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 its 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 2023, it seems those factors shift every day (fresh air is good for you…oh wait, it’s bad for you!) and we are constantly adapting to our environments, which means we must continuously learn to care for ourselves in new ways.
From Aristotle to Gwyneth Paltrow: Exploring the Past, Present & Future of Self-Care
A Quick History of Self-Care
The evolution of self-care really begins with Aristotle. Yeah, bet you didn’t think Aristotle 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).
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 something of a caricature, a reduction of 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. In his 2005 book, Sham: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless, writer Steve Salerno (Harper’s, The New York Times) examined how damaging advice from thinly credentialed “experts” in the self-help world (Dr. Phil, Tony Robbins, etc.) was on Americans—not to mention how financially draining.
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 activity (think: leotards, Richard Simmons and jazzercise). But post-9/1,1 we saw the movement cycle back again as a widely accepted way to soothe the soul and deal with post-traumatic stress.
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 particular self-care phase, it was treated 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 Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop and Amanda Chantal Bacon’s Moon Juice, the words “self-care” somehow became synonymous with face masks and athleisure. It began to equate with beauty (usually white beauty), physical fitness and the affluence to afford both.
So Where Is Self-Care Today (& What's Next)?
Among all the other things it made unrecognizable, the pandemic greatly impacted our definition of self-care, and over the past few years, the movement has seemingly started to bend back towards mindfulness and indulging in downtime—no matter what that looks like for you or your wallet. Self-care in 2023 calls for doing what you need to do for your unique situation to feel mentally, emotionally and physically healthy.
The pandemic, and the concurrent ascent of the Black Lives Matter movement, also illuminated how one-dimensional pre-Covid self-care was. Present-day self-care looks beyond the thin, white ideal of yore. For example, there are more dedicated mental health resources for BIPOC individuals than ever. (Though the industry, like so many others, has a ways to go until it reaches true equality.)
Additionally, paralleling the shift from body positivity to body neutrality, the definition of self-care is also more fluid and less focused on perfection than ever. Self-care can look however you want in to look. Let’s say you’ve read that meditation is the key to a sound body and mind. You’re a classic Type A, so you give it a try. But, being a perfectionist, what was supposed to be a calming tool for betterment quickly turns into an all-consuming chore. Self-care, in the traditional sense, begins to feel like a second job, so you quit (gasp!). Quitting or rejecting self-care is now a form of self-care in and of itself.
That’s not to say self-care is losing any steam as an industry. In 2023, the global wellness market is valued at over $5.3 trillion, and the health and wellness industry growth rate is expected to continue growing 10 percent yearly until 2025. Like so many other industries, the future of self-care is largely tech-driven. Per McKinsey’s ‘Wellness in 2030’ report, expect to see “the concept of devices moving from the doctor’s office into the home,” or even more advanced sleep tech: “Imagine if your sleep data was connected to your exercise service or your exercise bike so that when you hop on your bike, you’d be getting a class designed for someone who’s had a poor night’s sleep.”
So yes, self-care is still relevant, it’s just more amorphous than ever—and that’s a good thing. In Harvard Business Review, writer and life coach Charlotte Lieberman expands on anti-self-care as self-care: “ What about cutting ourselves some slack on the days we don’t get as much done as we had planned? Or reminding ourselves that laughter is healing? We may idealize the actions we are able to document and share, or the data we can collect and track, but there are plenty of times when what we need to do to feel better—and actually get better—is less. For better or for worse, there is no app or amount of money that can help with that.”