Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+ Join today!.
A week ago, I took three of my younger siblings to the local Target so we could browse in the toy section. It’s our routine; each time I return home, small children bankrupt me at a toy or video game store. As my 12-year-old sister meandered to the pet care section and my 8-year-old brother and step-brother gushed over NERF guns, my eyes became locked on a display called “Barbie: Self-Care.”
The poster featured three ethnically diverse and thin Barbie dolls. One was practicing yoga, another was having a spa day, the third was dressed in pajamas. The rest of the “Self-Care” dolls I saw were painting or doing outdoor activities. “Meditation Barbie,” who claims to provide children with guided meditations, gave me hope for a second, thinking it might teach children with anxiety grounding techniques. But when I pushed the button, a rushed, recorded voice saying “Breathe in, breathe out,” made me doubt its therapeutic benefit.
I’ve been speaking out about the commodification and weaponization of self-care for a long time, so I had a visceral reaction. When I drily posted a picture of the display, along with the words “We live in hell,” a few people accused me of being joyless, and some were genuinely confused, saying that it was a positive thing for Barbie to create dolls that teach young girls how to take care of themselves.
It’s understandable that people were perplexed by my dislike of these dolls, because as a society, we have long associated the Instagrammable aesthetics these dolls portray with actual self-care. But self-care is something much deeper, much more revolutionary – and something we seem to be in danger of losing our understanding of.
Self-care is a term coined by and expounded upon by Black essayist and poet, Audre Lorde. In a 1994 essay published in her book Sister Outsider, Lorde spoke of dealing with breast cancer and the racist carelessness society showed for her as Black woman. She wrote “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” Surviving in a world that actively plots against your survival, Lorde teaches us, is resistance.
In recent years, the label of “self-care” has been attached to everything from manicures to psychotherapy to drinking kombucha and ghosting people. I’m not denying that all of those things can be acts of self-care, sometimes even radical acts of self-care. Ghosting an abuser, for instance, is an extremely difficult act of self-preservation. But the individualist and consumerist lens has distorted what self-care means.
Now, there’s big money to be earned commodifying self-care on the internet, marketing products that claim to promise a “healthy” or “toxin-free” lifestyle. Beauty treatments stop being pleasurable small indulgences and become maintenance tasks, obligations linked to self-consciousness about our appearance. (I start disliking the way I look when I’m due for a facial, an activity that I used to simply find relaxing.) Ghosting close friends because the “vibe is off” also becomes self-care. Participation in genuinely useful practices like psychotherapy and hobbies become outward markers of personal worth, boxes to check on a list of who is good or, especially, relationship-material. There’s a popular view that a person struggling with self-love is unworthy of receiving love or companionship.
In this cultural context, Self-Care Barbie dolls become anything but politically neutral. It isn’t good for a 5-year-old to start thinking about tending to their personal brand as a wellness guru – but that’s the direction these dolls point.
Ultimately, the dolls aren’t any different than the Barbie dolls I grew up with in the ‘90s, who all did the same activities like exercise and spa days. There’s nothing wrong with these activities. They’re all enjoyable for many people. But when a veneer of mental health awareness is applied to essentially the exact same dolls that I was playing with more than two decades ago, it’s a shallow attempt to be trendy at the expense of kids.
As adults, many of us keenly feel the pressure and inadequacy of not being “wellness-centered” enough, the way our favorite Instagram influencers or celebrities appear to be. Not focusing on your own self-care can be seen as a moral failing or a character flaw, and we’re constantly rushing to keep up. “Wellness” — in the form of yoga classes, spa treatments, and even therapy — has become its own chore and financial stress.
Kids are people, too. Just smaller and with less experience. They observe that this type of “self-care” has become another metric to judge the worth of a person. And just like with adults, it makes them self-conscious.
Except, children don’t have the legal or financial power to give themselves any kind of self-care consistently. Self-love and self-care is all about doing it yourself, but they don’t have the power to do the things depicted by this Barbie doll. They can’t decide to go to therapy for themselves, take themselves to go get beauty treatments, or go to yoga classes unless their parents approve and are financially able to cover the costs. In many cases, children are discouraged from or punished for engaging even in true, radical acts of self-care such as standing up to toxic family members. And on the extreme side, conservative Christian parents actually forbid their children from meditating or practicing yoga — which is originally a Hindu practice — since they see it as worshiping in another religion. Meditation and yoga has even been banned in Alabama schools — although it was dropped in 2021 — and conservative groups continue to try to get it banned in other states.
The world should be different. But the fact is that children cannot independently participate in most “self-care” activities or even fully engage with more radical philosophies surrounding it, because their lives are controlled by their parents. One could argue that a doll participating in yoga helps normalize it, but the reality is that these versions of self-care already have been normalized for most kids. They’ve just also been attached to harmful ideas about self-worth and capitalism.
What this Barbie doll actually does is take activities that could and should be quite neutral for children, like painting and pedicures, and filters them through the lens of our new secular religion — wellness and self-care. Which makes it even more laden with meaning and judgment.
The issue with a self-care doll isn’t the activities themselves. The issue is that it’s harmful to reify viewpoints that make kids feel self-conscious and unworthy. Although the standard for “wellness” differs for children, they still know they’re being judged on how “well” they are perceived to be. But they have no agency to pursue that wellness, a fact that society doesn’t want to reckon with, because it’s not ready to give children the autonomy they deserve. As a population, children have some of the least amount of legally enshrined personhood of any other marginalized group.
A generation ago, when I was growing up, debates about Barbie dolls centered on how they made children feel judged based on physical appearance. With many of the dolls remaining impossibly thin, white, cis, and abled, this has not abated. Instead, another component has been introduced — the corporations taking advantage of the gains mental health advocates have made, regurgitating that back to young children through a means that is ultimately shallow at best, and actively harmful at worst.