Improving One’s Life Has Become Much Kinder

When Did Self-Help Become Self-Care?

What began as a method of improving one’s life has become something much kinder — and stranger.

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ImageBefore she was running for president, Marianne Williamson was an author.
CreditLucas Jackson/Reuters

Wellness” is a word that has come to encompass our latest dominant sociocultural obsession — how to take care of ourselves in the world. It may, at one point, have been popularly understood as an extension of self-help, a category of literature and speaker circuits that is devoted to personal optimization (and often, productivity). But more recently, under the potent influence of millennial values, wellness has been positioned and marketed as self-care. This wellness is softer, gentler, more forgiving than its self-flagellating forebear. Definitely more fun.

Maybe the new wellness is — to borrow from the Democratic primary candidate and self-help author Marianne Williamson — a return to “love,” instead of fear?

Self-care is often critically characterized as a market for purchasable experiences like massages, manicures and “me time.” But its origins are in a series of loose, secular rituals meant to calm the nervous system, and are informed in part by the work of feminist writers of color, including Audre Lorde and bell hooks, both of whom wrote about caring for one’s self in oppressive conditions. In “A Burst of Light,” Lorde writes, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

Of course, the concept has been simplified, and broadened to mean any number of things.

On Instagram, the axis of millennial life, there are about two million posts tagged #selfhelp, while there are around 18 million for #selfcare. Those form a soft-focus sea of cups of tea, journals, hand-drawn quotations, bed-nests of blankets, books, cats and snacks — basically, anything that might make someone feel good. It’s far removed from the self-help-style wellness that emphasizes labor and self-denial: punishing exercise classes, cleanses, detoxes and restrictive diets. That all might feel increasingly irrelevant in the context of the low-wage, ultra-precarious and generally diminished economic circumstances that millennials have found themselves in, and in the context of the anxieties of this era. The self of established, self-improving, self-help seeks to conquer. The self of the newer, kinder, weirder self-care seeks nourishment instead.

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