A pause button is placed in the foreground while a girl studies in the background
Jennie Vang/TMD

I have always been put off by the notion of self-care. 

I am not sure why. Maybe it is because the term has been co-opted by the beauty and wellness industry to sell skin products and gym memberships. Wellness, which centers around self-care, has morphed into a $1.5 trillion industry that caters to a predominantly white, wealthy, thin, able-bodied demographic. 

Maybe I feel this way because white women use the guise of self-care to cherry-pick practices from Eastern cultures and traditions. For instance, yoga, which is rooted in Hinduism and was once banned in India during British colonization, has been adopted by Western society as an exotic form of exercise and self-care. Yoga studios don’t hesitate to lean into the spiritual aesthetic. My hometown yoga studio, run by a white owner, is decorated with Hindu deities and Om symbols. To use Hindu symbolism in order to curate a “calm and spiritual” aesthetic is not only disrespectful, but blatant cultural appropriation as it reduces Hindu deities to “pretty” decorations. 

Due to the commercialization of the self-care and wellness industry, the idea of self-care seems like a luxury, coming in the form of elaborate seven-step skincare routines, mindfulness meditations and green smoothies. The media has created a version of self-care that is tied to indulgence, which requires extra money and time. Furthermore, this curated idea of self-care excludes those who can’t afford it, making it feel out of reach for marginalized populations. I never felt like self-care was for me because it was never marketed for me. 

For many children of immigrants, self-care also seems like an afterthought. First-generation kids often have to financially and emotionally support their families while handling the burden of their parents’ sacrifices to succeed. These high expectations, coupled with a multitude of other factors, increase the likelihood of psychological distress in children of immigrants. In fact, the prevalence of psychological distress in children of immigrants is nearly double compared to their parents. 

As a child of immigrants, my academic achievements have always been motivated by the high expectations of my family. With the burden of my parents’ sacrifices exacerbated by the high academic expectations within my local South Asian community, there has always been a bit of guilt when I get a B in a class or do badly on an exam. So, I try my best to avoid the guilt by overworking myself in order to succeed, often pushing myself to burnout.

It was at the peak of burnout that I truly began to understand what self-care means to me.

During finals week, my whole friend group got sick from a virus going around the dorms. Despite this, we continued our same study routine with slight alterations: drink more coffee, take medicine and stay up until 1 a.m. studying on the ninth floor of South Quad. 

To no one’s surprise, my sickness only got worse. But I had an organic chemistry final, so I actively ignored my body’s deterioration to study more. I would trek to the School of Social Work building, eat seaweed snacks and drink cans of Monster, while working on seemingly never-ending pages of practice problems. 

It wasn’t until I was wiping away the teardrops on my practice exam that I realized I could not continue to push myself, especially since I had a sore throat and a high fever. 

Two days before the exam, I did something that contradicted everything my immigrant parents taught me: I gave up. For the first time, I accepted the fact that I might do badly on this final and that I would have to be OK with that because my mental and physical health needed to come first. It wasn’t a sudden epiphany, but just an underlying fact that I had to accept after continuous cycles of burnout. My illness forced me to take a step back and reexamine why I was working so hard if I was always exhausted and unhappy at the end of the day, why I was treating my body and mind as a machine and why I am unable to afford the same compassion for myself that I afford to other people.

For me, practicing self-care was allowing myself to fail without feeling guilty about not being the perfect daughter or student. 

That’s what I got wrong about self-care: it is not an action, like doing yoga or putting on a sheet face mask, but a mindset. Self-care is granting yourself a little bit of empathy. 

Sahaj Kohli, a senior editor at Huffington Post, said it best in a tweet, “Self-care for first gens is knowing that most of the time when you choose you, you’ll be reprimanded. Self-care is choosing you anyway and learning to manage the guilt of feeling like a bad daughter/son.”

Next semester, I will probably still overwork myself. However, I am learning to better manage the expectations of my community, my parents and myself. I am learning that practicing self-care and putting yourself first is not selfish but a necessary aspect of achieving any goal. I am learning to let go, even if it is just a little bit. 

MiC Columnist Maya Kogulan can be reached at ukogulan@umich.edu.