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What’s In A Name?

Problems with calling it “self-care”


What’s In A Name?

Shakespeare suggested that roses would smell sweet no matter what they were called. The idea, of course, is that the name of a thing doesn’t change its essence. When it comes to the word “self-care,” however, all bets are off.

Although the essence of self-care is to provide care for oneself, the term has many different meanings. It’s a word that women either love, love to hate, or possibly don’t even recognize. Importantly, how a woman responds to the word “self-care” could have a direct impact on her well-being.

How the medical system defines it 

Although the concept of providing care for oneself is as old as Socrates, the modern self-care movement kicked off in full force in the 1970s, when nursing theorist Dorothy Orem proposed a strategy to assess the ability of patients to look after themselves if they became sick.

This theory provides the framework used by governments, medical systems, biomedical health researchers, and many health care providers to conceptualize self-care. In other words, the biomedical community thinks of self-care as disease prevention and management activities like going to the doctor or dentist, taking your prescription medications, and so on.

How women think about it 

The biomedical definition, however, is not the one used by the women in my self-care research. In fact, not a single woman talked about going to the doctor, having a mammogram, or getting a pap smear as part of her self-care.

Instead of focusing primarily on disease management, the women thought about self-care as a way to support all the domains of well-being, including physical health but also mental, emotional, social, financial, and spiritual well-being. They were as concerned about protecting future financial well-being by saving for retirement as they were about eating a nutritious diet or committing to regular exercise.

Doctors and their patients, then, may not be thinking about the same things when they talk about self-care. While all the women agreed that engaging in activities to support their well-being is important, they were not in agreement about the word “self-care” itself.

Some loathe the word 

Michelle, for example, is a very busy divorced mother of two teens who has no use for the term and, in fact, suggested that “self-care” is condescending. She also believes self-care is inappropriately linked with indulgence.

Michelle shared her frustration about a former employer who would occasionally pull her aside during busy times at work to ask if she were getting her self-care—by which she meant soaking in a bubble bath.

As Michelle explained, “The way that my manager was talking about self-care—and I think the way it’s framed a lot of the time—it’s for women who can afford it financially or can afford the time.”

With corporations ranging from hotels, travel agents, and fancy restaurants to car dealerships and florists co-opting the term “self-care” to peddle their various wares, it’s no wonder that women like Michelle feel the way they do. Michelle also has no interest in soaking in a bubble bath. To her, that would be a wasteful indulgence.

But her story is significant for several reasons: If Michelle holds the belief that self-care refers to indulgences and she isn’t interested in indulgences, she might tune out <all> messages that use the word ‘self-care,’ even those designed by public health to encourage proactive medical testing.

Michelle’s comment also raises important questions about socioeconomic status. If a woman believes that self-care only refers to expensive activities and purchases that she can’t afford due to either financial or time resources, she might think that any form of self-care is not for her. She, too, might ignore the word “self-care” in important health messages as she goes about her busy life.

Some love it (with caveats) 

Jacqueline, a married mother of a young daughter, runs a home day-care. She is a self-proclaimed self-care advocate who, like many women in my research, believes that self-care is a personal responsibility.

Yet, she also raised a concern about the trend of self-care toward more indulgent activities. As she explained, “I can’t go and get my nails done and pretend that I don’t have problems. To me, fixing your problems is self-care in practical ways.”

Jacqueline also explained that the pressure on women to indulge in #self-care and upload evidence on social media undermines the importance of providing care for yourself. In fact, several women who work full-time and are busy raising children or caring for dependent family members admitted that the social pressure to engage in self-care is stressful.

Ironically, for some women, the social requirement for self-care participation can have a negative impact on well-being. The term ‘self-care,’ for those dealing with mental health challenges, may invoke expectations of solving all their problems with a little bit of pampering. Clearly, in a mental health example, the self-care best strategy must include seeking appropriate treatment from a professional.

Some may not see it 

Along with potential financial impediments that may discourage enthusiasm for self-care, it’s also possible that the self-care waters may be muddied by racial, ethnic, or other community influences as well.

In my research, more than 90 percent of the participants who responded to the call to investigate self-care strategies were heterosexual white women and predominantly in the middle socioeconomic class. This rather homogeneous demographic pool suggests that “self-care” might be a term that doesn’t resonate with people from every walk of life.

If this is so, many women may be missing out on important resources to support their well-being. When creating programs to promote well-being, researchers and health care providers need to understand how different populations engage with self-directed wellness behaviours in order to use visible language and messaging.

A rose is not a rose 

In the many conversations I’ve had with women over the last several years, what has become clear is that the word “self-care” can be problematic. The business trend of marketing everything as a “self-care” product has diluted its potential power to promote proactive strategies for well-being.

Different interpretations of the term may leave some women believing self-care is not for them, which could lead to negative health outcomes. While the concept of providing proactive care to support one’s well-being is valid and important, the term itself needs a re-branding.

Indulgences aren’t taboo! 

Many women enjoy time at the hair salon or a girls’ weekend away. But they’re also aware that these activities are the self-care icing and not the cake.

Self-care journalling prompt 

Major domains of well-being include physical, mental, emotional, social, spiritual, and financial health. List each of these domains in your journal and write down what you do (or can commit to doing) to promote well-being in each area.



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