Several articles from reputable sources such as NPR and The Guardian have recently focused on the millennial generation’s supposed obsession with self-care. On the surface, this trend seems to fit nicely with the stereotypes that millennials are entitled and narcissistic. Looking closer, however, reveals that instead of seeing self-care as a generational issue, we should be examining it as an ongoing women’s issue.
Certainly, the millennial generation’s comfort with the internet allows them to access a great deal of information about the topic, even while it functions as one of the main culprits of placing pressure on individuals in the first place. Millennials’ hyper-connected lives put stress on them to maintain their created personas in ways that were unthinkable for previous generations.
Consequently, much of the self-care information on the internet revolves around workout regimes, diets, and beauty products. After all, you can’t get 1000 likes on Instagram if you don’t look compelling. While it is clear that self-care is significant to millennials, it is an oversimplification to see it only as a generational issue. It is important to realize that this is merely a new manifestation in what has been a continuing problem for women. Examining the midwife debate of one hundred years ago shows that, even then, women strove to make self-care a priority.
On the internet today, a large percentage of self-care information is written by women, for women. Advice like “splurge and get a manicure, have a home spa day, or wear an outfit that makes you feel fantastic” could apply to men, but seem skewed towards the female reader. A quick look at self-care kits on Etsy shows items such as:
- feminist self-love coffee mug (as advertised)
- Mother’s Day gift ideas
- face masks
- bath salts
- rose scented toiletry kits
- candles and smudges
- self-love bracelets
- a glitter rainbow self-care planner
All of these items have a decidedly feminine flair. If you dig deeply enough, you might find a sandalwood toiletry kit or fancy shaving set, but it seems possible, if not probable, to infer that it is mostly millennial women who are pursuing the benefits of self-care.
These women are joining the generations before them who have struggled to justify the use of time and financial resources on themselves. For example, my great-grandmother supported her aging parents in addition to her own family. When it came to necessities like food and clothing, she consistently prioritized other members of the family before herself. For her, this behavior became a habit. Many years later in the 1970s, when she did have more disposable income, she insisted on carrying a purse with a broken handle because it would have been wasteful to purchase a new one since the bag itself was “still good.” She never would have dreamed of “wasting money” on herself.
Although she is not representative of all women, her experience hints at the struggle many women faced to take care of themselves, when confronted with the pressure of caring for their family as well. Not every generation of women in the last one hundred years has approached this problem in the same way, but the need to make a concentrated effort in order to achieve the desired self-care has remained a constant.
It can be difficult to define what self-care actually is, but it is not just about facials and scented candles. It also includes preventative health care using exercise and meditation techniques, such as yoga. In addition, it often encompasses healthy eating, cleanses, and special diets. It even can consist of alternative healing techniques like acupuncture or breathing exercises in a salt cave. The fact that so many self-care regimes are about physical well-being suggests an even bigger problem women have consistently faced: women have often been forced to rely on self-care for their medical health.
In fact, our great-grandmothers would have struggled to justify some of the appearance-oriented self-care common today, but they did attempt to advocate for self-care in the matter of their health. This advocacy tended to be most effective when concerned with the issue of maternity and childbirth. Women could leverage their own well-being by combining it with the health and welfare of their child.
One time period where we can see an example of this is during the early years of the twentieth century when pregnancy was gradually becoming more medicalized. At this juncture there was a heated discussion about the future role of the midwife. Those who study the so-called “midwife debate” often overlook a critical point. The argument that many women made for sticking with midwives for birth was essentially the same argument women were making for hospital births: it was the solution that provided the most opportunity for self-care for the mother.
With a home delivery, physicians came for the birth of the baby and nothing more. Midwives not only birthed the baby, but also generally attended the mother for up to two weeks after her delivery. They aided the new mother in caring for the baby, assisted with other household chores like laundry and meal preparation, and even helped care for older children. The lifting of these burdens allowed the new mother a chance to take care of herself and heal after her travail.
For example, one rural mother wrote to the United States Children’s Bureau decrying the fact that there was no longer a midwife anywhere near her. She explained that she had to take care of her husband and other children, as well as work in the fields. Without the help of a midwife when her time came she would have no opportunity for self-care, instead she would have to immediately resume her normal daily tasks.1 Her hope that the Children’s Bureau could offer her a solution probably went unresolved.
On the other side of the midwife debate, those who advocated for a hospital birth frequently referenced the supposed safety of the hospital but also highlighted the opportunities for self-care. In the hospital, women could be assured that nurses would assist with the baby. They also had the chance to rest and recuperate without the stress of caring for other family members. In addition, hospitals offered regular meals, something many women struggled to get at home. For a working-class woman, this was almost a once-in-a-lifetime luxury, a chance to pamper herself, much like today’s woman might feel if she had the opportunity to have a long stay at a fancy hotel.2
Unlike today’s millennials, these earlier women lived in a more socially and culturally restrictive environment that limited their opportunities to advocate for themselves. Within the context of what was possible for them, they used the leverage they had to create islands of opportunity for self-care after the birth of their children. Since this was a period of depletion and exhaustion, as well as rife with medical risks for both mothers and babies, they were more able to prioritize their own self-care than at other times in their lives.
It was not just the working women who felt this way. Middle-class mothers often saw their hospital stays as a time to regain their strength and take care of themselves. One mother waxed lyrical about the delicious food she received in the hospital, and her lovely long sleeps while the nurse watched the baby.3
Although women today do not have to wait for the birth of a baby to indulge in a bit of self-care, they still must consider multiple outside pressures and potential judgments when they decide to prioritize a yoga class for themselves over little Jimmy’s karate lesson. They have to justify their actions to those who label self-care as individualistic and narcissistic. In fact, the criticism is made more insidious by failing to recognize it as criticism of women, and instead portraying it as characteristic of an entire generation.
Sadly, society is still comfortable policing women’s behavior, even when it comes to something as seemingly unobjectionable as taking care of our own health and well-being. By obscuring it as a generational critique, the reporters of these stories about the “me, me, me” millennials complicate efforts to identify it for what it is, a gender bias against young women for wanting to prioritize themselves. This leaves women to take to the blogosphere both to try to justify their behavior, and encourage other women to join.
- Mrs. H.B. Rogers to the Children’s Bureau, June 14, 1920, Records of the Children’s Bureau, Central File 1914-1920, Box 25, National Archives at College Park, College Park, MD. Return to text.
- Richard W. Wertz and Dorothy C. Wertz, Lying-In: A History of Childbirth in America (New York: The Free Press, 1997), 133. Return to text.
- Marguerite Tracy and Mary Boyd, Painless Childbirth: A General Survey of All Painless Methods with Special Stress on “Twilight Sleep” and Its Extension to America (New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1915), 191. Return to text.