For the first time in many years, I did not partake in the ultimate American holiday over break. No, not Thanksgiving — I’m talking about Black Friday. In past years, my mother and I would wake up as early as our post-food comas would allow and rush to the Tysons Corner Mall in Fairfax, Virginia. Tysons is the sixth biggest mall in America, and its website claims over 25 million people visit the mall each year. On Black Friday, it truly feels like all 25 million are there at once.
Consumerism has always been a part of American culture. In 2000 and again in 2007, then-President Bush went as far as saying that shopping was downright patriotic. It’s certainly more exciting to fulfill your civic duties by ordering from the Puravida sale than by voting. But there is a new justification for consumerism, and one I find particularly concerning — self-care.
With the rise of mental health awareness, the notion of self-care has become more popular than ever, and rightfully so. It is necessary to ensure that we take care of our own personal well-being, physically and mentally.
Capitalism, however, has taken advantage of this trend towards self-care. Products are no longer advertised as simply improving our lives; instead, companies market them as necessary for our mental health and well-being. Self-care has become a sales pitch.
BuzzFeed articles give us lists of products we should buy for “self-care,” ranging from a bath bomb set to a Bluetooth water bottle. These products are often trinkets that we might want but definitely don’t need. Maybe a bath bomb set makes life briefly more comfortable, but after getting out of the bath, we’re left with the same problems we started with.
Even worse, sometimes the act of shopping itself is seen as a form of self-care. The mere act of spending money, regardless of what you purchase, is seen as necessary to de-stress.
It’s worth taking a step back and reflecting on whether buying new products actually makes us feel better. Because shopping in order to improve our lives isn’t just ineffective, it’s harmful.
First, in shopping for self-care, we assume that physical goods are required for our mental happiness. Obviously we must care for our basic needs, but once those have been met, there are largely diminishing returns in our personal satisfaction for additional items we buy. We might fantasize about our lives with certain products. But that cute necklace will not somehow make you smarter or more popular.
In fact, this mentality is dangerous: It actively places the burden of self-care onto a physical object rather than yourself. When you can just buy a scented candle, there’s no need to actually look closely at why you’re feeling upset and fix what’s wrong. It’s the more difficult actions that actually improve your life: staying healthy, building meaningful relationships, learning how to maintain a positive attitude and understanding your emotions.
Second, we can enter into a cycle of dependency. It is always possible to have more, want more, seek more. I realized this my senior year of high school, in the middle of filling out my college applications. I took breaks by quickly scrolling through shopping websites. Once, I missed a sale and freaked out. I was shocked by my own reaction. How did I become so personally invested in clothes as a source of happiness? Too often, I would buy clothing that I wanted and then fixate on some other outfit shortly afterward.
Consumer products can only improve your life so much. And when you don’t feel better after purchasing them, you may simply look to buy more as a remedy. But that’s precious time you could be using productively to improve your life in deeper, long-lasting ways.
But the worst effect is that these efforts trivialize mental health itself. Mental health is only slowly gaining recognition as a serious problem in our society. That progress will be harmed if Americans continue to associate serious problems like anxiety and depression with easy fixes like a shopping spree.
When Donna Meagle from “Parks and Recreation” said “Treat yo’ self!”, she might have been talking about Ben Wyatt’s Batman costume. But I would encourage you to truly treat yourself: Work to improve yourself by being in touch with yourself and those around you, work to build lasting connections with others and — most of all — don’t be afraid to ask for help. It will do you much better than catching the next online sale.
RABHYA MEHROTRA is a sophomore in Morse College. Her column runs on alternate Tuesdays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .