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Self-care as a commodity in students' lives

ASU students feel dissatisfied with the wellness resources the University has offered throughout the course of the pandemic

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Self-care as a commodity in students' lives

ASU students feel dissatisfied with the wellness resources the University has offered throughout the course of the pandemic

Reem Elsaad, a junior, is double majoring in global studies and political science. She's taking 21 credits while balancing two internships, a couple of clubs and a professional dance team. 

She constantly asks herself if the heavy workload is worth it, or if she should take a step back. "Then I wonder, 'Oh my god, will my GPA go down? Is my scholarship at stake?'" Elsaad said. 

Despite balancing mental health issues and her heavy workload, she fears if she quit in any capacity, she would be letting her family, peers and professors down. 

Amid the stress, Elsaad also sees the University emphasize wellness and self-care in the abstract while simultaneously witnessing and hearing about the failings of health services and other similar resources. 

"They focus on short-term solutions ... there aren't many students who need just short-term help," Elsaad said. "I think everybody needs long-term help instead of just being told to breathe or to talk to a person a couple of times, it's not feasible."

Wellness has become a marketing tool for higher-ed institutions. And outside of university environments, students are bombarded by advertisements and social media trends rooted in the didactic push of products, strict regimens and generic mental health programming. 

For university students confronted with an increased amount of deadlines and lifestyle changes in their day-to-day life, the seemingly glorious promise of a fix-all can put the onus of self-preservation on the individual instead of the circumstances at play. 

Wellness product overload

The general public has become more entranced by the idea of actively enhancing and preserving their beauty, health and general wellbeing. The wellness industry capitalized on this societal shift, with its value skyrocketing to over $4.4 trillion globally in 2020.

During the coronavirus pandemic, google searches for "self-care" reached an all-time-high. Once defined as a series of healthy lifestyle choices amounting to an improved quality of life, self-care is now sold as a product. 

While wellness is rooted in an idea of self-preservation, the industry relies on the notion that products and services are necessary to help someone better themselves in ways unattainable on their own. The mass-marketing of commodities and oddities intended to aid us in our quest toward good health can send the wrong message. 

The wellness industry includes anything from health, fitness, nutrition, appearance to mindfulness, giving companies across different sectors the opportunity to capitalize on a seemingly endless opportunity for sales, so long as they claim to improve the consumer’s wellbeing. 

From clean beauty cosmetics, green smoothie juicers, to meditation apps and yoga retreats, the wellness industry expanded close to 6% every year from 2013-2017 as global brands adopted betterment-via-commodities as a marketing tactic.

Companies with no historical association with wellness are clamoring to create products that claim to ease the stressors in customers' lives. In January 2022, the American meat production firm Oscar Mayer collaborated with Korean Beauty brand Seoul Mamas — an unexpected pairing — to produce a hydrogel face mask designed to resemble a slice of  bologna while providing anti-aging and hydration benefits.

Judith Karshmer, dean of the Edson College of Nursing and Health Innovation, urges consumers to question how these wellness products are being presented to the public.

"We need to stress that health and wellness is not an external application, but an internal exploration," Karshmer said. "It's about doing something that fits into your lifestyle, it's not necessarily some external product or even external activity, it's something you enjoy doing."

At its core, wellness is about creating a positive relationship with your body while placing an emphasis on physical and mental health. But the constant barrage of products and expectations may add extra pressure onto people who may already feel the demand to be better.

"Just like with any hardcore marketing campaign, we have to stop and think, 'What is it that they're really pushing here?'" she said.

The internet also has a heavy hand in pushing this narrative. One such example is the trend known as "That girl,'' a typically college-aged woman who has every aspect of her life in order by implementing a long list of wellness to-dos, including skincare, working out, journaling and eating healthy. 

While social media influencers are known to romanticize themselves through curated virtual personas, usually by outwardly projecting a productive, successful and happy life, this trend sends a direct message. By vigilantly adopting a strict list of habits and products, you can transform into a perfect person overnight. 

How wellness targets students 

Dior Vargas was a college freshman the day she walked to her college counselor's office in an effort to seek help for her severe depression. 

She quickly realized her therapist did not understand her or her background.

Growing up Hispanic, Vargas was raised to not speak about the way she felt. Knowing her single mother had bigger issues to worry about, like putting food on the table for her and her sibling, she made sure to "not ruffle any feathers or make too much noise," but since the age of eight, she battled severe depression and attempted suicide several times. 

"There's this sense of strength that we have to exude, we have to come across as self-sufficient," Vargas said of her Hispanic heritage.

Now Vargas works as a mental health advocate for communities of color and an educator for higher education and other entities. She prioritizes tools and knowledge to help people advocate for themselves. 

The work of Vargas and other activists has made wellness, a growing movement devoted to persistent self-betterment and care, more accessible for those who didn't grow up familiar with it. 

Vargas now helps universities visualize what inclusive wellness can, and should, look like. 

While ASU tries to foster an environment that provides resources and embraces communities of color, Vargas believes that the wellness industry overall is not inclusive to people of color. However, she has noticed there has been increased efforts to support these communities in recent years. 

Zachary Reeves-Blurton, the assistant director of the ASU Center for Mindfulness, Compassion and Resilience, said ASU needs to be able to provide tools so students can be resilient when facing challenges.

 For students with full-time jobs, children, mental health issues and diverse traumas, these factors may affect the ways in which they need to receive support.

The Center for Mindfulness provides mindfulness tips as a basic set of tools and practices that students from all backgrounds can practice on a daily basis in order to combat stress, both academically and interpersonally.

Although Karshmer believes ASU has an "outrageous" amount of high-quality programming around wellness and physical and mental health, she knows there are areas in need of improvement. 

"We have services that other places would die for," she said. "The problem is they're all siloed. There's one here, and there's one there, but unless you happen to know about it, or unless you seek it out, it's not apparent to you and it doesn't feel as accessible as it’s designed to."

For Vargas, her struggle with mental health in college caused her grades and GPA to plummet. She skipped or slept through class and missed assignments constantly.

"My mental health really ruined my entire college experience," Vargas said. "If I had known that I could get accommodations, that would have been a game changer."

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