The last few years have seen a stratospheric rise in the popularity of subscription box services. The number to choose fro has grown seemingly infinitely, and all tastes and preferences can be catered to. From wine subscriptions to pop culture loot boxes, to real live house plants, there really is something for everyone, as companies realise the potential profits of selling people boxes full of lower-value items at a monthly premium.
One of the earliest and most successful of these services is Birchbox. Founded in 2010, the company quickly became a beauty-blogger favourite, offering personalised make-up and beauty samples on a monthly basis. With huge amounts of money (over $11 million in the first two years) invested in the early funding of the New York based venture, prominent marketing focuses on aesthetically-pleasing packaging and cult-hit products. Subscribers are given the feeling that they’re in on the next big make-up secret, ready to hit the mainstream.
I have been a subscriber to Birchbox on and off since about 2015. I am now on an off period. Much as it is nice to receive monthly packagers full of interesting new products, I have accepted that I simply don’t get enough use out of my samples to make it worthwhile. I’m not a huge make-up addict as it is, and didn’t find that the products were convincing me to become one. I have however found some favourite products through subscribing, so I’m grateful for that.
The latest pause in my subscription (in fact this time a full-on cancellation) has also been inspired by my growing discomfort about the way large companies co-opt movements in order to make profit. I’ve written previously about how Dollar Shave Club disingenuously jumped on the feminist bandwagon to sell male-focused products to women. A similar thing seems to be happening at Birchbox, albeit in a slightly different way, namely by commodifying a growing self-care movement to legitimise capitalist consumption. As they sell products exclusively aimed at women, this isn’t a case of them deceptively claiming a female focus where there isn’t one, but rather of using ideas at the centre of contemporary feminism in a way which undermines the movement itself.
Self-care started off as a way of radically claiming control over one’s body, of acknowledging the strain living in a patriarchal society puts on women, and of combatting the fatigue existing and resisting within that society often results in. It is a proclaimation that you as a woman are worthy of time and care, and that it is ok to acknowledge your own needs. It is about resisting the pressure society places on women to put others first, and taking account of the extra and unpaid emotional and intellectual labour women are forced to give out. We can also link it to a growing body positivity movement which seeks to highlight the inherent value of all bodies, and the worth of caring for your body as a friend and partner, not something to be denigrated or objectified.
There is however an ever-present danger of commodification with the self-care movement. Ways of looking after ourselves can easily become linked with consumerism in a capitalist society. Our time for ourselves becomes about products and purchases, with even the act of making a purchase being lauded as a form of self-care. The rise of ‘treat yo’self’ culture has been in tandem with self-care’s growing popularity, for obvious reasons. So, far from helping us escape the constraints and pressures of capitalist society, self-care can become a way of simply entrenching it. This is of course not to say that there aren’t plenty of ways to take care of oneself and offer relief without spending money. But the idea so neatly sits alongside current consumerist structures that it would be bizarre if companies and corporations did not try to take advantage of it.
Birchbox does not explicitly market itself as a form of self-care, but it does make use of the rhetoric of this movement. It has featured boxes themed about mindful living, stress reduction, and empowerment, with names like ‘Be Present not Perfect’, ‘Feeling Good’, and ‘You go Girl’. The numerous Instagrams their customers are encouraged (or paid?) to post use hashtags like ‘gift to myself’, ‘selfcare’ and ‘pamper yourself’. The environment this creates is one in which self-care is tied to purchasing power. Rather than being a way of escaping the stress and strain of a capitalist society, we are actually becoming further implicated in it.
Now, the question which presents itself is: does this really matter? I’ve done it, you’ve done it, we’ve all done it, to some degree or another, at one point in our lives. We’ve all bought things to make us feel better. Birchbox are obviously far from the only company making the most of this trend. The booming scented candle industry would probably be lost without it. The problem lies in the watering-down of an explicitly radical, feminist and politicised focus on the self, in spite of societal pressures, not in tandem with them. By commodifying the idea of self-care, Birchbox and others like it use ideas designed to liberate us to further ensnare us. I am a firm believer in the power of make-up as a form of self-expression. Anyone who implies that wearing make-up is exclusively patriarchal is missing out a whole history of women exploring, expressing, and resisting through their use of make-up. But is this really the type of engagement that Birchbox encourages? The items sent in any one box are tailored (perhaps minimally) to their recipient based on answers to questions about your skin type, tastes, hair colour, make-up routine and so-on. But there are always some products included which aim to ‘improve’ your appearance. From colour-correcting creams to pore-minimisers, hair volumisers and liptints, these products are designed to make their wearer conform to existing societal beauty norms, not create new ones. ‘Improving’ our appearance can make us feel better, but only in relation to the pressures placed on us by society and popular culture.
By promoting this particular type of #selfcare, Birchbox and others like it make a profit at the expense of the aims of the self-care movement itself. They commodify the goal, link it to individual purchasing power, and sell a vision which neatly ties with years of beauty marketing and their own product lines. Tying the ability to practice self-care to individual wealth means that those most in need of it may feel shut out from a movement that should be at its best when catering to their needs and circumstances.
So no, it doesn’t necessarily matter, if you go in with open eyes and the awareness that you are really just buying into an expensive way of testing products you wouldn’t otherwise want, and you are not being positioned as part of a movement designed to break free from the pressures beauty companies like Birchbox rely on. As I noted, I have found some of my favourite products through it, so if you like trying new products, enjoy the fun of having a monthly parcel delivered, then go for it. If you want to radically reclaim and proclaim the value of your bodily and mental wellbeing, I suggest you look elsewhere.