How a Lack of Basic Health Care Made Self-Care a Necessity

While doing a little research for this letter, I was surprised to see “personal care & beauty” often lumped in with stats about wellness-industry market share. Is beauty part of wellness?

I don’t typically think of, say, plumping lip gloss as a wellness item. But I suppose it is difficult to overlook that the beauty and wellness worlds are commingling more than ever, with some beauty brands launching crossover products like natural deodorants or biotin supplements, and more wellness products (including digestive enzymes and mushroom coffee) showing up in stores like Sephora and Ulta.

Product trends are fine, but they can’t define a movement. While health is the state of well-being, “wellness” (and self-care, by extension) is the process of making choices toward better health. Although the word dates back several centuries, the concept of wellness as we know it can be traced to the 1950s. Today, a Google search of the word yields more than one billion results.

The term has taken on a conspicuous consumption connotation in some circles (I hope it goes without saying that you don’t need solid-gold dumbbells or a jade vagina egg). But there are plenty of simple, inexpensive wellness practices we can all engage in, like getting enough sleep, moving our bodies, and eating a serving of broccoli every now and then.

It’s wonderful that more people are taking a proactive approach to their mental and physical well-being. But wellness can carry us only so far. In the words of my colleague Jenny Bailly, “There is no wellness without good, accessible health care.” The phrase “self-care” actually dates back to the civil rights movement: Black women needed self-care because they were denied health care.

So we are devoting this issue to the topic of health — of the body and the mind. The broken, expensive health-care system in this country has left millions of people at risk from issues that can’t be solved by herbal tinctures and breath-work classes. More than 13 percent of Americans (about 34 million people) say a friend or family member died in the past five years after not being able to afford treatment for a condition, according to a 2019 poll by Gallup and West Health. And the stark racial inequities in medical care have led to alarming consequences, such as higher death rates from chronic diseases and higher maternal mortality for Black people.

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