Mindful: When self-care veers into narcissism

Navigating the fine line between self-love and egotism

  • 06.10.2021
  • By Emily Heng

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An unfortunate by-product of my vocation is that I am given the excuse to (constantly!) evaluate my appearance. It is all done in the name of professionalism, I say, as I scrutinise the state of my pores for the eightieth time that day. Sometimes, I’d go as far as to assert that I’m doing this for the people, as if telling folks what to slather on their miens is some sort of noble calling requiring of martyrdom. Blame it on my inflated sense of ego — or, perhaps, the current emphasis the beauty community places on the act of self-care.

The tricky thing about self-care is how broadly it is defined. As the Internet tells it, anything that grants individuals peace or a sense of calm serves as a form of it. Does knitting ease your pandemic-induced anxiety? That’s self-care for ya. Or maybe it’s a month-long forage into the wilderness of Clementi forest that soothes your frayed nerves. Whatever the fix, we — arguably the most burned-out, exhausted generation there is — are encouraged to engage in it. Even former First Lady Michelle Obama is an advocate, where she created the hashtag #WellnessWednesday on Instagram to urge users to embark upon “personal wellness moments.”

Interestingly enough, however, the most popular interpretation of wellness proves synonymous with supplements and skincare, manicures and makeup. Heck, it is a phenomenon that is plain to see. A quick scroll through the self-care hashtag on Instagram exhibits countless ads for face masks and massage oils, “essentials” in fostering a healthy relationship with one’s self that conveniently functions as beautification tools. The writing on the wall proves clear: We are our best selves when we carve out time to look our best.

Far be it for me to negate the formidable effects of skincare or makeup. As a Beauty Editor, I’m well-aware of the power that a good foundation or serum holds; the sense of tranquility it engenders upon one’s psyche when it works exactly the way you want it to. Sure, you might be suffering from crippling imposter’s syndrome, but at least you look good doing it! Depression might be a pervasive, persistent force, but in the meantime, a good red lipstick could prove distracting enough to halt a train of invasive thoughts!

It’s come to the point where it seems fitting to ask: Have we arrived at the stage where this form of self-care has become a crutch; a band-aid to the underlying issues we refuse to face — or, perhaps find ourselves ill-equipped to handle? Personally, it’s a resounding yes for me. I’ve willingly swapped one concern for the other, concentrating my energies on forms of distractions that are comparably more manageable. I’m working on myself, but not in the ways that truly matter. My fears and problems and insecurities loom larger than before; my plan-of-attack reduced to prettily packaged bottles of retinol and mud masks that are continually touted by the beauty realm.

If anything, Michelle Tea — author of popular memoir, How to Grow Up — put its best: “Self-care that is less stressful is like getting a massage or a mani-pedi. But you can’t get by on treats; most of us do have to do a decent amount of heavy lifting to undo all the bad bullshit of our formative years (or our 20s … or 30s …), so spa trips should be augmented with, like, therapy.”

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Bleak as it sounds, I’m glad to have arrived at this point; that I’ve grown mindful and cognizant of the fact that these supposed beauty-related luxuries and pleasures are not a replacement for tangible remedies. Can I tell you when you’ve reached the point where self-care has transformed into plain ol’ narcissism? Probably not, seeing how that’s something you have to discover on your own — but I can ascertain that you’ll be better off when you realise that contentment isn’t tied to the rigidity of your skincare routine, or the complex art behind maintaining a glowing complexion.

So, yes: sometimes, taking care of yourself is just sitting in bed and fully disregarding the fact that you are capable of anything remotely close to vanity. I’ll leave you with an encouraging (if ineloquent) message: You are more than the current skin suit you’re harbouring. Now please, put away the gua sha.