usefulness of various nutritional supplements.

Celebrities and influencers are lending the movement their own aspirational cachet. On Vogue magazine’s YouTube channel, you can watch videos of various stars demonstrating their self-care routines. “I’m going to walk you through how I’m learning to figure out how to take care of myself, mostly by learning about and choosing brands that care about our health and well-being and also our beauty,” says actor Laura Dern before applying a probiotic face mask. Queer Eye grooming expert Jonathan Van Ness has made self-care a core part of his personal brand. And on Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop website, ground zero for self-care content, a search for the term returns more than 700 results.

People participate in a yoga class at Times Square event in New York on June 21, 2019.SHANNON STAPLETON/Reuters

It’s not surprising that the popular hype is that self-care is all millennial pink bubble baths and snail slime face masks, and that this idea is already experiencing a backlash. Critics have pointed out its narrow focus on leisure time and the affluence required to afford a self care-filled life as exclusionary. But it’s shopping in the name of self-care that seems the most counterintuitive considering the growing awareness about overconsumption.

“I guess that’s part of the issue that I sometimes have with brands that sell products meant for your self-care – the commodification and overcomplication of wellness,” says Mia David, a 27-year-old Torontonian who works in public relations. Scroll through enough Instagram photos of beautiful people on far-flung yoga retreats, doing handstands while they sip adaptogen tea and you’re likely to feel as though you should be doing the same. “It’s not enough to just check in with yourself and allow yourself the mental space you need. It needs to be accompanied by an often-aspirational product in order to enhance or legitimize the experience,” David says.

It turns out, when it comes to nurturing your own self-care routine, thinking about what you can buy to feel better is best ignored in favour of looking inward. “It’s really about checking in on yourself and planning what’s important for you,” psychologist Dr. Khush Amaria says. The clinical director of MindBeacon Group, which offers customized digital therapy, Amaria helps her patients establish self-care practices to manage mental-health conditions including anxiety, depression and trauma. She explains that adopting a self-care practice limited to prescriptive activities such as beach holidays or spa treatments has the potential to leave you feeling even worse off. “When I’m working with somebody to help them build skills in that area, by no means am I dictating what they would do,” she explains.

According to Amaria, it’s important to recognize that what one person considers to be a rewarding self-care pursuit may be a chore to another. She recommends considering activities that include either pleasure, mastery or a combination of both. “Common activities that might bring pleasure are listening to music, playing with your dog, dancing around the house,” she says. Mastery activities are those which give a sense of achievement, such as organizing your closet or getting a handle on your personal finances.

David makes a point of waking up early to have some quiet time over coffee before walking to work. “Rather than having a time of day where I just decompress and relax, my more normal version of self-care is actively making feel-good choices that will serve me better in the long run,” she says. And they usually don’t cost a penny.

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