Illustrator: Unknown

Let’s Talk Trick Mirror: 

Jia Tolentino asked herself, “how do I have a personal relationship with my face wash?,” so I asked myself the same question, and began thinking more critically about the commodification of “self-care.” 

In her book “Trick Mirror,” and more specifically, her essay “Always Be Optimizing,” Tolentino discusses the social construction of the “Ideal Woman,” and how She (Woman – capital W),  has evolved to fit cultural shifts over time. The standards have not disappeared, they just change. Beauty has become a “lifestyle,” she writes – a moral maxim, a signifier of worth and political capital (65, 80). Further, in our contemporary society, beauty work as a lifestyle is now framed as a kind of “self-care.” Improving ourselves and our appearances is understood as an act of agency and individuality (and a feminist one at that!), where a woman believes she is independently controlling her image and behaviour in the pursuit of a ‘self-actualization’ free from social pressures. 

Here, through patriarchy, women are caught in “figuring out how to get better at being a woman” (66). This is a futile project, an endeavor that requires existing in a constant state of non-enoughness, of improvement, and of alteration, since there is no perfect Woman. 

To this point, Tolentino establishes the following on page 64: 

  • “The ideal [W]oman is always optimizing.” 
  • “The ideal [W]oman has been conceptually overworked […] to look natural.” 
  • And, “The ideal [W]oman believes she came up with herself on her own.”  

That last point really struck me. The thought that I – in my elaborate skincare routines and lifestyle alterations with the aim of feeling ‘better’ – could be performing beauty as patriarchal compulsion scared me. I started thinking: do I really have control of myself? 

I don’t ask this in a Black Mirror, “we live in a simulation and nothing is real” kind of way (but maybe we do??). I ask it more with the intention of interrogating the narratives I have internalized about beauty and wellness as gender performance. 

Accordingly, I think that Tolentino’s intervention that this kind of “mainstream feminism” with its emphasis on individual success and appearance “has had to conform to patriarchy and capitalism to become mainstream in the first place” is important to reflect on (80). 

So what does it mean to commodify self-care, and why is that a problem?  

To Tolentino’s point, the patriarchal “self-care” lifestyle has a huge market. We see it all the time. The uber-productive “day-in-my-life” YouTube videos or TikToks, the extensive morning routines or evening wind downs, the makeup and skincare product hauls. Thinking about self-care as a commodity generally requires adopting ‘health’ as an aesthetic. The emphasis here is less on how your body feels or responds to caring for yourself, but more on engaging in a performance where you look like you are taking care of yourself. And this engagement is profitable. 

The way I see it, trends like the “That Girl” aesthetic or “Clean Look” are deeply classed, raced, and gendered. Not only is it expensive to access the products that help one successfully achieve the desired look, but often, the faces of these trends are light-skinned, thin, cis women. Given that the majority of us do not fall in all of those categories, these cultural scripts are exhausting, expensive, and difficult to follow. 

I don’t know about you, but constantly engaging in an effort to “care” for myself without centering what my body needs to feel cared for leads to me feeling really alienated from my body. I resonate with Tolentino’s assertion that by engaging in the process of constant individual improvement (in attempting to achieve a constantly shifting ideal of perfection/womanhood), you effectively lose control over who you are. The self-care “routine” starts feeling less like a grounding habit, and more like a mandatory practice. I don’t feel any more free. 

What do we need instead? 

In her essay 1988 “A Burst of Light: Living With Cancer,” legendary Black lesbian activist/writer/thinker/poet Audre Lorde said: 

“I had to examine, in my dreams as well as in my immune-function tests, the devastating effects of overextension. Overextending myself is not stretching myself. I had to accept how difficult it is to monitor the difference. Necessary for me as cutting down on sugar. Crucial. Physically. Psychically. Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

She was not referring to extremely elaborate skincare routines, or new clothing hauls, or expensive over-consumption in wellness culture (this article gives a fantastic breakdown of her quote). She was referring to radical care. A kind of community care and political strategy where we care for ourselves to sustain resistance to oppressive systems. In this sense, “self-care” becomes a community-oriented tool. 

We are not completely independent, and we do not exist in isolation. We should care for ourselves alongside and with other people. Rest should be intentional and important, we do not always need to be “improving” our faces and our bodies, or performing a lifestyle to upkeep a certain gender performance. Especially for those of us with marginalized identities, caring for ourselves will never be fruitful by consistent engagement in capitalist self-care commodity culture. 

All this to say, take your time, pace yourself, and stay critical of toxic mainstream messaging sold to us as“self-care” – we all deserve better

About the Author

Abby (she/her) is a first-generation Ethiopian-Eritrean student in her last year of a degree in Political Science and Economics where she is researching the intersection of international migrant rights, border studies, and climate displacement. A community organizer and lifelong writer, Abby is especially passionate about making creative space for marginalized folks where they feel safe and seen. Abby loves looking at mountains, eating literally anything mango flavoured (debatably in excess), and adding to reading lists she will never get to the bottom of.