Two days after placing the order, a box arrives with three bottles in a nest of shredded paper: cleanser, toner, and some oil-balancing potion that sounded highly essential.
The specifics really aren’t relevant – these bottles aren’t so much a quest for a perfect complexion, rather a pledge of self-care. A gift from me to me that says: you’ve got this.
A few years ago, while awaiting spinal surgery, my self-care dwindled to the absolute basics.
As a fitness-lover, that an injury should rob me of all joy and purpose felt like an immense betrayal; my body and I were not on good terms. In the end, it was the simple act of cleansing and moisturising my face each morning and night that kept me connected to any sense of caring for myself.
So, when some gynae surgery I’d been waiting for this year got scheduled recently, topping up my skincare shelf made sense.
An adaptable toolkit
As no doubt we’ve all found this year, it’s tough when the things we rely on to keep us soothed, recharged, balanced and buoyed are suddenly out of reach.
Just as we hit peak pandemic stress, gyms, pools, salons, the great outdoors, even friends and hugs – our go-tos for supercharging endorphins and hitting reboot – closed off.
While the pandemic made this temporarily universal on an unprecedented scale, this is a reality often faced by people living with chronic illness, disability or injury – which, really, in some shape or form, at some point in our lives, is likely to be all of us.
As much as having to put beloved hobbies and routines on hold is hard, and as difficult as it can be to adapt, having varied layers to our self-care toolkits stands us in good stead.
When you’d rather be hiking or flinging yourself at a climbing wall, skincare doesn’t sound like much – but when the options are limited, finding those options can mean everything.
And as I discovered, there is something extra special about taking care of your skin. It becomes a tender ritual that does far more than keep us cleansed and soft.
The oxytocin effect
Psychologist and wellbeing expert Suzy Reading, whose latest book is Self-Care For Tough Times: How To Heal In Times Of Anxiety, Loss & Change, agrees the act of caring for ourselves through skincare can be “powerful on many levels”.
“It’s a mindfulness ritual, so you’re anchoring the mind on something constructive, and then you’ve got the physical element of touch, which will stimulate the release of oxytocin.
So, there’s nothing funny about this stuff – it’s really fixed in science.”
Oxytocin is the hormone that creates all those emotional feelings of comfort, intimacy and trust via physical connection.
It’s sometimes even dubbed the ‘love hormone’ or ‘cuddle hormone’ and plays a part in all forms of bonding: between mothers and infants, between friends, between lovers.
“Oxytocin is all about bonding and belonging, and it’s not just touch that someone else extends to you, it’s touch that you lovingly extend towards yourself,” says Reading.
In other words, by engaging with a touching ritual such as skincare, you can tap into this physiological process and nurture this sense of bonding and belonging with yourself.
A mindset and a skill
Self-love – particularly when it comes to our bodies – often isn’t something that comes easy.
Although the tides are thankfully shifting, we’re born into a world that trains us from an early age to spot our ‘flaws’ and embark on never-ending missions to ‘fix’ and ‘hide’ them.
Shame is complex and is often about far more than just external physicality, and this can be especially challenging when faced with health problems and a whole range of other mind-twisters are thrown into the mix – hopelessness, feeling ‘let down’ by your body and disconnected from it.
We can’t expect to click our fingers and declare all these feelings gone, but approaching self-love as an intention and a practice can lead to profound shifts over time.
“It is a skill, and a mindset,” says Reading, who believes there are three key threads here.
“There’s how you view yourself, and really what that is, is having an appreciation for your values and strengths.
Then there’s how you talk to yourself, because the words have a huge impact,” she says. “And then there’s how you treat yourself. How you nourish yourself with food, how you eat, how you move, how you shower, how you dress, how you apply your skincare – it’s the practical elements.
All these things are things you build with intention, and then it becomes a habit, and then it becomes a way of life.
“Self-love can often feel like too big a leap,” she acknowledges. “If we can just start with being loving or tender towards ourselves, that’s how we begin to build that sense of, ‘Oh, this is how it feels to be loved and safe and held, and I can actually extend that towards myself’.
And you can do that without suddenly adoring everything about you. We start with our actions and how we treat ourselves and talk to ourselves.”