Self-Care Was Never Meant To Be Glamorous, And That’s Actually A Good Thing

How I learnt to stop worrying and love (real) self-care.

Editor’s note: This is a sponsored article produced in collaboration with Kids Helpline Australia.

I’ll admit that before I properly understood what it was, the phrase ‘self-care’ made me flinch. Not because I’m against people looking after themselves, of course, but in 2021, it’s a phrase that evokes very specific connotations. Gwyneth Paltrow imbibing dumb herbal cocktails; the jade face rollers weirdly endorsed by almost every celebrity; whatever the godforsaken practice of eyebrow lamination is. It all just sounds so time-consuming; overly geared towards spending money and honestly kind of boring.

For a few years now, self-care has been having a ‘moment’. It was even the App Trend Of the Year in 2018, given a surge in the use of ‘wellness’ apps like Fabulous and Headspace. And to be fair, I have used both of these apps. I particularly remember trialling Fabulous at a particularly desperate time in 2018 when I was unemployed, living in my father’s divorced-man-flat and too depressed to do literally anything. ‘Start by setting one small goal’, it told me, which sounded good. But it only regaled me with its services for a few days before requesting I commit to a hefty subscription cost of $80 a month.

All of this can make the whole self-care project feel – as The Atlantic puts it – less like a commitment to your well-being than a “capitalist command”.

So What Actually Is Self-Care?

I talked to Annabelle Mcpherson, Counselling Centre Supervisor at Kids Helpline, to get the lowdown on what the term self-care really means. “While something like having a bubble bath or relaxing with a movie are things that can be enjoyable, but they don’t necessarily add up to self-care.”

“At its core, self-care is really about taking care of those basic needs that make you feel physically and mentally healthy. For example, sleep, our movement, nutrition. All of that impacts our overall well-being.” 

Of all things, Canadian author Jonny Sun’s Twitter bot, @tinycarebot (known for tweeting small, self-care reminders during the day) is also a good place to check out for those keen to get an understanding of proper self-care.

Yup, as it turns out, self-care was never meant to be about forking out $190 on an LED face mask, but tuning into your basic needs. “I think it’s really important to bring self-care back to the basics,” Annabelle says. “A self-care routine doesn't have to be something that’s elaborate or expensive to be effective. It should be tailored to you and what your body and mind is needing at a particular time.”

The Radical Origins Of Self-Care

As explained by Aisha Harris in Slate, self-care comes steeped in a fascinating history. Coined in the ’50s, it was used by physicians to refer to activities that allowed patients with otherwise limited autonomy (like the elderly and severely mentally ill) to cultivate a sense of independence and self-worth by doing activities like exercise and personal grooming. It was just after this that the term was picked up in academic circles and used to better understand the plight of health workers dealing with PTSD.

And in the ’70s, self-care became imbued with political significance, as women and people of colour started to view it as a form of resistance; a way of attending to their health in a world where their needs were habitually ignored. As Harris explains: “activists saw that poverty was correlated with poor health, and they argued that in order to dismantle hierarchies based upon race, gender, class, and sexual orientation, those groups must be able to live healthy lives”. In its political sense, then, self-care became about looking after your health in a world that didn’t necessarily look after you.

Who Benefits From Self-Care?

While self-care includes a history of being used by people with marginalised identities, Annabelle stresses that anyone can benefit from self-care. This is perhaps particularly true at the moment when we’re all managing a lot of different things in our lives like studying, work, family and relationships (alongside the continuing threat of a global pandemic).

“It can be easy to forget about those little ways in which we care about ourselves,” she says.

What Types Of Self-Care Can Young People Do?

Everyone’s needs are so unique, Annabelle stresses that self-care tends to look different to different people. “It’s ok to have a bit of trial and error to work out what might work best for you as an individual,” she says. But she reckons the key areas of nutrition, health and exercise are excellent ones to keep in mind.

Sleep is a big one, and an excellent place to start. Annabelle says that setting yourself a consistent bedtime and getting enough sleep can do wonders. And hey, why not go full toddler and add a grown-up bedtime story to your routine? (Maybe this is why my nieces and nephew are always so goddamn peppy.) 

Exercise is also helpful for upping energy stores and managing stress. (Annoying, but thankfully this doesn’t have to involve wearing activewear.) “[Exercise] doesn't have to be a big chore or anything really elaborate,” Annabelle explains. “It can be as simple as taking your dog for a walk or playing your favourite sport.”

How can you get help?

If you need support around self-care – and I’ll happily admit I do – it’s really helpful to reach out to family, friends, or even a counsellor or psychologist. There’s something about ‘self-care’ that can seem like it should be done in isolation of others, but connecting with people is some of the best self-care you can do. “People are definitely not alone in trying to find ways to improve their self-care and figure out what they need”.

So, what have I learned on my self-care journey?

My chat with Annabelle made me realise that self-care didn’t have to be a superficial, expensive endeavour – and that if it is, you’re probably doing it wrong. Instead, you’re better off leaning into the basics: getting enough sleep, moving your body and eating nutritious food. It’s not glamorous, but that’s probably a good thing.

I know I won’t be able to implement all of these changes right away (sleep is especially tough for me at the moment), but the plan is to make small adjustments to my day-by-day routine and work my way up, while trying not to be too hard on myself in the process. (After all, beating myself up for not taking care of myself doesn’t make much sense.)

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to treat myself to some pure, unadulterated self-care and go to bed.

This article is sponsored by Kids Helpline, Australia’s only free, confidential, 24/7 online and phone counselling service for young people aged 5-25. It was written by MTV contributor, Reena Gupta.

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