I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by... self-care? Extreme to say for sure, but more and more, I’m finding it to be increasingly true. As I watch young people I respect become so intently focused on themselves, they turn entirely inward and lose touch with the outside world. Self-care leads them to drop out of life, both their own and the lives of others. They “self-care” until they’re careless.
The self-care industry is estimated to be worth $10 billion, a number that’s only increased since the election of Donald Trump. It’s been marketed as necessary for Gen Z, whether it’s putting on a face mask or posting an inspirational meme. We are pressured to make care a priority. There are currently a cool 21.2 million posts tagged #selfcare on Instagram. And this rapidly expanding market shows no sign of slowing down, but in an era of climate catastrophe and threats to our human rights, is self-care just distracting us from the real work we need to be doing?
“Self-care is a collective brainwashing of progressive communities,” my friend Sophia says, sitting across from me in a smoky Berlin bar. “It’s a way to stop yourself from asking the real, hard questions.”
Our other friend Angie then leans forward and tells us the story of one depressed summer where basically all she did was do face masks, eat ramen and watch Netflix in bed. You know the drill. She’d never felt more bored—or more boring. “Self-care is about being comfortable and that isn’t necessarily good for you,” she says, as she describes how she’d eventually escaped that self-care spiral by starting to do the things that scared her again, both socially and artistically.
Karl Marx infamously considered religion to be the opium of the masses. About a third of Millennials have no ties to any religion. And Gen-Z is the least religious generation ever, with the percentage that identifies as atheist double the rate of the rest of the population in the US. Religion isn’t exactly our opium. But while not all of us have God, we do all have an Instagram.
For young people today, social media has introduced us to emerging industries such as astrology and wellness that can fill similar existential voids. Almost 30 percent of Americans believe in astrology—a statistic that’s clearly on the rise, as new apps and venture capitalists flood an already $2.1 billion “mythical service industry.”
We receive notifications for our AI-generated horoscopes, as we scroll through vaguely motivational quotes while wearing a green tea face mask. It plays into the self-care fantasy of us somehow controlling our fate by doing all of it. Or we can even just sit back and let the planets tell our futures. In our age of hyper-surveillance, rising fascism, and all-encompassing capitalism, self-care becomes both solace and sedative.
While it's not breaking news that the world’s elite are interested in pressuring us to self-care as a way for us to subversively just numb ourselves, it’s interesting how our generation doesn’t try to break free from this cycle. So many of us have come to trust that caring for yourself is the most radical thing you can do—rather than a simple and important aspect of being a living human being.
Self-care is art-directed, focus-grouped corporate cynicism designed to target our every insecurity. Many products that claim to aid in self-care aren’t backed by science, from face masks to CBD to the vitamin subscription packs marketed all over Instagram. “Billion-dollar meditation apps” and “discovering spirituality” are phrases now put in the same sentence, including this one. And believing in the concept of “emotional labor,” as it’s become somehow trendy to do so, personally implies that supporting someone you care about inevitably drains your own supply of well-being—as if modern feelings are Bitcoins, and there’s a fiscal cap on compassion.
This pursuit of self-care at all costs reminds me of stories like last year’s dark satirical novel My Year of Rest and Relaxation, or the cult film American Psycho. One line from the latter specifically comes to mind, in which Christian Bale’s beauty-regime-obsessed Wall Street broker (and serial killer) says, “I have all the characteristics of a human being: flesh, blood, skin, hair; but not a single, clear, identifiable emotion.” The protagonists of these stories echo studies that link covert narcissism with boredom—how in modern times, becoming boring has emerged as a side-effect of narcissist self-care practices.
Despite all its criticism, last summer’s Euphoria almost felt like the first modern teen drama to steer away from the sanitized, self-care mindset set-up by Millennials. It showed Zendaya’s Rue exercise what some might label self-care—binge-watching Love Island to cope with heartbreak—in all its actual mundane misery. It doesn’t try to sugarcoat that its characters’ problems were solvable if they just cared more—and I think that’s exactly why audiences have in turn cared about them so intensely.
Everyone’s been saying that Gen Z, as documented in the neon HBO drama, experiences more depression, burnout, and anxiety than any generation yet. This is in spite of studies that find we also engage in less risky behavior, like drug use, than other generations have before us. Yet this is why positing self-care as the antidote to burnout (which is now a real, diagnosable condition) and depression feels off. After all, isn’t self-care in its design nothing more than a band-aid to put over more serious cuts?
Self-care isn’t skin-deep, or romantic. It doesn’t play into concepts of Eros or passion or fulfillment, nor does it appeal to our innate death drive either. It’s just static. It puts our lives on mute, and tricks us into thinking burnout is bliss—that mundanity can be as restorative as it is sugary sweet.
Being careful with your heart is important, and there aren’t wrong ways to try to be caring in a society that’s quite careless. But it’s dark to watch the way this supposedly positive movement has also become this mass-marketed anesthesia for our generation, how we're so bubble-wrapped from risk that we’re now becoming passionless and boring. We’re closing ourselves off from any and all hard experiences under the guise of self-care.
The world’s burning: do you really want to be lying in bed with a face mask while it does?
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.