When Anna Hanks, a 28-year-old former model now pursuing a degree in psychology, moved to Florida to live with her husband, she found herself living in a home that didn’t really feel like it was hers. “I knew that I was going to be in school full time, so I was going to be home a lot, and I was just going to need that kind of energy that I had already created in my apartment in New York, when I was living alone,” she explains. Coming into a space that someone else has previously been occupying alone can be fraught, but since the pair planned on eventually moving to a different house, they didn’t want to do a complete overhaul.
She sought help from the interior design firm and wellness lifestyle company The Cristalline, which helped her select curated crystals and other objects to bring into her space, an act she says changed her perception of her home for the better. Cristalline co-founder Rashia Bell has trained as both an interior designer and a crystal healer, giving her a unique perspective on the impact that the physical spaces we frequent can have on us, and what it means to optimize them. She considers this a form of self-care, alongside more obvious methods like skin care, journaling, a sleep schedule, or exercize.
“Self-care” is one of those millennial marketing buzzwords that’s so ubiquitous, it’s almost ceased to hold meaning. But the underlying concept is very real: it’s about interspersing your day-to-day life with sometimes-small but always-meaningful actions, rituals, or items that help you feel balanced and healthy. “I've been in that case where I'm like, okay, this isn't my dream space. Like, I'm only going to just do the minimal,” Bell says of the importance of physical space. “And then five years later you're like, okay, how much more fully could I have experienced that space? And ultimately, how could that have affected my life? Would I have wanted to entertain more? Would I have felt better when I got up in the morning?”
And yet, the care, keeping, and curation of one’s space as a form of self-care — homecare, if you will — has been, historically, kind of overlooked. But for people who are engaging with it, it’s not only changing the way they interact with and perceive their space, it’s helping improve their overall lives, and in some cases, even their mental health. And unlike many other self-care trends, because it doesn’t involve one’s body, it can’t be conflated with adherence to traditional beauty ideals under the guise of self-improvement.
“From a feminist perspective, I think it's great to empower ourselves to look at all these ways we care for ourselves, but also, sometimes, I think as women, or for anyone in a more marginalized position, there are so many ways that we've been told what to do with our bodies,” says Natalia Amari, LCSW, a feminist trauma therapist based in Austin, Texas. “It is much more empowering to look at: What in your physical space can you control? What in your physical space can you tweak even to be more supportive to you? Especially if somebody's been really hurt from experiences of marginalization related to who they are and how they show up in the world through their body.”
Over the past few years, there’s been a major increase in millennial-facing, direct-to-consumer brands aiming to disrupt various aspects of the home, from mattresses that ship in cardboard boxes to cookware cute enough to display. They’re known for good design, offering relatively affordable prices for higher-quality materials, and in New York, advertising on the subway lines most popular with disposable income-having hipsters. Whether these brands arrived on the scene because there was an untapped market for them or whether they inspired said market by virtue of their zeitgeisty marketing tactics is a bit of a chicken/egg question, but the fact is, people who may have once not spent on their homes in favor of buying clothes and accessories are suddenly interested in shelling out for silk pillowcases, luxury candles, trendy patterned wallpaper, and, yes, giant crystals.
According to YPulse, a millennial and Gen Z-focused market research firm, 77% of 18 to 37-year-olds want to put more effort into decorating their home or apartment, up from 70% in 2017. These millennials say their ideal home is: a place to relax (82%), welcoming (69%), calming (68%). This is contrasted by those who want it to be primarily exciting (24%) or colorful (23%). “Overall, we see that these young consumers want to make their spaces into calm retreats,” explains MaryLeigh Bliss, YPulse’s VP of Content.
This is illuminating, but thanks to the realities of late-stage capitalism, so much of contemporary self-care culture has been about convincing us to acquire things we don’t really need because we’ve been told they will make our lives (or ourselves) better. There is, of course, nothing wrong with using possessions to express yourself, but the moment it becomes about acquisition rather than optimization, it ceases being self-care and enters the dark realm of mindless consumerism.
Most budget-friendly interior design experts, especially those who are also interested in their field’s intersection with self-care, will caution you to consider whether going out and buying a new sofa will really make you feel more connected to your space, or if you can you move, or re-cover, or otherwise reimagine, the one you have?
“Making your home a ‘happy place’ takes a lot of trial and error,” suggests Nell Diamond, founder and CEO of the bedding and home brand Hill House Home. “You have to really figure out how you want to live. No interior designer is going to do that for you. And I definitely don’t think you should spend a lot of money figuring this out. I think you have to be nosy. Take note of things you like when you’re at friends houses. Screenshot strangers’ Instagrams so you can zoom in on a tiny detail in the background of their kitchen.”
It’s worth noting that, historically, caring for the home and other shared spaces has been seen as “women’s work.” But if we can find ways to reclaim that by building spaces based on what feels good to us -- not a partner, or children, or lifestyle influencers, or society at large -- who’s to say it can’t be empowering, or a form of self-care, or really, whatever the hell we want it to be?
“There are so many traditional notions of femininity that I want to reclaim. 99% of the time I look like a Stepford Wife who stumbled upon a glitter factory,” says Diamond. “My true favorite activity is what I call “puttering around the house.” It’s a very futile exercise of mostly moving items from one room to another, and switching the location of books on a shelf. There’s no goal, but it really relaxes me. I think at its core, it’s very grounding; I’m touching items that I’ve collected and love, and I’m taking care of a space that my family loves.”