Sheet masks are not accommodations: Redefining “self-care” for mental health

| Managing Forum Editor
A figure holds a bag of "self-care" items such as fuzzy socks while pushing away the letters "PTO," or "paid time off."

Illustration by Tuesday Hadden

Colorful bath bombs, a nail file, lavender-scented fabric softener, self-tanner, and yoga pants with pockets — all items listed as “self-care” essentials by popular sites like Buzzfeed and E! News

This language around self-care is not limited to Buzzfeed articles, and mental health practices seem to be regularly conflated with this particularly consumerist, individualistic approach to self-care. As Teen Vogue puts it, “self-care is all about what you make of it.” But that assertion cannot be true when self-care is often limited to its consumerist contexts and is stigmatized when expanded to include mental health accommodations that challenge existing structures and norms.

Don’t get me wrong — I have a deep appreciation for fuzzy socks, satin pajama sets, and the occasional journal entry rant. These activities and items can truly be relaxing, and taking time for yourself each day is often a vital mental health practice. But labeling the individual action of purchasing a sheet mask or plush robe as a mental health practice — and having the definition of “self-care” stop there — ignores the structural ways in which mental health resources and accommodations are often inadequate and stigmatized.

In “Reclaiming the Radical Politics of Self-Care: A Crip-of-Color Critique,” authors Jina B. Kim and Sami Schalk challenge our current perceptions of self-care and reexamine what self-care looks like through the lenses of feminist and disability studies. Kim and Schalk argue that self-care must exist “beyond the individual and outside capitalist temporalities focused on productivity and profit.” Their approach completely reframes “self-care” from a consumerist-driven, individualistic practice to a broader look at the state of mental health accommodations within institutions and the stigmatization of asking for those accommodations amidst a culture that values productivity and profit over mental health.

Additionally, various forms of “self-care” associated with mental health are not treated equally. As Kim and Schalk write, “Taking time for self-care is acceptable only insofar as it enables the further optimization of one’s time spent at work.” Self-care is given value when centered within the consumerist contexts of collecting various “self-care” items, particularly when paired with the goal of addressing mental health to better one’s productivity in other areas. In contrast, when self-care practices disrupt expectations of productivity, accommodations often become virtually nonexistent. An institution that hands out colorful journals yet lacks adequate and available mental health resources or necessary accommodations for time off for mental health reasons is not an institution promoting true self-care in all its forms. 

WashU as an institution also must reframe self-care and mental health to ensure students receive proper resources and accommodations. Professors themselves must treat mental health as a valid and important reason for extensions on assignments rather than stigmatizing asking for mental health accommodations. At an institutional level, policies must be put in place to enforce these expectations while also dismantling existing standards that instruct professors to limit extensions, time off, and other accommodations for students. 

Taking time for yourself is an essential mental health practice — one that can look like writing a journal entry, taking a break to complete a coloring page, or playing a favorite video game. But the longer that mental health and self-care are framed as solely individual issues based on handing out sheet masks or purchasing the latest and greatest self-tanning solution, the roles of institutions in disregarding and stigmatizing what mental health care actually looks like will continue to be ignored. And, prioritizing one’s mental health at the individual level can only go so far — or may only be viewed as acceptable within certain bounds of productivity — while existing within institutions that do not provide adequate time off for mental health reasons.

So please don’t throw your sheet masks, bath bombs, or fuzzy socks away. But to the University and to any institution looking to provide proper mental health care, reexamine existing policies and qualities of mental health accommodations before claiming to be proponents of “self-care.”

Sign up for the email edition

Stay up to date with everything happening at Washington University and beyond.