How fitting that the Netflix documentary series The Goop Lab opens with pats on the back all round. In its first few minutes, we find the Goop team sitting around a brightly lit conference room celebrating how far the “modern lifestyle brand” has come since its founding in 2008 by Hollywood royalty Gwyneth Paltrow. Goop has been her true calling, the CEO humblebrags, more so than something as superficial as sharing the screen with Matt Damon. “To me, it’s all laddering up to one thing, which is optimisation of self. Like, we’re here one time, one life,” she tells her staff, before adding, “How can we milk the shit out of this?”
Yes, it’s a mission statement — Goop has been about attaining perfection in life and self — but also, likely business objective. Paltrow, for all her advocacy, has craftily packaged the idea of self-care, selling it as meditation pillows, vitamin cocktails, sex manuals, crystal-infused water bottles, and the like — all of them dearly priced. At Goop, health and wellness are commodities to be acquired. And despite some of its more dubious treatments (a “mono-diet goat-milk cleanse,” anyone?), the company has raked it in big-time, erecting a towering presence on the self-improvement landscape and contributing to a sector worth billions of American dollars.
All that’s also tipped self-care into self-absorption. Notice how a search for #selfcare on Instagram calls up images of people in cucumber face masks, posing on yoga mats, or shilling for some kind of serum. Or how Etsy is stocked with spa-friendly self-care kits. Or how you can easily Google self-care guides that suggest you take time out to paint your nails and eat chocolate. Thanks to the business of wellness, self-care has become a mark of status and privilege, easily executed with a luxe bubble bath and some herbal tea.
Which is far and away from its ethical and radical origins. The ancient Greeks, wrote philosopher Michel Foucault, reckoned, “Extensive work by the self on the self is required for [the] practice of freedom to take shape in an ethos that is good, beautiful, honourable, estimable, memorable, and exemplary.” Later, in The Great Learning, one Confucius preached self-cultivation as “the root of everything besides”. Much later still, poet and civil rights activist Audre Lorde asserted in 1988’s A Burst of Light, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation and that is an act of political warfare.”
Of course, none of this is to deride the benefits of sheet masks or a good kale smoothie, which are enjoyable things — more so if they actually serve our emotional and mental well-being. You know, the kind of stuff that’s more ancient Greek and less Goop. Self-care, after all, is not just skin-deep. But if you need an assist mining those deep psychological wells, don’t fret and don’t splash out on that goat-milk detox just yet. As with everything else in the 21st century, there’s an app for that.
Self-care apps make up just a slice of the wellness pie that has flourished in recent times; in 2018 alone, the collective revenue of the top 10 self-care apps ran to US$27 million worldwide. The reasons for this boom are manifold — the toil of modern living, the esteem-drain that is social media, the raised profile of #selfcare, the American president — but here’s the big one: accessibility. These apps literally land the matter of self-care right in our hands, offering us easy, democratised entries to guided meditation, positive psychology, and cognitive behavioral therapy. No, they’re not here to replace traditional healthcare, but to facilitate our day-to-day mental hygiene in ways that can alleviate psychological symptoms from anxiety to sleeplessness.
Behold the almighty Calm, which has pretty much cornered the meditation app market, chalking up a paid subscriber base upward of two million. Being an oasis amid today’s digital clutter — a “counterbalance” to the attention economy, according to co-founder Alex Tew — clearly pays off. But more vitally, Calm has transformed the practice of meditation into a modern, accessible technique that’ll enrich our mental fitness. “Ten minutes a day is all that’s required for meditation,” noted co-founder Michael Acton Smith. “It helps you ride the waves of life better.”
The other great thing about an app like this? It’s always on. As Alison Darcy, CEO and founder of the Woebot app, wrote, “We often say that when you are feeling low, ‘you should talk to someone’. But insisting that this is the only way to get help leaves behind all of those for whom that is not an option. What if it’s 3am?”
That’s why Woebot exists: no matter the time of day, the therapy chatbot is always ready to lend a listening ear, track your mood, and impart CBT strategies to encourage objective thinking. It’s also got receipts, in the form of a peer-reviewed clinical study, that shows its AI-based therapy does reduce symptoms of depression. Increasingly, other chatbots like Therachat are also supplementing IRL talk therapy, fulfilling Darcy’s hope that these services will participate in “a comprehensive mental healthcare ecosystem”.
Ultimately, though, it’s essential to note that none of these self-care apps — from Shine to iMindfulness, Happify to Buddhify — claim to offer swift fixes. Instead, they’re allies, here to furnish us with support, and an opportunity for self-cultivation and self-compassion. As psychologist Guy Winch put it in his 2014 TED talk, “By taking action when you’re lonely, by changing your responses to failure, by protecting your self-esteem… you won’t just heal your psychological wounds, you will build emotional resilience, you will thrive.”
Establishing that inner resilience doesn’t entail costly Himalayan sea-salt scrubs, but fundamentally taking care of our physical, emotional and psychological health in a world that — particularly for minorities and marginalised communities — might not. If a Calm Sleep Story narrated by Matthew McConaughey helps a little, then hey, all right. But self-care is not the journey; it’s the beginning of one. Only after working on ourselves, as the ancients taught us, can we more potently effect positive change outside of ourselves. Which, coincidentally, is how we milk the shit out of life.