The age of self-care: why some find spirituality in manifesting and skin care routines

Author and theologian Tara Isabella Burton says the urge to participate in spiritual practices hasn't gone away, it's just changed form.

People from all traditions 'are wary of trusting' established religious order, says author

A skin care face mask is placed on a woman's face.
Author and theologian Tara Isabella Burton said she wants to identify why, in some cases, practices like beauty rituals have filled a societal spiritual void. (Anna Webber/Getty Images)

Religion and spirituality are only getting weirder, according to Tara Isabella Burton. She's been trying to understand why people appear to be becoming both less religious and yet more spiritual at the same time. 

The number of people who identify as "spiritual but not religious" has only been growing in the last decade. Burton said she wants to identify why, in some cases, things like self-care, manifestation, and beauty products have filled that void. 

"More and more of us do not get a sense of community from, let's say, going to church on Sundays. More of us do not feel like we have a holy text that, by reading it, we're able to somehow get in touch with the universe," Burton told Tapestry host Mary Hynes.

"The result is a lot of hunger and a kind of gap in the market, unfortunately, that corporations have been very successful at filling."

Burton is a theologian who explores what happens to the spiritual urge when people give up on organized religion. She said in the absence of religious traditions, people are turning to wellness culture, self-care routines, and manifestation to address a need for spiritual connection. 

A woman with auburn hair wearing bright red lipstick, ornate earrings, and a purple and black satin shirt looks into the camera with a slight smile.
Author and theologian Tara Isabella Burton explores what happens to the spiritual urge when people give up on organized religion. (Submitted by Tara Isabella Burton)

Burton is the author of Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World and Self-Made: Creating Our Identities from Da Vinci to the Kardashians. Here is part of her conversation with Hynes.

I want to pursue how you understand the "spiritual but not religious" idea. How do you make sense of the fact that the Western world seems to be becoming less religious and more religious at the same time? 

A lot of people, regardless of what they personally believe, are very wary of trusting — whether it's a church, whether it's a synagogue, whether it's a mosque — any kind of established religious order or tradition. There is a kind of distrust of authority, or the idea that religious sentiment or religious belief should come from the outside. There's [an increase in] the spiritual but not religious —about 20% of Americans identify this way.

But the way in which I think people who see themselves as spiritual but not religious operate is by thinking, "What feels right? What feels true? I can access truth by looking inward, rather than looking at a particular authority in my community, a particular text."

In my book Strange Rites I call this phenomenon "remixing." Basically, [it's] the process of taking different traditions, different rituals, different practices, and kind of creating a bespoke personal religion.

The work you've done most recently centres on the way people create identities for themselves, how we think about the self and perhaps present a carefully crafted image to the world. How do you see that as a spiritual pursuit?

I'm fascinated by the kind of religious, spiritual, moral undercurrents of the seemingly secular society in which we live. What interests me most about self-making … the idea that self-making is something that in this day and age everybody is supposed to do, whether it's online or off. This idea is deeply bound up with the idea that whatever is true or real about the self is not just the circumstances into which we are born, but the people that we most want to be. That if we have a sense of ourselves inwardly, the act of making that legible to the public is not an act of artifice or invention. It's an act of expressive authenticity. There is a kind of spiritual or religious underpinning to that.

I think the most obvious example of that is the popularity of manifesting. Which is just this idea popular in certain self-help traditions from New Thought [an ideology started in the 1860s centred around the law of attraction] onwards, that if you kind of focus your mind on something, if you want it badly enough ... somehow this is going to get you in touch with the universe, and it's going to happen. That there is some real correspondence between your emotional or psychological inner state, and whatever is governing the universe. 

I'm intrigued by this phrase that's come up, that people are "remixing" religion. Where do you see that happening in the culture all around you?

I think that there's a misconception that the spiritual but not religious are the only people remixing and actually it's more complicated than that. Whether you're doing yoga classes, or you're getting really into tarot, or there was a period, particularly around 2016 … that modern witchcraft was really popular with young, left-leaning women as a feminist act. All of these, ... I think, increasingly, [are] attempts to pursue whether it's spiritual truth or a personal wellbeing or inner peace. [They] often come not from one particular religious tradition … but from these wellness-adjacent, spiritually-coded practices that I think have become increasingly commercialized. 

I feel like every single major city, you can kind of walk down the centre and find five different slightly religious-coded wellness boutique stores called things like "Rituals" or "Spellcraft." These practices are kind of normalized in the para-wellness space, as what do you do? You go to your workout class, and you eat your [specialty] salad, and you go to your meditation class, and you do some of these rituals as part of this overall mind-body connection lattice of practices in pursuit of being your best self. Spiritual wellness, physical wellness, emotional wellness, are all seen as facets of the sort of wider project of self actualization. 

You do the roll call of some of these trends and they include the Headspace app, a 10-step Korean beauty routine, a CrossFit class, and I'm not sure I would have put all those things under the umbrella of a new kind of spirituality. Where do you see the 10-step Korean facial routine fitting into that hunger, that deeper search for meaning?

Wellness culture, more broadly, provides people with these routines or ways to structure their day. … And there is something quite ritualistic even about posting your skin care routine, and having a sense that this is a part of the day that you take for yourself. A lot of the language around it is not just about whether or not a particular product works, but that you're taking time for yourself for self-care.

Where I think that there's a kind of metaphysical assumption there — or there's more spirituality there than meets the eye — is that often wellness culture has a very particular ideology. [It's] sometimes explicit, sometimes implicit, but that goes something like this, "You owe it to yourself, to other people, and to the world, to be your best self." Cultivating your body and soul and mind, all of which fit together they're not necessarily separated from each other, is part of what you do to be the kind of actualized, developed person that you see in your head. There's almost a moral quality to taking care of yourself, to becoming your best self. 

Written by McKenna Hadley-Burke. Interview produced by Theo van Beusekom and Sameer Chhabra. Q&A edited for length and clarity.