Illustration by Anna Maria Camardo

Self-care is fundamentally about supplying our minds and bodies with food, water, sleep, connection and movement. Self-care is not what diet culture has turned it into.

For some of us self-care is waking up on a set schedule, for others it’s just getting out of bed. For some of us self-care is remembering to wash our hair this week, for others it’s spending a few hours snipping, braiding or combing it into a new style. For some of us self-care is an hour of therapy, a call with a friend, an hour in the sunshine.

This is not the vision of self-care that’s often modeled.

On the internet self-care is aestheticized, branded and commodified. It’s been boxed and sold as a new spin on the same old marketing scheme — you’re not good enough, but consumerism can fix that.

Through this process, self-care is debased by an underlying cultural obsession with how we appear, and more specifically, how we appear to others. 

The pressure to use our time for so-called “self betterment” — losing weight, pushing out of our comfort zones, learning something new instead of relying on known sources of pleasure, being active, working harder — is nothing new. It’s a repackaged version of an American ideology that glorifies suffering in the name of productivity. 

Wellness co-opted by capitalism reiterates a problematic assumption about meritocracy, that people who work hard are somehow more deserving of security, wealth, recognition and respect.

It’s about conformity and the aesthetics of class. It’s an obsession that plays into all the -isms associated with American capitalism, colonialism and other white supremacist bullshit.

The paradox of wellness-turned-lifestyle brand exemplifies the problematic tendency to moralize hard work over intuitive pleasure. The subtext is a version of masochistic self control reminiscent of myths about bootstraps, self-made billionaires and American economic mobility. This particular brand of repression is labeled as health and packaged as “clean eating,” home workout plans and smoothie bowl Instagram posts.

In a 2015 reflection on gut instincts, author and activist Virgie Tovar explored the role of suppression in the logic of western modernity. According to Tovar, the violent repression of instincts like hunger, love, desire and indulgence is reiterated through contemporary forms of sexism, classism and fatphobia — all of which converge in diet culture.

I notice the violent nature of diet culture when I feel inferior for not having a workout routine, embarrassed and disgusted by my own body. When I get targeted Instagram ads for flat tummy tea and lip fillers. When my mom shows me a viral video featuring two men with dramatically different waistlines dancing to the same song titled “Before and After Quarantine.” I see it when my cousin laments his step count, calling himself a “lazy slob” and when my neighbor mentions how guilty she feels for snacking.

We’re living through a global crisis and still we can’t abandon our body image anxieties. In fact, the very act of caring for our bodies by staying inside, limiting movement and resting is exacerbating this self-critical trend. Instead of relishing in down time, absorbing restfulness and cultivating stillness, we feel compelled to go into overdrive. 

Listening to our guts, Tovar wrote, might be a way to subvert these pressures.

“Following ‘my gut’ often leads to me doing things that are frowned upon by respectable society,” Tovar wrote. “In fact, it was my intuitive sense that diet culture is unjust and violent that led me to stop dieting. My gut also led me to postponing marriage, becoming a feminist, leaving Christianity and all kinds of other things that girls aren’t supposed to do.”

Rejecting diet culture requires a radical rethinking of how we narrate our own experiences. It means challenging our characterization of inactivity as lazy, unproductive or lacking. It means recognizing that eating when we feel like it has no underlying moral connotation and that sleeping more than we’re used to might actually be good for us.