Since self-care became a trendy Instagram tag, brands, Etsy-ers, and everyone doing sponsored posts on social media has jumped on it as a way to sell sh*t.

Buy a fancy blanket, says the marketing email titled ‘Self-care Sunday’.

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This candle is essential, says the article listing off ways to ‘indulge in self-care’ after a stressful week.

Make a $90 mud honey face mask part of your self-care ritual, says Goop, ever the voice of reason and wellbeing.

To be fair, self-care is a pretty clever way to sell stuff.

It sets up luxury products as a way to treat yourself, to look after your wellbeing, to make a smart choice, like an adult who makes themselves dinner instead of buying McDonald’s.

It’s smart, because it sets up spending money as a way you’re looking after yourself. You shouldn’t feel guilty about spending absurd amounts of money on a new teapot, says the sell-care trend, you’re buying it as an act of self-care.

metro illustrations
(Picture: Ella Byworth for Metro.co.uk)

But here’s the thing.

While self-care absolutely can be candles, blankets, and an overpriced face mask, that’s not all it is.

Self-care, as the name suggests, is the act of looking after yourself mentally and physically.

It’s being kind to yourself. It’s treating your mind and body with respect and care. It’s identifying what you need and making it happen.

Self-care is especially important for anyone with mental health issues (such as me. Oh, hey, mentally ill people), as regulating moods and ensuring balance becomes crucial when you’re working on getting better.

But it’s also essential for everyone. We should all be engaging in self-care, because we each matter, our needs are important, and there’s no way we can run around taking care of everyone and everything else if we feel like sh*t.

Self-care can be lovely.

Self-care is not a way to make me buy stuff
(Picture: Ella Byworth for Metro.co.uk)

It can be as simple as taking a few hours to yourself, having a bath, doing a face mask, watching Love Island.

It can be making yourself a proper meal, going for a run, giving up drinking.

It can look like the Instagram version of self-care, the wool socks on a duvet, the hands curled around a mug, the avocado rose, the candles.

But it can also be a little less picture perfect.

Self-care doesn’t always feel amazing. It’s not always super relaxing, and when you’re struggling with mental illness, it’s sometimes not something you want to shove on Instagram.

metro illustrations
(Picture: Ella Byworth for Metro.co.uk)

Self-care can be forcing yourself out of bed and taking a walk outside, every step feeling like it’s the most exhausting, impossible thing ever.

It can be tidying your room after days of letting the mess pile up.

It can be booking an appointment with your doctor to top up your meds.

Spinning self-care as a way to sell posh stuff isn’t just reductive, it’s also bloody irritating.

Because self-care is not something to ‘indulge’ in, it’s essential.

We need to be careful about the way we talk about self-care, because when we use words like ‘indulge’ and ‘treat’, it makes us feel like looking after ourselves is, well, an indulgent treat – which it isn’t.

When we use self-care as a way to sell stuff, we hold up products as the magical keys to make us all feel better. And when you’re in the pit of depression, anxiety, or any other mental illness that makes you feel rubbish, this can be dangerous.

Girl looking in mirror
(Picture: Ella Byworth for Metro.co.uk)

When you’re struggling mentally, the last thing you need is for a brand to pop up on your screen and tell you that the way to feel better is handing over cash for a nice tea or a herbal remedy.

You’ll end up buying it, because you’ll try pretty much anything to feel better – especially if it’s as easy and socially acceptable as just getting a nice candle.*

*Doesn’t ‘I took a bath’ sound more palatable than ‘I’m looking after myself by taking medication’?

So you’ll buy it. You’ll get hold of it. It might make you feel a little better.

But then you’re back to your version of ‘normal’, with added feelings of failure (why can’t I be happy like the blogger sipping detox tea on Instagram?) and monetary stress. Great.

Self-care is not a way to make me buy stuff
(Picture: Ella Byworth/Getty/Mylo)

I understand that we’re talking about brands and business and commercialism here, so it’d be unrealistic to ask that everyone was honest about the limitations of fixing your feelings by buying things.

Of course a brand selling candles is going to say they’ll make you feel better. Why else would you buy them?

But, respectfully, I would ask that big brands keep the language of mental health out of their marketing for products.

Self-care is not a way to sell sh*t, and using it so freely undermines the very real struggles of looking after yourself when you’re struggling mentally.

By pinning ‘self-care’ on everything from perfume to apps, you’re taking advantage of people’s desperate need to feel like they’re working on themselves, to feel like they’re taking steps to feel better.

metro illustrations
(Picture: Ella Byworth for Metro.co.uk)

Of course we’re going to buy stuff that markets itself as a form of self-care: it’s loads easier to spend money than it is to do the stuff that feels impossible – talking about what we’re dealing with, changing medication, meeting up with friends when all you want to do is cancel, washing your hair.

Using that against us is pretty rubbish.

If you’re going to jump on the self-care train, throw in some tips that are free and not-for-profit, just to make your advert for silk pillowcases feel a little more authentic. At least pretend you’re actually bothered about our mental wellbeing.

Or stay out of it, market luxury products as luxury products, and allow self-care to remain the safe, pressure-free space it’s intended to be: a place where you don’t feel guilted into buying stuff, let down by false promises, and where your self-care needs to be Pinterest-worthy.

Self-care is about taking care of yourself, and doing whatever you need to feel your best. You don’t need to spend money to do that.*

*But obviously, if you fancy buying yourself a nice candle, you go right ahead. Just remember to do the other self-care stuff, too.

This article is part of Getting Better, a weekly series about my journey through getting help with my mental health. You can read all previous Getting Better posts here, and check back next Monday for an update on how everything’s going. 

Chat with me on Facebook about all things mental health if you fancy, but, obviously, I am not a therapist or expert of any sort – just someone going through not-so-great stuff, mentally. Let’s get better together. 

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