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The Evolution of Self-Care: What’s Next for 2020?

Self-care is not a new concept. The practice of actively improving one’s own well-being has been around for millennia. But, what self-care looks like today has changed since it’s humble beginnings in 350 BC (yes, that long ago). Similar to art and fashion, self-care reflects a society’s political movements, scientific discoveries, economic health and more. In 2020, it seems those factors shift every day and we are constantly adapting to our environments, which means we must continuously learn to care for ourselves in new ways. This year has been a doozy—it’s time to treat yourself right with the latest self-care treatments, activities and mindsets. Here’s how, starting with how this movement started in the first place.

A Quick History in 300 Words

The evolution of self-care really begins with Aristotle. Yeah, bet you didn’t think Aristole and your 12-step skincare routine had anything in common, did you? Well, according to Edith Hall, author of Aristotle’s Way and a classics professor at King’s College London, Aristotle encouraged people to practice happiness, preaching that feeling joyful is something you do, not something you are. This includes allowing space for negative emotions, like anger and sadness, and indulging in vices sparingly (Aristotle was big on moderation). His version of self-care also required selfless actions. If the goal is to feel good about yourself, you have to vehemently do nice things for others without expecting anything in return. In other words, seeing other people happy makes you happy.

Next on the scene? Self-help. Self-care’s intense and impatient cousin began popping up in essays during the 1800s. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Compensation” discussed learning from one’s weaknesses to become a stronger person. The first book of its kind, Self-Help by Samuel Smiles, was published in 1859. It, too, was all about taking control of your own life. Smiles believed education and knowledge were the keys to upward mobility—and anyone could achieve it if they put their mind to it.

However, over time, the self-help movement received backlash for over-promising. In the mid-20th century, it became a caricature of itself. In fact, it was self-help’s “formulaic simplicity, its reduction of human beings to cartoonish types, its unrelenting optimism” that made the genre both super popular with readers and super unpopular with publishers, wrote Laura Miller in an article titled “The Last Word; The Golden Age of Self-Help” for the New York Times.

Kate Carraway, also of the New York Times, writes that where self-help is all about personal optimization and productivity, self-care is “softer, gentler, more forgiving.” Carraway says that in response to the American Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s and the women’s liberation movement in the 1970s, authors like Audre Lorde and bell hooks wrote about the importance of caring for the self in the face of injustice. These writers were feminists, women of color and proponents of dismantling a system designed to overlook their health and well-being. Self-care as a direct response to an oppressive political climate dissipated in the 1980s and 1990s as fitness turned into a mainstream lifestyle (think: leotards, Richard Simmons and jazzercise), but post-9/11 we saw the movement cycle back as a widely accepted way to soothe the soul and deal with post-traumatic stress.

evolution of self care  3 European Wax Center/Digital Art by Sofia Kraushaar 

Wow, Fascinating. Where Is Self-Care Today?

We all remember the rise of the #selfcare hashtag (and subsequent wellness industry boom), right? It was 2017 and self-care was the phrase of the year, cropping up in every other Instagram post and article on the Internet. To be fair, the words “self” and “care” sound lovely together. And the idea of taking care of yourself seemed to need reinforcing in our increasingly busy lives.

At the start of this self-care phase, it was treated more as an honest-to-goodness wellness practice rooted in East Asian teachings and customs like meditation, mantras and matcha. Yet with the influence of businesses like Gwenyth Paltrow’s Goop and Amanda Chantal Bacon’s Moon Juice, over time, the words “self-care” somehow became synonymous with face masks and athleisure. It began to be equated to being beautiful, physically fit and rich enough to afford both.

Now, enter: COVID-19. The pandemic has greatly impacted the current definition of self-care, and as of late the movement is seemingly bending back towards mindfulness and indulging in downtime—no matter what that looks like for you or your wallet. Today’s movement calls for doing what you need to do for your unique situation to feel mentally, emotionally and physically healthy. In the greater sense of the term, in order to have a positive impact on your community, you’ve got to take care of yourself.

evolution of self care  1 European Wax Center/Digital Art by Sofia Kraushaar 

So, What’s Next?

These days, self-care covers a lot of ground. As it should! Actively improving your well-being means maintaining mental, emotional and physical health. Everything from diet to skincare, hobbies to vices can be found under the umbrella of self-care. But when it comes to looking toward the future, the focus is on being open to the notion that less is definitely more, and when in doubt, to rely on science and the experts to guide to back to center. Here are four trends that are worth latching onto, as well as one you should ditch.

1. Beauty: Confidence in the Experts
If quarantine has taught us anything about self-care, it’s the value of beauty technicians. Sure, some treatments translate very well to DIY (if you have a steady hand you can probably paint your own toenails, folks), but when it comes to services like maintaining stubborn grays or waxing your bikini line, we’ve never felt more ready to get back to someone who we trust. Companies like European Wax Center follow an ethos that believes confidence equals self-care. If you look good, you feel good, and that’s a strong wellness tool (believe it or not). And because proper care must be taken during waxing procedures, the licensed aestheticians at European Wax Center are a version of self-care in their own right—they provide confidence in their technique, as well as confidence due to your fresh, perfectly shaped brows. The company has recently taken even more safety measures to re-open a number of their locations, so you can finally book a reservation today (your first wax is free!). Just remember to thank those aestheticians...profusely.

2. Tech: Apps to Unplug
At a time when we have smartphones, tablets and computers sitting on our nightstands delivering news 24/7, starting our cars and building our grocery lists, it sounds ironic that many people feel inconvenienced. Yet the constant barrage of news, particularly negative stories, is exhausting—especially for Black Americans, people of color and women. In an article on the unique struggle Black journalists face today as they report the news, Dr. Monnica Williams, a clinical psychologist, recommends individuals actively make time for rest, develop a spiritual practice that works for them and limit their exposure to harmful stories or videos as much as possible. Apps like Offtime and Moment limit user’s time on social media apps, freeing them up to live their lives instead of ogling over others’.

3. Career: Prosperity While WFH
Many of us either wish our jobs were less stressful or hope to one day have the career we’ve always dreamed of. Reset is a space in New York dedicated to ambitious individuals set on moving their careers upward. Using meditation and executive coaching, founder Liz Tran says Reset helps professionals focus on the “formation of the integrated self.” Since many people were forced out of work or had to adjust to working at home in 2020, self-care in the future will definitely include career-focused regimens and resources for professionals to maintain healthier relationships with the office.

4. Lifestyle: Environmentally Conscious Products
Self-care in 2020 and beyond leans heavily toward reusable and sustainable beauty products. Plus, as #meatlessmonday trends on Twitter and more folks reduce the amount of animal products they consume, vegan skin care is gaining momentum. According to a report on skincare trends from Byrdie, plant-forward beauty products are trending big time. The same way eating less meat decreases an individual’s carbon footprint, vegan beauty is an environmentally conscious and animal-friendly way to adhere to a plant-based lifestyle.

5. Time to Ditch: Fast Fixes
Items that promise too much, too fast simply aren’t worth your time. Single-use products like facial wipes, Bioré strips and even—gasp!—sheet face masks are wasteful and can contain chemicals meant to increase shelf-life, which aren’t skin-friendly. Self-help books and metabolism teas that promise overnight change without any real work are not to be trusted. Fad diets fall into this category, too. Self-care is a marathon, not a sprint. Anyone who tells you differently doesn’t have your best interests at heart.

evolution of self care  2 Getty Images/Digital Art by Sofia Kraushaar 

What Should We Take Away From All This?

This month, the Harvard Business Review asked readers to rethink self-care. Rather than seeing self-care as a time-suck, we have to remember it is a life source. Neglecting self-care, in any or all of its forms, means ignoring our need to feel happy, be healthy and process the many stimuli coming at us from all directions, all the time. If we aren’t taking care of ourselves, we cannot take care of others or our communities. In the words of our man Aristotle, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”