’Tis the season when thoughts turn to gift buying, and this year, many of us will wrap up, and receive, presents designed to encourage self-care. We’ll be on the hunt for the perfect face mask, and ready to unwrap bottles of lotion or boxed-up aromatherapy candles.
It’s not just the holiday season, though. Since the 2016 election, there’s been an uptick in self-care. According to 2017 data, Americans may be spending more time and money on yoga (34 percent increase from the previous year), morning walks (19 percent increase), meditation (up 16 percent) and therapy (up 17 percent).
It makes sense that in the wake of the terrible, stolen victory by the narcissist-in-chief, we are looking for some self-soothing relief. And women like Gwyneth Paltrow, and other white women in the wellness industry, have been there to reap the benefits of this trend.
In the last decade, Paltrow has made a $250 million fortune selling wellness through her lifestyle company, Goop. Goop’s wellness section offers up a variety of dubious products and treatments from “Emotional Detox Bath Soak” to supplements and “clean” food, to vaginal eggs and vaginal steams.
In an interview last year, Jimmy Kimmel asked Paltrow about the practice of “earthing,” one of many self-care techniques recommended on Goop.
“It makes sense that in the wake of the terrible, stolen victory by the narcissist-in-chief, we are looking for some self-soothing relief.”
“So one of the things we like to do on Goop is find what the alternative world says about feeling good in the modern-day world,” she said. “ ... I don’t actually know that much about earthing, and it came out of me not knowing anything about earthing but hearing about it. They say that we lost touch with sort of being barefoot in the earth, and there’s some sort of electromagnetic thing that we’re missing. It’s good to take your shoes off in the grass.”
Paltrow’s answer reveals the cultural appropriation at the heart of her enterprise, as well as her cluelessness. There is something gratifying about hearing Paltrow admit that she doesn’t know much about she’s hawking on Goop. More than that, her vague call for reconnecting to the land by “being barefoot on the earth” speaks to a kind of entitlement of the white lady settler who is at ease with “finding” what “the alternative world says” and using it for her own, electromagnetic, ends. The problem, though, is not simply the pseudoscience promulgated by her brand, or her own lack of awareness about her privilege, it is the whiteness of the wellness industry more broadly.
The editors at Self magazine recently proclaimed that “wellness has a race problem,” but it would be more accurate to say that wellness has a whiteness problem. Wellness is pitched to consumers through a constellation of luxuries that white women are more likely to enjoy, like spare time and disposable income. It’s often provided in facilities ― spas, gyms, retreats ― with aesthetics that are implicitly white, upper-middle-class and walled off from by any consciousness about their own place in American society’s racial landscape. One journalist who attended the “In Goop Health” Summit in California earlier this year described the scene in which there were “more blondes than one is accustomed to seeing in one place at one time.”
“Wellness is pitched to consumers through a constellation of luxuries that white women are more likely to enjoy, like spare time and disposable income.”
The problem with “wellness” isn’t that white women are the target market for these products, and gather in primarily white spaces to purchase and enjoy them, or that white women like Paltrow make gobs of money off of them.
No, the problem is that health magazines, self-care gurus, and “In Goop Health” summits all work to make a particular kind of white-hetero-lady-identity seem natural and in need of care. Once the discussion in those spaces turns to having your chakras realigned and anchoring your pelvic wall, what doesn’t get mentioned or, likely even noticed, is that there are only white women talking to other white women in those spaces. The combination of making the straight, white, upper-middle-class white woman’s identity seem both natural and in need of care, while never mentioning it as a specific racial and gender identity, or a class identity, is part of what gives whiteness a soothing power for those who have access to it.
The brands of “wellness” that Paltrow, and most of the other wellness gurus, are selling, ignore the things people actually need to be well, like ending poverty and systemic racism or providing access to free, reliable health care. Instead, these versions of “wellness” ignore the large, structural problems that affect everyone’s health, while they work hard to reflect back the special, precious individuality of each and every white woman who subscribes to their services. And, this sort of wellness drives home an entitlement to all the things from the “alternative worlds” that Goop and other purveyors of wellness are unearthing for their benefit.
The banner held aloft over so much self-care is Audre Lorde’s famous quote, rooted in her experience as a Black, radical, lesbian, warrior-poet. You’ve probably seen it on Instagram, accompanied by the hashtag #selfcare. “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence,” Lorde wrote, “it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” Feminist writer Sara Ahmed talks about self-care as a form of warfare for women of color surviving under late capitalism. Philosopher and activist Angela Davis said in a 2014 speech that “self-care has to be incorporated” into a “holistic approach to organizing.”
But, for the most part, self-care today is not part of any resistance to the current regime. Most self-care is not connected to political organizing, nor is it engaged in sustaining people as they conduct warfare against capitalism. Self-care is big business, and it’s white women who are the main audience and the biggest profiteers. What makes this even more destructive than the usual Columbusing of Black women’s culture for profit is that it feeds a kind of white narcissism, which is at the heart of the very culture that’s destroying us.
“Most self-care is not connected to political organizing, nor is it engaged in sustaining people as they conduct warfare against capitalism. Self-care is big business.”
Of course, there are Black women who are working to take the whiteness out of self-care. The Chicago-based Lauren Ash, for example, created Black Girl in Om, a space that encourages “self-care, self-love, and self-empowerment for communities of color.” What Ash is doing, ― situating self-care and self-love within communities of color ― is the key difference between her endeavor and the narcissism inherent in the whiteness of the dominant self-care culture.
Without connection, care and community, self-care is simply narcissism. And, without engagement in real, political efforts to change the racial and economic status quo, the ideology of self-care amounts to a radical reinvestment in the individual, in neoliberal capitalism, and in regimes of whiteness that reinforce the mythology of the primacy of the individual. Wellness without a radical, collective politics doesn’t offer resistance to regimes of power, but rather, a way to remain in them.
Jessie Daniels is a Professor at The City University Of New York, and the author of the forthcoming book Tweetstorm: The Rise of the “Alt-Right” and the Mainstreaming of White Nationalism.