A few months ago, during a weekend afternoon when I was supposed to be catching up on a work assignment, I found myself online window shopping instead. After an hour of aimless clicking, I came to the realization that, bizarrely, almost a quarter of the tabs I had open on my computer were from brands and products named Sunday. There was a facial oil by skincare label Sunday Riley that promised to fix my face with blue tansy and chamomile while I slept — an idea that soothed me nearly as much as the vision of how the blue dropper bottle would look living on my nightstand table. I had open a candle by Sunday Forever, an e-commerce site whose photos made it seem like it perpetually existed in that kind of 10 a.m. wintertime light that pierces through your living room with the invasiveness of a home burglary. I even had open a sweater by Alberta Ferretti — a pretty gray one with “Sunday” spelled out in block letters. “Cloudy gray with subtle hints of pale blue accompanies your moments of leisure and relaxation,” the product description read. “Soothing Sunday!” I slapped the laptop closed, and considered texting a friend to wonder out loud whether it was I or the Internet who had developed this subliminal obsession.
Though I had just come to realize the gravitational pull I felt toward “Sunday” brands, the products themselves had become familiar indulgences by then. Over the past year, the things I bought most impulsively were skincare, loungewear, and “spiritualish” knick-knacks that I would have found corny in a roadside gift shop in Sedona, but somehow found irresistible when presented on a Millenial Pink background and surrounded by sans-serif font. Their advertised purpose always felt more magical than utilitarian — to provide clarity, to cleanse energy, to restore balance — but largely appealed to me as a busy, stressed-out person. These Sunday products seemed like an offshoot of “self-care” — the kind of things you do (or buy) for yourself to preserve and protect your mental and emotional energy, as defined by feminist writer Audre Lorde. It can be as simple as working out or posting a selfie, or as intensive as taking a solo vacation. For some, it can even be work. It doesn’t quite matter if that time is spent in self-reflection, self-actualization, or self-improvement — what really seems to matter is that you’re doing it by yourself, for yourself. Take a look at the most popular types of products sold under the umbrella of self-care, an industry that’s estimated by market research company IRI to be worth $400 billion: bath soaks, aromatherapy oils, palo santo sticks, journals, silk robes, crystals, and smudge sticks. These are not things you use around other people.
These are also the products that make up the bulk of “Sunday” brands — and explains the psychology that makes it especially appealing. Ashli Stockton, founder of Sunday Forever, sells a variety of self-care products that she used to use herself, not-so-coincidentally on Sundays. “I set up a whole situation. My candles. My sage,” recounted Stockton. But beyond just creating a mood, Stockton’s Sunday set-up had a specific purpose: “I had this cushy job, and was making a lot of money doing these amazing things. But on Sundays, I started to get really depressed about the thought of the week to come. I was by myself, and white-knuckling it through. It was all about making myself feel as soothed as possible.” When things got worse, she brought her talismans to work, smudging her office each morning and setting a crystal on her desk.
She’s not alone. The rise of “Sunday” branding is connected to the prevalence of “Sunday Scaries” — the depression and panic that sets in the day before we return to work — which itself is intertwined with the concept of self-care. The marketability of this interconnectedness is undeniable: A look into all trademarks filed for the word “Sundays” confirmed that Sunday is by far the trendiest day of the week to name your brand, and has exponentially increased in popularity within the past few years — a third were filed in the past two years alone. It is 20% more popular than the second-most popular day of the week (Friday), and 500% more popular than the least (Thursday, obviously). Alberta Ferretti confirmed to me that out that out of all the days-of-the-week sweaters, Sunday’s was the most purchased.
These brands existed across all types of services, from beer to texturizing hair gel, marketing agencies to bed sheets. But despite the variation, all were created within the past few years, and all had an aesthetic that could be described as gentle and sparse. Sunday brands don’t try to sell you as much as they try to soothe you.
The connection between Sundays and the need to be soothed is not new. For millennia, it’s been a day of rest, family, and religion. Even the phrase “Sunday blues” developed in response to “Blue laws” that prohibited the sale and consumption of alcohol, travel, and recreation on Sundays starting in the 18th century, which demanded that its citizens spend the day immersed in introspection and piety (which, turns out to be more of a bummer than a blessing for lots of people).
But in the past century, along with the rise of the nine-to-five workday, the day has become connected with anxiety. The earliest modern descriptions of depression — called neurasthenia in 1869 — were said to stem from the pressures created by the changes spurred by the new ways people earned a living: “The primary cause of neurasthenia in this country is civilization itself […], with its railway, telegraph, telephone, and periodical press intensifying […] cerebral activity and worry,” wrote physician A.D. Rockwell for The New York Medical Journal in 1893. In fact, it is this “worry of business and professional life” that Rockwell calls, specifically, “American nervousness.” If civilization happened from Monday through Friday, Sunday was your last chance to get a grip.
Up until recently, advice columns recommended convivial brunches, church gatherings, and family time to combat the Sunday Blues. That is no longer true. Today, it’s solitude — not sociability — that’s the key to salvation.
During the worst of my Sunday Scaries, I followed pretty much the same routine: I would go to lunch with friends where I would get satisfyingly buzzed. Following that, I’d go straight home and burrow myself in my comforter with my laptop on my stomach, scrolling, scrolling, scrolling to ignore the undulations of alarm flicking at my ribcage: You are not prepared for tomorrow. You should prepare for tomorrow. There is nothing you can really do to prepare yourself for tomorrow. Tomorrow is still coming.
Obsessions would form; things that were not skill-based enough to be considered hobbies but time-consuming enough to qualify as something, like elaborate nail art or maintaining weird Tumblr accounts. My Sundays were about manifesting some sense of control on a smaller scale.
But the new Sunday psychology is about reframing these impulses as attempts towards healthiness instead of evidence of unhealthiness. “Thinking about Sunday as a day of self-care [instead of stress] is a different way to start the week off, so you have the emotional reserves in your tank to go into the week with a positive mindset,” says psychologist Juli Fraga, who specializes in women’s health. She notes that because women oftentimes associate feeling guilty about what feels good, we oftentimes believe that self-care needs to come at a cost, sometimes quite literally: “Self-care often centers around spending money.”
Convincing women that spending money on themselves, and sequestering themselves in safe spaces are all acts of self-kindness — not self-centeredness — is rampant in Sunday psychology.
By itself, the products Stockton purchased for her Sunday hermit rituals did not fix her problems but they did help highlight the extent of the anxiety. “It wasn’t ever about magic,” Stockton clarifies. “It was about manifestation. Buying sage and crystals aren’t going to change your life. But when I smudge my apartment on Sunday, it’s soothing because I know how it happens and how it ends.” She remembers her breaking point, when she looked around a room of the top execs at her company, and realized that she did not want their lives. “The Sunday feeling acted as a magnifying glass as to why I wasn’t happy,” she says.
That ritualistic aspect of creating order in small ways can be personally reassuring, if not actually effective in alleviating big-scale turmoil. And even if the act itself is inherently empty, many these self-care products come ready-made with meaning, courtesy of purposefully ambiguous “ethnic” origins.
I don’t doubt that some people really believe that the properties of $12 sage smoke are molecularly repellent to bad juju. But, it’s more likely that most self-care consumers are like me: I just like the way some things look and smell, two attributes I value considering there is a lot around me that looks bad and smells worse. The purposes of these baubles will not make you happier, or make your job less shitty. These pocket-sized rituals are supposed to remind you that something is being unfulfilled.
Amy Ling Lin, founder and creator of Sundays nail salon, also noted the importance of Sundays in aligning her career trajectory with her personal happiness. “The nail industry was never my passion, but I was always interested in customer service and retail,” says Lin who was running a and operating traditional nail salons before she realized her clients were increasingly ascribing more and more meaning to doing their nails. “I learned that clients were getting their nails painted not only to look beautiful, but that there’s also an emotional attachment,” Lin says. That gave her an idea: After completing business school, Lin opened Sundays, and decorated it to look more like a friend’s living room than a standard salon. Though the salon is oftentimes packed with patrons, it’s set up to promote introversion.
“I went back to ‘What kind of feelings do I want to create? An afternoon. A sunny afternoon. There’s a cup of tea. A blanket,” she says. “We train the technician on light conversations, since some clients have told me they don’t know how to talk to nail specialists sometimes, but we only do very brief consultations. We have this guided meditation where clients can put on a headset if they want to find peace.” Without music, chatter, or even the sound of flipping magazines, Sundays creates the sensation of solitude, even when you’re surrounded by people.
“I came up with Sunday on a Sunday morning. It was because that time meant that it was ‘my time.’ Self-care is deciding how to spend your own time,” Lin says.
Ironically, some psychologists like Fraga believe that the isolation that Sunday psychology prescribes — by-yourself-care — is likely to exacerbate feelings of anxiety. In recent years, loneliness has been identified as a public health concern, and our workplaces can be one of the biggest influences on our emotional wellbeing. “We live in the most technologically connected age in the history of civilization, yet rates of loneliness have doubled since the 1980s,” writes former U.S. surgeon general Vivek H. Murthy in the Harvard Business Review, pointing out that the 21st century modes of business make us more isolated than connected, leading to increased stress and a decrease in self-esteem.
Compound that with the deluge of upsetting news and external instabilities, and the solutions to all our problems can seem just as inaccessible. What can be insidious about Sunday psychology isn’t that these feelings are real and smothering, but that it’s up to the individual to fix them by buying products. “It’s dangerous when businesses benefit from the state of the world by preying on people’s fears, telling them that they can ameliorate their anxieties by consuming something or buying something,” says Fraga. “It sends a message that if you have a feeling, you should find a solution outside of yourself.”
The best antidote to anxiety, it turns out, is what Sundays used to be about: spending time with others. “The most valuable self-care that we can give ourselves comes by way of relationships,” says Fraga. “We’ve come to see independence as not needing others in order to take care of yourself — that you don’t need others to be happy. You do.”
When Stockton realized one Sunday that her “dream” career was actually the root of her unhappiness, the day took on a different meaning for her. “My goal was always to not know what day of the week it is. Now, I’m in complete control of my schedule and my life.” Today, Sunday Scaries do not plague her: “I never get them anymore.”
Right now, I have a pile of sheet masks in my side dresser that could rival Sephora. But the way my Sundays look in 2018 are wildly different than those in 2008. It is odd to acknowledge that even though my existential anxiety has escalated in the past year, my personal anxiety has diminished. For the first time in a long time, my professional and personal lives had taken on a different flavor. Years of living with a person who activated the best parts of myself, and who I knew would always be there to pick up the slack did a wonderful thing for my self confidence. In surrounding myself with friends around whom I never felt like an imposter, I became more comfortable in being vulnerable and honest. I switched roles at work, and was refilled with a sense of purpose. When my body and mind felt like home again, self-care began to feel like scoring bonus points rather than filling a leaky bucket. These products were treats, not bandaids.
During good times, Sundays would naturally become my busiest days, full of day trips and short dates. This past one, I went to an old museum with a new friend, and got together with an old friend to gossip about a new milestone. I made dinner with my husband. I also scheduled in intermittent moments to myself, taking the long way home, and getting my nails painted the color of raw squid at Sundays. I took home a bottle of Sunday Riley’s night oil.
While Sunday is the founder’s first name, it has also become a de facto philosophy for the skincare brand: “’Sunday’ as a trending day of the week was a new concept to me until recently,” wrote Riley in an email. “I definitely think there’s an element of self-care that accompanies the ‘Sunday’ name as well as skincare in general.” The $105 oil smells like sleepy-time tea and very clean sheets, and I was right: It felt as good on my face as it looked on my bedside table.
I spent the last moments of my Sunday with my eyes closed, luxuriating in how nice it was to lay in bed feeling tired but not exhausted, enjoying the feeling of pampered skin, and thinking about what it would be like to turn these sensations into words at work the next day.
What a joy that none of it felt scary at all.