Soak, Steam, Spritz: It’s All Self-Care

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In the days after the presidential election, Jessa Blades, an herbalist and makeup artist in Brooklyn who supported Hillary Clinton, was devastated. “All I could think to do was blend a tea to control my stress,” she said.

Ms. Blades, 37, mixed three pounds of lemon balm, nettle, chamomile, rose and oats together “for soothing the nervous system, calming, giving the right amount of boundaries and opening the heart” and put it in brown paper bags with “love for you and the world” written on the front. She gave them out to friends with instructions to use the combination for self-care.

The term self-care has, over the past few years, become part of the vernacular. But what does it mean? “I always say it’s a daily practice,” she said. “It can be as complicated or as simple as you want it to be: making sure you get enough sleep and drink enough water, monthly facials, fermented foods, a meditation app for your phone or packing healthy snacks for the plane.”

In recent weeks, though, self-care has often been invoked as a way of dealing with open-ended anxiety.

The term has been inescapable online. 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.

On Nov. 11, the website Quartz posted an article titled “The Rise of Donald Trump Demands We Embrace a Harder Kind of Self-Care,” and the same day, Mic published “A Self-Care Guide of TV to Watch to Forget About Donald Trump’s Rise.” (“None are the kind of challenging, difficult shows we normally recommend, but they’re also not the kind of shows that will melt your brain into mush.”)

On Nov. 18, the Clover newsletter, which is aimed at teenagers, published “How to Pull Yourself Back Up When You’re Feeling Down” with “Self-care sounds like one of those lame new-agey terms that people toss around, but it’s actually important, especially now!”

And on social media, it was omnipresent. On Instagram, the tag #selfcare has well over a million posts, including images of sliced persimmons, clay face masks and many yoga poses. #SelfcareSunday joined #ThrowbackThursday, #MotivationMonday and #Caturday before it. In late November, Vanessa K. De Luca, the editor in chief of Essence magazine, posted to Twitter: “Power through today & only take in as much of the world’ drama as you can stand. #selfcare.” Many other users on Twitter mentioned desserts and alcohol. (Some in the offline world wrinkled their noses, thinking the term alluded to masturbation.)

The singling out of self-care as a concept is hardly recent. In 1976, the French philosopher Michel Foucault, in his treatise “The Care of the Self,” wrote that “the idea that one ought to attend to oneself, care for oneself” was a theme in the classical world and a practice that conditions one to care for others.

But the current usage is often traced back to the self-described “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet” Audre Lorde, who wrote in an essay published in her 1988 book, “A Burst of Light,” that “caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

Self-care has long had political undertones, primarily pertaining to activist burnout, said Yashna Padamsee, who works for the National Domestic Workers Alliance and has written about the term. “Audre Lorde’s quote refers back to an act of preservation and act of survival for people at the margins,” Ms. Padamsee said. “Self-care is an act of shoring up and resourcing ourselves to bring a stronger self to the movement. That’s the school of thought I come from.”

So what is the difference between self-care and simply pampering? “There is a distinction between self-care and treating yourself,” Ms. Padamsee said. “What is the purpose of your self-care? Is it to do this for all of our lives, not just yours?”

Otherwild, a boutique with locations in New York’s East Village and Los Angeles, arms would-be revolutionaries with products like a Rose Nectar ($20) and a spray called Boundaries in a Bottle ($26), made with black tourmaline, echinacea and silver fir. “I find it to be powerful and especially good if you work closely with people,” said Rachel Berks, the owner of the stores. “We are all seeking ways to heal ourselves and our psyches, understand ourselves in the world.”

But Gabrielle Moss, author of the Goop parody book, “Glop,” thinks that self-care is starting to (surprise, surprise) lose its meaning and become a marketing tool. “Things that get branded as self-care now have nothing to do with taking care of yourself, like detoxes and juice fasts,” Ms. Moss said. “I do them because I hate myself, not because I’m taking care of myself. It’s poised to be wrenched away from activists and turned into an excuse to buy an expensive bath oil.”

Matthew Gardner, a founder of the TriBeCa-based creative agency Highfield, said he could imagine companies co-opting the idea soon enough. “Brands and agencies still work with ideas that have been thoroughly run into the ground,” Mr. Gardner said. “Then they wait six months. Then they butcher them. So maybe a fast casual salad chain will come out with a mini-campaign encouraging people to ‘show us how you #CareForYourself.’”

At Indiana University, one professor is trying to combine activism and pampering. A week after the election, Jeanne Vaccaro, a postdoctoral fellow in the department of gender studies, handed out phone numbers to students to call their political representatives. “I said, ‘If you haven’t had a chance to do these things, I’m giving you this dedicated time,’” Ms. Vaccaro said. “I think self-help these days is more about providing a collective scene to hold the chaos rather than going off into a quiet corner to decompress.”

Not that she is avoiding her own needs. “I’ve been going to art events constantly,” she said. “Not as a way to pretend that nothing is going on, but to be around people who are imaginative and creative, getting takeout Burmese food from this place by my house. And I spend so much money on my nails.”