Pep Talks From Dating Apps Show How “Self-Care” Has Totally Sold Out

A pink cruiser bike with a wicker basket that has the Tinder logo stands against a green bush.
Tinder is the opposite of self-care Steven Henry/Getty Images

Another day, another sign that Tinder is ruining dating. This week’s omen comes from a piece published over at the Outline on the digital pep talks dating apps like Tinder and Bumble are sending to their users. According to Renée Lynn Reizman, reminders to devote all your attention to the slot machine game of endless swiping are now coming with a little something extra. During a recent binge session of Netflix’s Queer Eye, Reizman felt her phone vibrate and, “desperately in need of a little confidence boost,” she hoped it was a new match from Tinder. While it was indeed a push notification from Tinder, it wasn’t a match. Instead, Reizman received the following message: “Your love affair with Netflix is completely one-sided, 💔 create a well-functioning relationship IRL and make Netflix your side-piece.” Reizman continues:

I flinched … why was Tinder insinuating that most of my past relationships had been dysfunctional?

I texted my friends to see if they’d received anything similar. One had also been scorched by a different cynical quip: “Burned all your bridges and finding yourself friendless and dateless? 😧 Don’t worry, there are literally millions of bridges to be destroyed on Tinder 😎 😚.” Another had a received a similar notification from Bumble, worded in a manner that seemed consistent with the platform’s feminist-empowerment bent. “Even on your worst days, there is someone out there that is proud of you. We are too 💛.”

As Reizman notes, these tiny digital pep talks are two sides of the same dating app therapy coin. Both are designed to keep you in the dating game, Tinder by goading you like an “edgy perpetually vaping bro co-worker” and Bumble by embodying the “sweet, well-meaning high school friend” who “understands how draining the dating game is and wants you to take a break — as long as you come back to the app.” Reizman notes that the messages of these “bite-sized therapy sessions” are fundamentally at odds with the stressful, time-consuming, and bitterly futile reality of dating apps. That’s true, and to my mind, they’re also part of a larger trend towards the total commodification of “self-care.”

Originally a concept rooted in radical black feminist thought, self-care is now almost entirely a way for companies to sell things. A search for “self-care” in the promotions tab of my inbox turned up emails from Etsy, ASOS, and AirBnB all breathily exclaiming that lavender candles and a $481-a-night garden-view flat in Kyoto would bring me some peace of mind. A cursory glance at the Instagram hashtag #selfcare brings up essential oils marketed as “soul care” and a self-heating space mask to use during precious “me time.” Listicles of self-care products to buy abound. These products are always Instagrammable, designed to fit perfectly into the minimalist aesthetic that, according to writer Kyle Chaka, bills itself as “a cure-all for a certain sense of capitalist overindulgence.” In an increasingly anxious time, ways to self-soothe have evolved beyond fodder for Pinterest boards into a mini-beat covered in the pages of the New Yorker. And now dating apps, which fuel our worst tendencies when trying to find a romantic partner, are in on the self-care game.

With all these corporate gimmicks (that I also buy into, make no mistake), it’s easy to forget the context of the oft-quoted Audre Lorde line to which the origin of “self-care” is usually credited. She states, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” The self-care that Lorde is talking about isn’t glamourous or Instagram-ready: It’s cutting down on her sugar intake and monitoring her immune-function tests, it’s being wary of the “devastating effects of overextension.” Lorde’s self-care is rooted in her experience as a black lesbian: In a world where she is expected to make herself smaller for the comfort of others, to break her back in order lift up her community, keeping herself physically and psychically healthy is a way of fighting back.

The self-care that Lorde speaks of can certainly take many forms: Sometimes it is turning off all the demands of work and drawing a bath. Sometimes it is defiantly finding yourself worthy of pampering when the world deems you unworthy. Other times it’s forcing yourself out onto the street after days in bed. Or taking your meds. But radical self-care will never truly be found in products that temporarily distract you from a larger problem you’re avoiding, nor will it be found in a company marketing scheme designed to keep you hooked on a draining dating app. In fact, a true, if small, act of self-care might be to stop swiping for a while altogether.