By: Jon Skolnik
Self-care began as a movement of ideas concerned with individual health and wellness. However, it is radically transforming from a movement of ideas to a movement of things. As corporations continue to marketize self-care, it is becoming increasingly accessorized by the elite to signal a lifestyle of luxury. No longer do you have to practice self-care if you can simply buy it.
This is easily seen, for example, in luxury hotels, where guests are encouraged to unwind and refresh with a spectrum of high-end products and amenities. The 1 Hotel’s art book The Field Report provides a startling glimpse into the phenomenon.
The Field Report could be brilliant satire if it only had the faintest lick of self-awareness. It is, by all accounts, in its own unique world of unedited elitism. As TFR’s publisher Luxury Art Books puts, “Our publications are devoted to the most affluent guests who have sophisticated and refined tastes. They are world travelers, power-brokers and high-net worth individuals who travel frequently, stay in only the best hotels and seek out the best brands and services the city has to offer.”
The Field Report isn’t just marketing the 1 Hotel; it’s marketing a lifestyle—only reserved to the rich—whose participants are apparently in dire need of connecting with themselves and nature. It is only through mindfulness, wellness, eco-consciousness and learning to tell an aloe vera from a bamboo palm that they will unlock their true potential.
One article entitled “5 Way to Meditate While On-the-Go” provides five different, but all painfully contrived, ways to shoehorn meditation into the presumed back-to-back lives of its readers. One tip is to focus on your breathing while on a run. It instructs, “Let the repetition [of your motion] guide your breathing, to help you meditate on the go.”
Another article, “Holistic Wellness with Bamford Haybarn Spa,” features an interview with “spa visionary” Carole Bamford. When asked to describe her spa philosophy, she responds, with striking alliteration, “Nourish, nature, nurture.” She discusses the healing properties of jade, “a symbol of purity and serenity,” whose “chemical composition lends itself to retaining heat and conducting energy.”
This type of vapid, pseudo-scientific wisdom surrounding health and wellness for the American elite is nothing new. Consider, for example, the success of Gwyneth Paltrow’s lifestyle company, Goop—and better yet, her new Netflix original Goop Labs, which peddles even more of the latest and greatest hogwash concerning the mental health benefits of, say, channeling a lost loved one with a psychic medium. While the show was rightly taken to task by the press, Goop, now valued at over $250 million, released this year’s product line in Sephora nation-wide. Which brings one to ask: If Goop products range anywhere from useless to dangerous, how is it that people will still buy them? Put simply, it’s because Goop products don’t offer a service; they offer a lifestyle. A lifestyle for those who wish their concierge doctors could also check their energy fields. A lifestyle for those with so much health privilege that they’ll resort to the quackiest of self-care quackery to sate their personal pursuits toward health perfection.
The most staggering thing about the elite’s self-care movement is not how far it’s come but how far it might go. And there is no better eye into its trajectory than, again, The Field Report.
A prime example of this is in TFR’s article “Finding Meaning in Everyday Life,” by Michael Radvparvar, the founder of Holstee, a mindfulness company that sells $248 company manifestos. In the article, Radparvar states: “We have done our homework, diving into ancient philosophy, studying positive psychology, and staying on top of the latest research from modern science”
- Pain is inevitable; suffering is a choice
Our favorite example of this comes from Victor Frankl. In his book “Man’s Search for Meaning,” he describes the experience of arriving at a concentration camp in Nazi Germany. He is immediately stripped of everything he has, his hair shaved, and he is left to stand in a room of similarly affected people—some strangers, others he’d known all his life. It is at that moment that Frankl has the realization that even though everything—his possessions, his family, his dignity—had been taken away from him, he still had the power to choose how he would react to the situation in front of him. This is an extreme example, but it shows how in our lives, things might happen that were not in our plan and are out of our control. But the way we react to them is always in our choice.”
The first thing of note is Radparvar’s vague preamble, which basically translates to, “Trust me. I know what I’m talking about.” It’s also quite possible that, by citing Man’s Search for Meaning, Radparvar thought he’d earn the reader’s deference on philosophy and psychiatry along the way. (I’m not sure which is worse.) Regardless, this “trust me” outfit is very common for big corporations to wear because they know that any untested self-care product they roll out will be seen as a good-faith attempt to improve consumer health.
Take, for example, Mercedes-Benz’s new S-Class sedan, which allows you to configure ‘wellness’ settings with music, massage seats, temperature, aromatherapy, and voice-command muscle exercises. Aside from opening up to the possibility of having sexual relationships with our cars, the release of this mindless feature has no tested, demonstrable value to consumer health. What does have material value to consumer health is limiting emissions, which Mercedes has a history of illegally avoiding. Like Mercedes-Benz, Google has also released its own version of a wellness feature, called the “Digital Wellbeing”, which helps users regulate their use of technology. The irony of this feature speaks for itself. Are we really to believe that Google, which effectively places its consumers under commercial surveillance, has any interest in minimizing the consumption of its products?
Virtues of the self-care movement have been co-opted by major multinationals to help posture their concern for social responsibility. But this posturing amounts to no more than gimmicky appeals as opposed to any structural change on their part.
Next, Radparvar doubles down on his position with his own variant of an old Buddhist proverb: “Pain is inevitable; suffering is a choice.” There is value to be found in this pithy adage. But in the context of the TFR’s general ethos, it doesn’t sit well.
Mainstream psychology tells us that we cannot be perfect agents of how we feel. So to imply, in an absolutist fashion, that we can think or act our way out of suffering presents a bootstraps mentality to mental health. It’s a Kanye West-esque view on suffering that, like Paltrow’s products, is both useless and dangerous. And when this view is widely propagated by those of profound privilege—the view that suffering is a choice—it reveals the narrowness of its applicability. In other words, perhaps Ravparvar is right; perhaps suffering is a choice, but only for those who can afford to make it one.
Last is Radparvar’s usage of Victor Fankl’s internment as support for his views. If we ignore 1) Radparvar’s sudden tonal shift from “homework” to Holocaust, 2) his description of Fankl as his “favorite example,” and 3) the ambiguity with which he describes Holocaust victims like Frankl as “similarly affected people,” we are left only with his deftest move yet: his segue out of all it. He caps off, “[The Holocaust] shows how sometimes things might happen that were not in our plan and are out of our control. But the way we react to them is always in our choice.” Are we to surmise, then, that if some 11 million people had only reacted to their genocide correctly, and simply acknowledged the unpredictable vicissitudes of life, then they would have seen a better fate? Maybe if they had access to Holstee’s “Be Here Now” Intention Kits they would’ve found more meaning in their suffering.
Holstee is just one of many companies in the for-profit, pre-packaged self-care scene. But it is far from an unknown player in the game. With nearly 30,000 followers on Instagram and 2.1 million views on its “Lifecycle Video” on YouTube, it has amassed a significant amount of support. So it’s not unreasonable to think that many people take cues from Holstee’s philosophies—perhaps the very same philosophies that position suffering as a choice.
Radparvar’s ambitious claims in The Field Report show precisely how seriously the elite self-care movement is willing to take itself and its deranged ideologies. Beneath its concern for everyone’s health lies a neo-liberal agenda, which espouses ideals of freedom and choice without acknowledging their barriers to entry. Irrespective of the good intentions self-care mavericks like Paltrow or Radparvar might have, they ultimately contribute to the exclusivity that already permeates America’s healthcare system writ large.
The self-care movement began as a good-faith endeavor to help us address our individual health in a society that burns us out in the name of individuality. It was asking the right question: How can we take care of ourselves to better connect with our community? But as the movement becomes more accessorized, we need to stay critical of corporations that are exploiting self-care to homogenize a lifestyle of self-indulgence.
Jon Skolnik is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer with words in Otoliths, Points in Case, and Robot Butt. Here’s a link to his website.