Self-care is more than just scented candles and shrivelling in tepid bathwater, Sophie White says indulging in vanity can be essential armour when life is coming at you
At the end of January I did two Google searches in the space of 10 minutes:
"Should I go on antidepressants?"
"Should I get hair extensions?"
I think there's something in this. And that something is more than just January, despite January being particularly Januaryish this year. My friend asked me, “How’s life?” and I said, “Well, it’s currently a toss up between antidepressants and hair extensions”.
If that sounds like I am trivialising mental illness, believe me I am not. I actually took antidepressants for two years in my early 20s after a significant period of mental illness. I was low in a dramatically different way back then, I was suffering from obsessive thoughts, suicide ideation and had become plagued by the idea that my life wasn’t real. Pharmaceutical intervention felt like a very cut and dried decision at that time and I’ve never regretted taking the pills but I don’t remember detecting their effects particularly. I only know that they helped me gradually begin to feel the benefits of therapy and that my conviction that reality wasn’t real slowly, thankfully, ebbed away.
My current malaise is a much more garden variety one. I miss my dad who is dead six months and I am struggling to find the time I think I may need to process it.
The current self care craze is one that I agree with in theory but with two kids and a full-time job, the best a lot of women can really hope for in terms of self-care is a moment alone with your thoughts while doing the dishes. However, the one thing the self-carers are unequivocally correct on is the fact that once you are bona fide ADULT no one is looking out for you much anymore. If we don’t focus on minding ourselves, there is no one who is going to step in and urge us to rest or treat ourselves.
In a series on The Hairpin called Self-Care Summer co-authors, Fariha Roísín and Sara Black McCulloch set out to re-engage with the simple action of taking care of themselves.
“To me, it was a way to build resistance to bullshit, disappointment, and a bit of depression," wrote Black McCulloch. "A way to ward off uncertainty. But I’ve learned, along the way, that this is impossible. You’re never going to be consistently happy and you can’t prevent sadness or life from running its course. Self-care is a way to at least strengthen yourself."
Responding to difficult times with seemingly superficial things like manicures and hair extensions might seem like avoidance but it’s actually a far more profound pursuit than one might initially think. I used to hate when I was low and my mother would suggest I put on lipstick. It would take every ounce of restraint to not f*ck the lipstick right at her head. But now I get it. The lipstick is armour. The blow dry is armour. It’s all coping no matter how shallow it may look.
On the morning of my dad’s funeral, I went to the salon for the full work up. Hair, nails, brows. And I’m a low-fi person when it comes to grooming, I honestly didn’t make that much effort on my wedding day but on that day when I needed to stand up and deliver a eulogy in front of everyone who’d known and loved my dad, I needed a full costume for this role. I wore my favourite (and possibly not funeral-appropriate) dress and I tried my best to act like a person who wasn’t seething and burning with guilt and rage and self-loathing. My logic was thus: Everything is so utterly shit right now, I'm getting my hair done.
My cousin is going through a hard time and has gone absolutely mad for regular blow dries and manicures. Perhaps it seems like an odd response to one of life's storms but it actually makes a whole lot of sense. Every time I see her looking beautiful in a new outfit I am filled with admiration for her, she is in pain – a pain that I am lucky to not fully understand – and her new dress and perfect hair is a bid for self preservation.
Self-care is not about scented candle and bathbombs, these are just stand ins for whatever your personal armour might be. The thing that fortifies you and helps you through the hard days.
I’m still wavering on the antidepressants but I got the hair extensions! I’m not a hair extensions gal so I’ve gone for the entry level kind that are quick to put in and last about six weeks, my thinking being at the end of the six weeks I’ll perhaps have come to a conclusion about the pills.