• Isabella Rigg

Unpacking the complicated world of 'self-care'

Where does the term 'self-care' come from? And how does it differ from self-soothing? Isabella Rigg takes a deep dive into this billion dollar industry.

A shiver ran down my spine as a friend casually declared that her laser appointment was an act of ‘self-care’. Partly thanks to her graphic recount of the lasers targeting her anus, but largely the feeling of shame... if that’s self-care, have I been doing it wrong?

Self-care has hit the mainstream and hit it hard, with politicians and Instagrammers alike calling for more moments of calm. But with laser hair removal squeezing its way onto the list, it seems like the term has become little more than something you can share with an accompanying hashtag and before you can move on with your life.

Before it became synonymous with bubble baths and sheet masks, self-care was prescribed by medical professionals in the early 1900s to help patients to create their own healthy habits.

These were often elderly or less-abled patients who, due to their physical conditions, had little autonomy in their own lives. Self-care allowed them to complete simple, daily tasks and held them accountable for their own wellbeing.

With the arrival of the 60’s came free love and free speech, and self-care became an important counterbalance to the civil rights movement in the US. Activist groups like the Black Panthers used self-care as a radical response to the oppressive politics of the time. These methods were community-based initiatives (many of which still exist) that brought the marginalised together to offer health and support.

Images: @thepouf.

Looking back on their triumphs, this serves as a powerful reminder that to be effective in anything, you’ve got to look after number one.

Eventually, physicians started taking their own advice and the treatment was introduced to help people in high pressure, care-based professions (ER nurses, trauma therapists, social workers…), providing them with the tools to rest and recoup. Aligning with the adage “you can’t pour from an empty cup”, the practice of self-care encouraged these exhausted workers to take focus on setting boundaries in the workplace by taking regular lunch breaks, getting away from the desk and going for a walk or reading for pleasure... brief reprieves from the pressures of a busy day.

These solitary pursuits aren’t particularly earth-shattering or revolutionary, which might be why they’re so easy to avoid today. In our click-bait culture, the pursuit of wellness and mindfulness is as eagerly lapped up as any corporate hustle. There seems to be a constant push to present a public, quantifiable image of self-care to anyone who’s watching, validated socially with a quick double-tap.

In Australia, the search term ‘self-care’ continues to reach new heights. We can buy our way to the perfect feeling of calm ($170 candles?) or get tips on wellness from the well-oiled, well-lit self-care selfies (self-caries… self-care-elfies?) of models in white robes.

Never mind their hectic schedules, or being paid to look a certain way, these montages give a pretty clear checklist for those in search of the elusive pinnacle of self-care:

  1. Long limbs

  2. White robes

  3. Room service

And if that seems out of reach, take solace in the words of Man Repeller’s featured therapist, Annie, who says self-care is “...not an aesthetic. It’s hard work”.

Deanna Zandt’s illustrations perfectly sum up the tug-of-war between self-care and the eat-a-whole-pizza-in-bed method of self-soothing:


Peach-hued, flat lay version of relaxation. Temporary solutions, bubble baths, stiff drinks, Netflix binges – whatever takes your mind off the situation at hand.


Action-based and results focussed. Going to therapy, saying NO when you need to, sorting out your finances. Anything that will make your life run more smoothly in the long run.

This isn’t to say the two are mutually exclusive, it’s all about finding the balance and committing to works best for you.

When I think about what I really need to do to take care of myself, the list is short, uninspiring and not worth sharing – so here it is:

  1. No coffees after 3pm.

  2. No Instagram in bed.

  3. Remembering vegetables are important and salads can be meals.

  4. Checking my calendar before saying ‘yes’.

When I adhere to these things, I feel less troubled, less frantic and less overwrought – which is always a good thing.

When it comes to self-care, indulgence isn’t the devil, avoidance is. So find the task that’s been on every to-do list for the past month and tick it off. Don’t worry about how it looks or whether it’s worth shouting from the rooftops, get it done so you can self-soothe the whole first season of Kath & Kim without the guilt.

And as a rule, the next time you find yourself online at 2am watching a video that starts with “a lot of you have been asking about my skincare regime” remind yourself that self-care is a personal pursuit and shut your damn laptop.

Isabella is a twenty-something Sydney sider passionate about pasta, high kicks and superlatives.

Lead image: TOPHEE MARQUEZ via Pexels.

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