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The Art of Feeling Good

A look at the self-care industry: history, health, and hacking our bodies

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"What are you drinking?"

I pause, my lips frozen on the metal straw sticking out of my knock off Yeti tumbler.

"Um, coffee."

"Don't drink coffee!"

"Oh, OK."

My acupuncture consultation is not off to the start I'd imagined. Actually, scratch that — I'd never imagined myself sitting still while a stranger poked needles into my skin. That is, not until very recently. You see recently a seismic shift took place; my life changed, slowly, over a matter of months, and then suddenly, on just one day. Recently, I became a yoga teacher.

I know — welcome to the club. The market is saturated, new and improved wellness methods are popping up all the time, and you can't get through a day of social media scrolling without seeing some chick flipping into a backbend.

But I'm not here to just talk about yoga. Becoming a teacher opened my eyes to the other side of the health and wellness industry. Us yoga teachers — and acupuncturists and massage therapists and personal trainers and lifestyle coaches — we're all out here schlepping the same idea. It's an amorphous thing, it's tantalizing in its vague, ephemeral quality. It's both all-inclusive and extraordinarily exclusionary.

We're selling self-care. So, what the hell is that?

Selfie or it didn't happen

"My first tendency is to tear apart words," says Christine Finnan, a professor in the Sociology/Anthropology and Teacher Education Departments at the College of Charleston. "What do we mean by 'self?' Instead of going into that reflexive side of 'Who am I?', self-care is becoming really commercial with product sales — people trying to find the quick way to care. I truly think for self-care you require a lot of introspection and understanding."

The thing about introspection is that it's scary — it makes us feel vulnerable. If you've ever tried to sit still and meditate, you know exactly what I'm talking about. Often, that's where social media comes in, offering us a platform through which we can superficially connect with others, and perform our self-care practices for those coveted likes and follows.

A 2017 New Yorker story claims, "'Self-care' rose as collective social practice in 2016 alongside national stress levels." (Yes, in response to the 2016 presidential election.)

In fact, a 2016 New York Times report found a spike in the term self-care on Google searches: "A search on Google Trends showed that self-care peaked in search interest popularity from Nov. 13 through Nov. 19, the largest increase in the last five years."

Whether you're soaking in epsom salt to relieve yourself of pangs from the Trump presidency — or just to relax your muscles, you're likely taking a picture of it. Self-care as a phenomenon today is most apparent on social media.

That New Yorker article mentions how many hashtagged images on Instagram popped up when searching #selfcare in 2017 — 1.6 million. A recent check in July 2018 shows 6.9 million posts featuring the hashtag; in a little over a year, the prevalence of #selfcare on Instagram has more than quadrupled.

The images we're seeing — from eyebrow tutorials to feminist tank tops to more selfies than you could imagine — are reflective of how society sees self-care today. But 'bucha and buti yoga weren't always the #selfcare Americans were practicing.

In 1984 Michel Foucault wrote in The History of Sexuality, Vol. 3: The Care of the Self that, "the notion dates back to the Greeks, noting that in the Alcibiades dialogues, Socrates advises a young man not to attempt political leadership until he has attended to himself." This idea of taking care of one's self so that one can better take care of others isn't anything new — it's built into America's focus on individualism. As the New Yorker's Jordan Kisner writes, "as it can be traced from William James to Ralph Waldo Emerson to Walt Whitman, echoes this ancient ethos wherein society is organized around the self-cultivating individual."

If self-care has its roots in American ideals, then it comes as no surprise that the concept means something different to the people pushed to the margins in parts of the American story. Self-care, for a lot of groups in the '70s and '80s, was a radical notion. Kisner writes, "After decades of disuse, the term was re-popularized in the seventies and eighties by people of color and queer communities — this time as a gesture of defiance. In 1988, the words of the African-American lesbian writer Audre Lorde became a rallying cry: 'Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.'" Lorde's quote is often cited as a key point in the history of self-care: for many groups, caring for one's self is in direct opposition to how society thinks they should be treated.

Self-care as a radical act

Kennae Miller is the founder of Transformation Yoga, a studio that welcomes all bodies - RUTA SMITH
  • Ruta Smith
  • Kennae Miller is the founder of Transformation Yoga, a studio that welcomes all bodies

"Self-care is revolutionary," says Kennae Miller, owner of Transformation Yoga, a local studio she started after recognizing that a lot of yoga studios were absent of people of color, bigger bodies, older folks, and young people. "Being a person of color and choosing to work for yourself is a self-care practice," says Miller.

Miller joins a long lineage of women of color caring for themselves in the face of a society that may not be caring for them, like T. Morgan Dixon and Vanessa Garrison, the founders of GirlTrek, a health nonprofit that seeks to reduce the leading causes of preventable death among black women through walking.

In a 2017 TED Talk, Dixon and Garrison address a question they get all the time: "Why are black women dying faster and at higher rates than at any other time?"

Dixon and Garrison talk about the way the health and wellness industry excludes women of color. Garrison asks, "Why is what's out there not working for them?"

In the talk, Garrison asks why the messages and campaigns from weight loss companies and government interventions don't work for black women. She asks why 'looking good in skinny jeans' doesn't cut it for the health and wellness of black women. Garrison says, "Because they focus on weight loss without acknowledging the trauma that black women hold in our bellies and bones. That has embedded in our very DNA. The best advice from doctors and hospitals, the best medication from pharmaceutical companies to treat the congestive heart failure of my grandmother didn't work because they didn't acknowledge the systemic racism she had dealt with since birth."

Self-care, then, is not complicated for women of color. It is quite simple: it's life or death.

Where GirlTrek preaches walking — both for its health benefits and for its benefits in the community (showing up and letting people know you're there for them), Miller advises similar small steps for self-care. "One thing I do is I encourage people to try other forms of self-care that don't encourage you to spend money," she says. That may look like going for a walk, or maybe sitting down and writing thoughts in a journal.

Miller first met activist Tamika Gadsden at a yoga class she held specifically for activists and people of color. "I noticed our activists are out there working — they put in a lot of hard work and hours, and there isn't necessarily an economic gain from that. But they're standing for people who can't utilize their voice, from the gentrification in Charleston to the food desert in North Charleston. When you're an activist you're using your voice to amplify other people's voice," says Miller. And sometimes, when you're doing all that, you get burned out.

Garrison and Dixon say, "The personal is political. It's walking so we can be healthy enough to stand on the frontlines of change for our communities." Miller mirrors this sentiment with the yoga she teaches, offering a space for activists to finally release, if even just a little bit. "Our activists don't even know that they need to unplug. They feel that guilt that when they rest or when they pause or take a break, it's gonna separate them from the work they're doing. We pour so much of ourselves — we need to pour back in."

Self-care isn't selfish

"Sometimes I don't say 'self-care,'" says Abigail McClam, owner of Lotus Healing Centre. "When we say 'self-care' people think, 'Oh, I'm being selfish,' so it can be a reframing of the language." McClam is a massage therapist at Lotus, where she offers abdominal massages, helping people get in touch with their bodies, specifically their reproductive and digestive tracts.

"What we offer here is access to self-care, but also holding people accountable to their own practices," says McClam. "I say, 'these are things I think would work for you, meet me in the middle.'"

Chad Houfek of Community Acupuncture (the acupuncturist who told me not to drink coffee), is also of the mind that self-care is a meet in the middle exercise. "I think that if more people educate themselves and take responsibility for their health, and putting their money where their health is, then we might see a healthier shift in our society," says Houfek, who makes putting your money in the right place pretty easy with Community's sliding pay scale for treatments.

Chad Houfek's Community Acupuncture offers a sliding pay scale to make treatment more accessible - RUTA SMITH
  • Ruta Smith
  • Chad Houfek's Community Acupuncture offers a sliding pay scale to make treatment more accessible

Houfek acknowledges that today's cultural values have shifted in favor of "keeping busy all the time." Acupuncture offers a brief moment (or entire hour, depending on your perspective) of reprieve, not just physically, but mentally. "Most people that come to me for acupuncture are intimidated by having to sit still ... no TV or iPhone or book to keep their minds busy is a challenge," says Houfek. Guess what? He's right. I received acupuncture from Houfek and the aspect that stood out the most for me wasn't the feeling of needles being placed in my head, arms, and legs. What was most powerful was that alone time, that deep sense of relief I allowed myself to feel once I finally stopped reaching for a phone that wasn't there.

"It's giving people the permission to choose differently," says McClam. The idea of permission — the notion that we have to earn a practice that keeps us healthy, is built into that same idea Houfek mentions of keeping busy. Just as Miller sees activists who are afraid to unplug, McClam sees mothers who are too busy — or, at least, think they are — taking care of their kids to care for themselves. "How often are we trying to pour that last drop from that empty cup?" she asks.

When viewed as one small step, one incremental change, self-care can seem a little more palatable. "Self-care is not an isolated event, but a ritual we do every day. How we eat our lunch without looking at our phones or drink water with a little bit of lemon in it in the morning," says McClam. "Self-care can be expensive, but it can also be drinking that water with lemon. My fear, as it becomes more of a trend is that it gets ratcheted up. And a lot of my passion is working with those who don't have access. You don't get to choose your socio-economic status. The choice is choosing yourself and making your needs on a health level a priority."

Abigail McClam and Jen Byrne help their clients feel good by giving them the tools they need to take care of themselves - RUTA SMITH
  • Ruta Smith
  • Abigail McClam and Jen Byrne help their clients feel good by giving them the tools they need to take care of themselves

McClam works with Ayurvedic practitioner Jen Byrne, who incorporates education about nutrition and Ayurveda — a form of medicine with historical roots in the Indian subcontinent — into Lotus' offerings. She, too, fears that trendy self-care practices are hurting, rather than helping, the movement as a whole. "There's nothing that frustrates me more than seeing turmeric soy lattes on every menu — turmeric is not good for everyone on that level! A small pinch is one thing, but a big teaspoon in a latte every day is going to have some effect on the body."

So, maybe put down that turmeric latte and do a little research — McClam and Byrne, and Houfek too, just want us to listen to our bodies. "We can't recognize our body's symptoms until we get in touch with our bodies," says McClam. "How do we get people to know where their feet are? When you're walking are you really walking — or are you thinking about your to-do list?"

Self-care in real life

I didn't exactly take McClam's advice when I pursued this self-care story. You know how she says self-care isn't an isolated event? Well, I kind of researched it like it was. I got the acupuncture, I scheduled a Thai massage, I chowed down on CBD gummies (not consistently, mind you). I jumped from self-care practice to self-care practice, trying to figure out what the term means in general, but also, specifically to me. Honestly, it often felt like an indulgent practice, taking time to get a massage, to take a yoga class, even to spend five minutes journaling. Just as Miller and McClam acknowledge — I didn't feel like I deserved self-care.

How do we rectify that? Or do we, as McClam says, just reframe our idea of self-care? Last year in the New York Times' "Work Is My Self-Care," columnist Anna North writes, "It should come as no surprise that self-care, as co-opted from black women and marketed largely to white women, has come to be synonymous with idleness." So rather than engage in "rubbing those papaya skins on your face," North chooses to work. "Far better for me to put my mind to use," says North. "The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined the term 'flow' for the state of 'being completely involved in an activity for its own sake.' In a state of flow, he says, 'the ego falls away.' This is the best description I've come across for the feeling I have when I'm immersed in writing or reporting."

If you wanted my layman's opinion, my favorite self-care practice (other than putting down my phone) has been sipping herbal CBD tea, which I got from Coastal CBD and also purchased at Eucalyptus Wellness Company in Mt. Pleasant. I drink the tea daily, either before bed, or later in the afternoon at work, when the ritual of making myself a cup of tea helps the work go by a little more smoothly. It's like McClam says, "Self-care is not an isolated event, but a ritual we do every day."

The future of self-care

"We've defined health with medicine. People are starting to get out of the auspices of pharmaceuticals. There are different health modalities out there, which is awesome," says Dr. Craig Koniver. "Unfortunately we've medicalized so much of our health and well-being. A doctor says 'take three pills' and then you think, 'I'm good.'"

Koniver is the creator of the FastVitaminIV, an quick injection that shoots a ton of vitamins into your bloodstream. "What we do here is give people options," says Koniver. "We're helping people optimize and extend their performance well beyond pharmaceuticals." If that sounds a little intense, well, it is.

Koniver joins a group of people in the health and wellness world who advocate for "biohacking" a.k.a. DIY biology. Controversial at times — infamous biohacker Aaron Traywick was found dead in a sensory deprivation tank earlier this year — biohacking has worked its way into the mainstream with products like Dave Asprey's Bulletproof Coffee. According to Asprey's website, "The main thing that separates a biohacker from the rest of the self-improvement world is a systems-thinking approach to our own biology."

"There are a lot more people doing biohacking and taking self-care to the extreme," says Koniver. "There's a biohacking movement that people are jumping on — and it's not led by physicians." Koniver says that people are getting fed up with feeling bad. "What's ultimately driving this is that people are not satisfied with how they feel. The first goal for anything we do is just getting people to feel better, and I think physicians have forgotten about that."

I'd be lying if I said Koniver's vitamin bomb wasn't awesome. The less-than-one-minute IV helped my aversion to needles, and the instant gratification you get — feeling flushed, tasting the vitamins in the back of your mouth — reaffirms the notion that you're actively doing something to help yourself. When you get the IV, you've chosen to spend your money on a vitamin-dense formula that, according to Koniver, offers you a "robust response — all it comes down to is getting these key nutrients in ways you haven't."

"Everyone's looking for feeling good," says Koniver. "A lot of people don't realize that it takes money, time, and resources. They are still stuck in this mindset, where 'someone has to make me feel good.' They'll spend $250 on new sneakers but they say that taking care of their health is too expensive."

The FastVitaminIV costs $150 per injection — and Koniver says that people are usually doing it once a week. In theory, that's $600 a month for vitamins. NFL players — a new market the company has tapped into — will get the IV several times a week for optimal performance, Koniver says.

Self-care vs. self-care

Koniver's suggestion that some people would rather spend money on sneakers than on their health brings up the most crucial point in the conversations around self-care. The market Koniver is selling to is one that can spend $600 a month on vitamins. Already, most of us don't fit the bill. Is self-care classist?

There's no doubt that aspects of the self-care industry are exclusionary. I'd love to get another IV, but I can't afford to (ed note: treatments for this article were either free, or I was reimbursed). I can afford yoga classes and teas and oils, but a lot of people can't. Why should they care about self-care?

"People who are lower on the socio-economic ladder, when they get their hair done, when they get their nails done — even though they may be benefiting from welfare or food stamps — society looks at them like, 'How dare you take care of yourself when we're supporting your habit,'" says Miller. "Not knowing that the person may be working a job or two or maybe they're using government assistance because the provider in the family died. Whatever the case may be, we kind of use it as 'you have to do this to earn your self-care, you have to be worthy of it.' And we all are, because we exist, period."

Professor Finnan tells me that she did some research a few years ago in downtown elementary schools, where kids took yoga classes and researchers studied the effect the classes had on the students once they left their mats. "These were kids whose moms were not going to yoga classes," says Finnan. "How do you translate this practice into something for kids who live such different lives than those of us who typically practice yoga?"

Like each of the professionals I spoke to — the massage therapist, the acupuncturist, the ayurvedic consultant, the doctor, the yoga teacher — Finnan says that the students were given tools to deal with life every day, not just in an hour-long class. Self-care for these kids, most of them from lower income families, meant learning how to focus, how to persevere.

"What the kids were able to articulate," says Finnan, "is that they were able to find some peace inside."

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