It’s the middle of the afternoon. I’ve just finished my classes for the day and opened instagram to scroll away the burn-out. I can’t get three posts into my page before I come across an aestheticized “productive day in my life” clip with a college student recording themselves studying for hours, working out, meal prepping, and doing her luxury 10-step skincare routine. As I’m watching the video, I can’t help but compare it to my life: rushing between classes, squeezing in a workout late in the evening when the gym isn’t packed, grabbing dinner to-go and crashing at 2 am. The productivity inspiration I see on my phone inspires feelings of guilt for finding bits and pieces of relaxation throughout the day rather than motivation for keeping at “the grind”. The self care media we consume has been monetized and idealized, turned into a product to buy or a video that an influencer profits from. The way that self care is portrayed and impacts us necessitates a question: Is our glorification of productivity and the marketability of self-care helping us or hurting us?
The Grind and Self Care
With the rise of the “girl boss” in the early-to-mid 2010’s, there was a paralleled rise in “hustle culture”, or the “grind” mentality. The idea of exceptional productivity in the workplace was encouraged by the new ideas of what a woman in the workplace should be: better than her male counterparts, competing with her female coworkers, always working harder and longer to be the “boss” that she is. The grind never stops, and neither does she. As the glamorization of long hours working, maximizing every free minute to work on assignments or projects became more mainstream, so did self care. The draw towards self care, among other things, was reactionary to the all-encompassing nature of The Grind, and was necessary to deal with the eventual burn out one gets from the exhausting drive towards perfect productivity. Self care became a staple within our media filled world, existing symbiotically with a productivity and profit driven capitalist system. The necessity for self care bloomed as the workplace moved into our homes, with breaks from the perpetual buzz of obligations becoming more and more purposeful. Lengthy skincare routines became modes of decompression, staying in for movie nights became a luxury, and prepping food was a meditative exercise to organize our hectic upcoming week.
The It Girl
As with most things in our society that venture into the mainstream, caring for ourselves amidst an exhausting system quickly became monetized. Corporations and rising influencers realized the social and actual capital available within the realm of self care, and with the growing demand for methods of caring for our physical and mental selves they were more than happy to profit within it. Along with the growing profitability of self care, our social concept of the It Girl shifted: The It Girl was now not only the powerful, unshakable Girlboss, but she was also taking time to clear her skin, put effort into her health and mental wellbeing, and dress herself sustainably, all while still prioritizing productivity in the workplace or school. Influencers on Instagram leaned into this shift in ideals, popularizing skincare brands through sponsorships and encouraging the consumer mindset with gym routines in matching workout sets. As women, we are socialized to aim for the unattainable in every aspect of our lives and are naturally drawn to media that perpetuates that. We consume media that tells us to buy a certain type of workout clothes, that by using the same brand of luxury skin products our acne and anxiety will be cured.
However, the transition from the glorification of the Girlboss to the idealization of the It Girl has not allowed for the conversation of the impact of these epitomes upon our mental and physical health, as well as the impact upon our relationships with other women. Both concepts created unhealthy standards for how we perform in society, and women continue to try and compete against this “female ideal” that cannot be attained without sacrificing something. Instagram and other media sources have not popularized real women and how they live their lives, they have popularized a glamorized version. Trying to simultaneously balance hyper-productivity and a full personal and social life can lead to real mental health consequences: burnout, higher base levels of anxiety and depression, and lowered creativity. Regularly high levels of cortisol- the stress hormone- in our systems can be extremely harmful, even leading to physical side effects of excessive stress. It also can impact our intrapersonal relationships. How we perceive other women is based around how they compare to us, but also how we perceive them fitting the It Girl mold. The closer they appear to reach that idea, the more we internally judge ourselves. It taints friendships, turning our lives even outside of the workplace into a competition. Every facet of our lives are now comparable to the ideal, not only how we perform in the workplace, reinforcing bad self esteem and unhealthy mental pathways.
How do we deal with this?
For so many of us, social media has become an escape from stress and the perpetual need for productivity. However, a big key to overcoming the toxicity within productivity and It Girl-ness is removing ourselves from that part of social media. There are some good ideas on social media, but weeding those out from the rest can take a lot of time and energy. Instead of following the latest tips from your favorite influencer on how to decompress (featuring a $40 facemask), focus on listening to your body and personal needs. Not everyone has the same needs, and self care should be tailored to your brain and your body. Learn what triggers stress in your daily life, and what helps calm you down at the end of it. Here are some ideas that have helped me in the past :
1) Turn your computer and notifications off at a set time every night
I learned that if I turn all “productivity app” notifications off at the same point every night it’s easier to create a cycle of destressing. We have normalized work oozing into our personal lives, and by restructuring our lives to define those parts much more it can help to reduce the feeling of constant stress. We can condition ourselves to associate the end of the day with the end of work, lowering overall cortisol at the end of the day, improving our sleep habits, and creating time for things that we personally enjoy.
2) Create routines within your day and week
When you create set routines within your week and daily life, specifically outside of work and productivity, there are events not associated with stress to look forward to. Incorporate things that produce happy chemicals into your daily life: get brunch with friends every Saturday, have movie nights every Friday, meet for a book club on Tuesdays! By doing what makes you happy and creating regular habits surrounding them, there are higher levels of serotonin and dopamine in your brain. These happy chemicals will increase your overall mood, and can help to combat how overwhelming work and school can be.
3) Incorporate mindfulness into your life
Take time to listen to your mind and body. This can come in many different forms, and is different for everyone depending on their needs. Some people find talking to a therapist to be really beneficial to how they think about life and different situations. Talking to a therapist has been stigmatized in our society, but ultimately they give us tools for how to think about life, the situations we find ourselves in, and the mental pathways we run through. Other options are meditation, keeping a journal, or simply taking time by ourselves to work out or be in nature.
Most importantly, we need to realize that what we see on the internet isn’t necessarily attainable or healthy. Influencers tailor their content to what is profitable and not what is particularly achievable or good for mental health. The key to overcoming toxicity within our productivity is recognizing when self care is helpful versus when it is profitable, and that the ideal for who you should be isn’t based upon productivity, but on how you can be as healthy and good to yourself and others as you can be.