Podcast

with Jasmine Bina

14: The Radical History of Self-Care & the New World of Wellness Brandin‪g‬

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Wellness and self-care have taken over nearly every industry with a whole crop of new brands. But there is a much deeper story about the connected history of politics, race, gender and identity that underpins the self-care space today, and how it’s many interpretations reflect our American culture. We speak with New York Times journalist and editor Aisha Harris, as well as Jerome Nichols, founder of cult favorite self-care brand The Butters, to understand the very radical roots of this now-mainstream movement.

Podcast Transcript

July 16, 2020

50 min read

The Radical History of Self-Care & the New World of Wellness Brandin‪g‬

00:00

Jasmine Bina:
Welcome to unseen Unknown. I’m Jasmine Bina. If you’re like me, you don’t know when it happened, but one day self-care and wellness were everywhere. Those messages about taking care of yourself, healing, thriving, making yourself whole, being enough, reclaiming your power, owning it. They were all around us from cereal boxes to the makeup counter, to advertisements for things like furniture, rental or CBD sticks, mobile apps, your everyday cup of coffee, and you mindset about how to be, but also about how to consume had started to settle in. A second nature as this may all seem right now, the concept of self-care actually comes from a very radical place in recent American history.

I spoke with journalist Aisha Harris about how we got here today. I issue as a writer and editor of the New York Times Opinion section, where she covers culture and society. But before that, she wrote an important article in early 2017 for Slate magazine called A History of Self Care. And in it, she outlined how the self care movement actually started was later adopted by the yuppie cohort and merged with the hippie fueled wellness movements. And after the election of Donald Trump had a sudden, politically inspired resurgence. Yes, self-care and it’s close cousin wellness are everywhere, but it wasn’t always this ubiquitous. Natalia Mehlman Petrzela is a historian of contemporary American politics and culture and she points to a 1979 episode of 60 Minutes with Dan Rather where the early commercialization of wellness sounds more like a pseudo science or as he says later in the episode, maybe even a cult.

01:58

Dan Rather (audio clip):
It’s a movement that is catching on all over the country among doctors, nurses, and others concerned with medical care. Wellness is really the ultimate in something called self-care in which patients are taught to diagnose common illnesses and where possible to treat themselves. More than that it is a positive approach to health. What one doctor calls recognizing that health is not simply the absence of disease.

Jasmine Bina:
This clip had already come a long way from the beginnings of our cultural shift. And we’ve come a long way since then. I sat down with Aisha to talk about the connected history of politics, race, gender, and identity that underpins the self-care space today and how it’s many interpretations reflect our American culture.

02:42

Aisha Harris:
Basically self-care has been around for decades, probably even hundreds of years, but I think in it’s most modern incarnation, we can kind of look to the as having been starting around the 1960s with the civil rights movement, there was very much an emphasis around the fact that black people were not getting the support system and the care that they needed from the institutions that were supposed to provide them, whether it was healthcare education financially. And thrown in with all of these marches and fights for equality was this emphasis put on the fact that schools were inadequate.

So going along with the fact that there were all these concerns about equality within that, there was also the concern about education, the inequities between black schools and white schools and healthcare and medication. And you see that happening in the ’60s. But then once the women’s rights movement kind of kicked off in the late ’60s and into the early ’70s, they adopted a lot of the similar concerns that were occurring.

03:58

And so women and especially women of color were founding organizations and clinics to specifically address the needs for women, whether it was abortion, single motherhood, and these places were a way for women to take care of themselves. It was very different from what we’ve seen today. It was all about survival in many ways. And even after the civil rights movement, you also saw this pickup with the Black Panther movement as well. Alondra Nelson has a book called Body and Soul, which focuses on the Black Panthers. And in part of that book, she really talks about how they started these clinics, these survival programs that provided medical testing within the black community, especially for diseases and illnesses that tend to afflict the black community in disproportionate ways like sickle cell anemia. And those were ways to make sure that black people were getting the help that they needed.

And it was all community oriented. The government wasn’t doing much to help in that regard. You also see that with the Black Panthers notable breakfast program, which provided, which provided free breakfast to kids going to school because they realized kids need to eat. If they weren’t able to get it at home, they could get it from them early in the morning. And so it was a really radical view of self-care that existed. And it was primarily started by women and people of color. And even alongside that same vein was, this was also happening in more like medical social terms as well. When you look at people who committed themselves to being social workers, therapist, the idea of self care also came into play there because the idea is, you can’t help others if you can’t help yourself.

05:47

So, there were studies being done showing that social workers, especially people who were working with people who had even worse problems than them like taking on that emotional baggage and that mental baggage was draining and they would report burnout and inability to both take care of themselves, but then also help the people they’re supposed to be helping. And the weird thing about that is that wrapped up in that is this idea that you need to take care of yourself so you can care for others. So, well, it is about your own wellbeing. It’s still about providing for other people in a way. Yeah, there’s this weird tension between that idea of self-care. But once you move into the ’70s, there is this movement that’s not quite self-care, but it’s like an offshoot of it.

I think most people who study this would say that wellness and self-care are two different things, but they’re like two sides of the same coin in a way. And with wellness that was more attributed to the hippie culture, this idea of eating and living holistically. It definitely had a different aspect in terms of class. It wasn’t so much about survival, but about making your life better. So, you’re at a different starting point. These are people in the San Francisco Bay Area who were seen as a cult. There was in my article I referred to this segment on 60 Minutes with Dan Rather. And he comes to them and talks to them about how they are seen as a cult.

07:23

This in itself is also a rejection in a way of traditional norms, but not in the way that women and people of color were dealing with it. And the fact that the government clearly wasn’t providing them with the basic needs for survival. These were people in the wellness movement really felt as though they were trying to reject Western medicine and felt that there were better ways to live. It was about improving your life starting from a higher, better level of livelihood than most people of color were dealing with at that time. And so that’s kind of where you see this movement towards living your best life and it becoming corporatized. One of the things that I think really crystallizes that one of the moments is Jane Fonda’s workout videos and like the whole exercise movement in the ’80s.

Jazzercise and all of those different things that like really attributed being skinny, equals healthy, eating fresh equals healthy and equals wellness. And that’s where we see the strains of what we see today with the influencers and goop and all of those things as well.

08:35

Jasmine Bina:
Right. This point that you’re describing in the ’80s with the Dan Rather interview with Jane Fonda, the whole proliferation of products that came around hippie culture. This is when we first start to see it really disassociate from being a political statement. And some have argued that now it starts to pull from its roots and it becomes more of a class thing like you described. It’s not even serving the people that it was there to serve in the first place, right? Now you have to pay for this kind of wellness or self-care. And another thing that was interesting about what you said was the start is a very community oriented thing. The purpose of it was so that you could contribute to your community ultimately, but the self-care of today, which there’s a few more steps I want to… We’ll get to like how we got to today. The self-care of today is really individualized. It seems like the community aspect has been cut out in a lot of ways. Would you agree?

09:34

I think in some ways it has, especially for a woman of color, I think it still is very… it’s become individualized, but not in a way… Women of color, especially are still often starting from similar points as their previous generations, where in terms of not getting the adequate care that they are supposed to have. We’re seeing it now with COVID where black people are disproportionately getting sick and dying from this disease unlike almost every other demographic aside from the Latino community. And so obviously self-care has become much more mainstream, including among black women and women of color. But at the same time, it’s still about survival because it’s not just about scraping by, in terms of needing food or needing like the right care. It’s also about daily microaggressions in the workplace.

Just racism and the PTSD that I think a lot of people experienced now that we’re seeing so many people of color… Well really specifically, black people being killed on camera. And having to relive that and having to see these headlines all the time that has been tied now to self-care and how to handle yourself and how to deal with that while also trying to function in the world and be professional and feed your family and take care of your health. So it’s all really, I think that’s happening alongside this influencer, Instagram, Lululemon, goop culture that very much exists. I think also like another form of self-care I’m seeing is think of something like the wing where the whole point of that institution was to have women have a space, specifically designed for women.

At first it was like, “Oh, men weren’t exactly welcome.” And there is that whole thing. And so the idea was like, “This is a space for women.” Of course, we’ve learned through a series of exposes that Thursday, very specific type of woman who is often invited to join that space, usually white, young, and not necessarily queer or queer identifying, but that is also in its way, this weird word version of self-care because that is supposed to be a space that’s values womanhood over anything perpetuating like masculinity or the typical male dominated spaces.

12:09

Jasmine Bina:
Right. And then what about the LGBT community’s role in the rise of self-care? Especially in the beginning

12:17

Aisha Harris:
The civil rights movement really has been the template for every movement that’s come after it. And it’s very clear the LGBT community has been very instrumental in dealing with that. One of the people I interviewed for my article on Slate was Jace Harr, who is a trans man. And he wrote a very interesting article or flow chart called You Feel Like Shit: An Interactive Self-Care Guide. And essentially the flow chart is a way for you to check in with yourself. It asks you questions, prompting you to check in, and it’s like, have you drank water today? If not drink a glass now, and then move to the next step, have you gotten enough sleep, if not, take a nap, then move to the next step. And it’s another form of radical self-care in dealing with as a queer person, LGBTQ person, having to deal with the things that they do.

It’s a way to fight against that and to really take care of yourself because as my LGBT friends have told me, and as trans people are making it very clear through social media and through articles and whatnot, just their existence is an act of resistance. And then it is a radical act and you have to take care of your body. There’s that really hokey phrase like the body is the temple, but it is the vessel. It is you. And so that concern with taking care of the body is really, really central to any disenfranchised group of people.

13:53

Jasmine Bina:
Of course. So, as you described, it seems there were these two different branches of self-care and wellness, if you want to include that too. Co-existing and moving on parallel tracks. And I think a lot of people, including yourself have said that 2016 though, was when self-care really came into the mainstream. Can you talk about that a little bit.

Aisha Harris:
2016 was a year that was definitely a turning point, I think for a lot of America obviously 2020 probably has it beat now, but that was kind of the precursor to it because you had people really, really stressing out about Trump and his presidency and what that meant and what that meant for especially women, people of color, immigrants. So many demographics were endangered. And so you saw this rise in both self-care, but also… I actually did another article right after the election or a couple months later about the rise in self-defense classes that were taking place across the country.

Jasmine Bina:
Oh, wow.

15:03

Aisha Harris:
Where especially ones that were targeted at LGBTQ people and black people and people of color because people were legitimately scared. And so that in itself is kind of like another offshoot of self-care of like, “Okay, how do I prepare myself if something goes down to protect my body from violence? Physical violence, not just like institutional systematic violence.” So that was very much the turning point. And when you see lots and lots of articles coming out about how to handle yourself and how to do self-care. Before that there had been, I think also there’s a moment there was a turning point before that also with which was like the rise of feminist blogs in the early 2010s.

You had everything from the Hairpin to Jessica Belle and all these other feminist blogs that also have like components of self-care embedded into them. And talking about the ways in which you take care of yourself, whether it’s shutting off your cell phone for how many hours, get off Twitter, go pamper yourself, treat yourself. All these things were wrapped in and embedded in the feminist blogs. And I think that those were the building blocks towards 2016 and made self-care. It didn’t just come out of nowhere, but it definitely, they led the way for that to happen. I think in 2016. And then that’s where it just became part of the vernacular across the mainstream.

16:36

Jasmine Bina:
Another thing that I’ve read was that really 2016 was the turning point where more than ever, you saw particularly white woman embracing self-care and the culture and mindset pieces of it, the pieces that they wanted to use. And that’s what kind of burst this new DTC economy of all these brands that were leering self-care and wellness over a product. The other thing also that I think contributed to all of this is as wellness and self-care are becoming more mainstream, you kind of have this peak around hustle culture, right? Silicon Valley has been exported to the rest of the world and we’re romanticizing the hustle and the grind, which dovetails so perfectly into the American identity.

Anyways, this idea of like working and there’s virtue and hard work and hard work always pays off. And it almost seems as the volume on one got louder, the volume on the other got louder as well.

17:34

Aisha Harris:
Yeah. That work hard, play hard mentality is and has been very, very much a part of, especially the millennial culture. And I think that’s been amplified by social media, especially when you think about Instagram, you think about all those influencers who are constantly like hashtagging, hustle, like, “I’m hustling, here’s what I’m doing.” But then it’s also like, “Oh, and then here’s me laying on the beach, self-care.” There’s that weird dichotomy that also very much comes from this place of having access to certain types of self-care and being able to do those things by traveling especially has become a big thing.

And especially for black people, there’s been a lot of articles about black travelers, black women traveling, traveling together, groups and organizations that have been started to organize group trips together. And those in themselves are seen as this act of self-care in part, because there were times when black people were not able to travel as much, they didn’t have the funds, they didn’t have the opportunity to do those things.

And so in a way being a black person who is able to travel now seem as both a privilege and also a way of an act of self-care as well. It’s like a way of getting out of the country. It can be a way of getting away from American racism. There’s lots of articles about black woman relocating and actually living in and European countries and Caribbean countries because they feel as though they’d been treated better there. There’s all these like really interesting strains of self-care that are happening from group to group, from age group to age group. And I really do think so much of that has to do with social media and how we live our lives on online now.

19:29

Jasmine Bina:
Right. And we can’t forget Instagram’s influence and all of this it’s created this weird nonsensical dynamic where it almost doesn’t count unless you can display it, but to actually practice self-care, you have to pull away from displaying and showing. And I think that’s also kind of morphed the meaning of self-care. And what I want to talk about now is the brands that were involved in all this Instagram is a big one. I think we understand their influence in a really making self-care, a very visual consumable thing. What about other brands? Goop is an obvious one, but what are the ones that we don’t think about that have been instrumental in kind of pushing the narrative around self-care forward, changing what it means helping us kind of develop our current American relationship to what it is?

20:20

Aisha Harris:
I definitely think that we already imagined the wing, but I think that the wing is very much of that ilk and other places, there’s been many off shoots like it of like, “We’re going to create this social club that is specifically for this group of people or are these types of like-minded people.” Obviously there’s a Lululemon, which has paired self-care with like the whole athleisure industry is very much about this weird corporatized self-care, but also just gyms, the luxury gyms I think especially something like Equinox where it’s like you play a very high premium price for not just access to gyms, but like boutique classes. And they have towels for you that are free, but they’re free because it costs so much to go there. But that you can go to the spa, it’s everything you want to pamper yourself in line.

So I think like that combination of exercise with self-care and corporatization has definitely been a really big thing, but even just like beauty brands have done the same thing, Glossier, Fenty, they all are about treating yourself, making yourself feel your best in ways like that. Some could argue are just reinforcing beauty standards for women. But I think that they are often wrapped up in this sense of like, “Buying makeup. it’s my act of self care.” I feel like those are some of the really big ones. The big brands have been really capitalizing off of that.

22:02

Jasmine Bina:
Yeah. I was trying to trace back when self-care and wellness broke out of like the traditional fitness and food categories and spirituality too, which I think is a big one that we haven’t touched on. And then it just kind of went cross category. And I think from what I can tell it’s because of beauty and there’s a really good example of this with sexual wellness brands. There’s a brand that I love that I think has an excellent work and like educating woman. And there are a lot of brands that do this, but they were one of the ones… like the Splasher ones I think, and that’s Dame Products. And there’s a very wellness aesthetic to it. They took out all of like the salaciousness and made it more about wellbeing taking care of yourself. This is something that touches your body.

It’s the same kind of theme and storytelling that we see with a lot of like feminine hygiene products and now male hygiene products as well. And the interesting story about Dame, which I’ve written about in the past is the fact that Dame was just seen as vibrators for women. And they made a very conscious decision to wrap it as a self-care item. By wrapping it I mean in their storytelling and the packaging and the overall experience.

And once they did that, it became so palatable along with the ideas of the culture getting more open-minded to these things that’s how they went mainstream, then brands like that were in CVS. They were in Walmart and not like one or two, I’m talking like 50, 60 skews. And that’s what it took. It wasn’t necessarily directly feminist ideals or breaking down the patriarchy, although those things were happening in the background, of course, but the minute they changed the positioning of it, that’s when it kind of broke out. I feel like sexual wellness under the guise of beauty, this is part of your beauty routine now is a remarkable proof point of how powerful the self-care and wellness ideal has become.

24:00

Aisha Harris:
Yeah. That even makes me think of like the infamous Rabbit Vibrator that Sex and the City basically propelled to make lots of women want to buy it. And I feel like that was the first time that women’s sexual desires and cravings were taken seriously in a way for all of that shows issues…outdated as today the fact that they made a vibrator very extremely popular and mainstream, you can argue that that was like a precursor to this new sexual wellness in terms of the ways in which it really just normalize taking care of yourself sexually.

Jasmine Bina:
Okay. So now this makes me think of, I don’t even know how I’m going to draw the connection here, but it just makes me think of, you had written something about how a lot of media, and we’re talking about a TV show. Now whitewashes the past. I know that Sex and the City is not like the distant past, but you had an example. I think you were talking about George R. R. Martin. He was responding to criticism about why as game of Thrones, all whites and you had pointed out his response was, “Well, this was way back in time.” And the fact that him just saying that proves that there’s an assumption, that things that come from the past were white dominated. Am I paraphrasing this correctly?

25:24

Aisha Harris:
Yeah. The other thing was that he was The Game of Thrones isn’t a real story, it’s completely fantasy. So like you can make the world look however you want, because like Westeros does it exist. Yeah.

Jasmine Bina:
Right. So my question here is, would you say that the kind of whitewashing of media and the fact that media was so instrumental in a lot of ways for propelling self-care and wellness in the way that we see it now, especially through like Instagram and TV and movies, do you think there’s a connection there? Do you feel like that’s how we… part of why we got the second track of self-care and wellness it’s a little divorced from its roots?

26:07

Aisha Harris:
Absolutely. I actually think, you asked me earlier about the biggest brands that have contributed to this depiction of self-care and wellness. And I hadn’t mentioned when I think is probably the biggest one, at least the one of the last 25, 30 years had to been Oprah, right? Oprah has built an entire empire on her favorite things, which are very much about pampering yourself and expanding your cultural horizons in luxury items and that sort of thing. Oprah’s a black woman obviously, and lots of people love her, but a lot of white women love her.

And I love the products that she hawks are by white women or by white people. I’m not trying to accuse Oprah of whitewashing, the self-care movement. But I do think that like her audience in many ways, they are the parents of my generation, the millennial generation who were very much the precursors to self-care of buying that fancy cookware or whatever, to treat yourself or buying that bracelet or anything she’s … favorite things where over time, I think really that in itself is about self-care in many ways.

And is in it’s way whitewashing of self-care because it’s… she’s not like advertising for Forever 21 items or something, these are all very pretty moderate to expensive items. And that in itself is a way I think that it’s been whitewashed and divorced in a way from it’s roots.

27:59

Jasmine Bina:
What’s the future of self-care and wellness. Where is it going? How has it changed people? But what should we be focusing on?

28:07

Aisha Harris:
When it comes to self care? I think what it should be and what it has been for a lot of people and what it hasn’t been for another huge segment of the population is the important thing to remember is that self-care doesn’t mean you completely tune out and you are useless in the world.

The point is to take that time to recharge, to make sure that you are caring for yourself in ways that are fulfilling in ways that are energizing in ways that will help you get through the world a better person.

And that is what is missing from the Instagram and influencer focused self-care wellness, wholeness aspect of it. Also we need to realize that self-care, shouldn’t take much money if any money to do again it’s the little actions. It is not reading as much of the news so that you don’t cause yourself unnecessary anxiety. It’s cutting people out of your life who are not serving you well, who are harmful to your health.

There are ways to do this. That don’t necessarily require money. It doesn’t have to be a spa day. It doesn’t have to be a gym membership at Equinox. It can be many other things. And I think that’s what we should be moving toward. Considering that we’re in a pandemic that kind of be a where we are moving toward because there are no gyms there’s not much traveling happening. Or if there is, it’s much more minimalized, I would love to see that going forward.

29:53

I think what brands need to do is really get back to the basics of why their brand was started to begin with, to really think about like, who are you trying to serve? Are there other communities you could be serving that are outside of what you and who you think will like your product? There are ways to engage especially by bringing in people of color, LGBTQ people into the space behind the scenes, hire them, hire them in managerial positions, positions where they can actually make decisions and make change.

And then I’m not going to say that just because you’re a person of color doesn’t mean that you aren’t necessarily going to serve the customers the best way. But I think that really making it more inclusive and recognizing that there is more than one way to do self-care could really, really help, not just in terms of building a brand, but also in terms of committing to different versions of self-care

31:00

Jasmine Bina:
Self care and wellness boomed into a multi-billion dollar industry with huge players, bringing their own version of the ideology to the masses. There’s been a crop of upstarts that are bringing it back to its core. The Butters Hygienics Co is a cult favorite with devoted fans from across the country. The company was founded by Jerome Nichols in 2016, a crucial year in our recent history. And since then has only grown it’s vegan, it’s cruelty-free and you’ll find a range of products from lotions and leave-in conditioners to face scrubs, soaps, and lube. Jerome has built a very thoughtful brands. And once you dig in more, you start to really understand how it’s so much more than just a set of high quality products. And I wanted to know how he created a unique experience of self-care successfully in such a crowded and oftentimes diluted space.

31:50

Jerome Nichols:
And the brand started basically because I was trying to solve the problem of finding a lotion, essentially I wear shorts a lot, I have very dark skin, I get dry and I could not find a lotion that would last more than an hour or so, until the water was evaporated. And then I’d go back to being ashy. And then like all the emulsifiers and stuff would start showing up on my dark skin. And that was not at all what I really wanted from any lotion or product. So I just started playing around with different formulas and things. It took several months to come up with the first iteration that I actually thought was pretty cool.

The idea was that I could make something that was inexpensive, simple and ingredients, but also exactly and perfectly effective at the task at hand, which that ethos has become the question behind almost all of our products is, how do we solve X problem naturally simply, and then making sure that it absolutely solves that problem. I don’t like having to try a million different things.

33:11

I’ve always had a very sophisticated tastes like even as a kid and if stuff doesn’t work, I just don’t like it. If it doesn’t smell right I just don’t like it. If the, if the vibe is not right, right I just don’t like it. And for me, the Butters was my way of making sure that I could get out that… I’m going to use the word perfection, because that is the closest thing I can think of. Or let’s say expertise. This expertly made product, this solution-based thing into people’s hands, which is what I’d always wanted.

Years of going to different stores and buying stuff for my hair, that didn’t work stuff on my skin that didn’t work. And just not quite understanding that these products aren’t actually made for me and they aren’t made for even serving the desires that I’m looking for. Part of the reason why lotion is the way it is, is because it’s mostly made for people with lighter skin, one. And it’s mostly made because people just want to feel kind of soft. There is a fear of like oiliness or greasiness among the majority population here in America.

And that makes really moisturizing things kind of offensive. There’s this one thing that I’ve always seen specifically white people do when they try my product is they’ll often feel it on their hands feel that it’s like rich and has a little slip at the beginning, and then they’ll start wringing their hands because they’re not used to having something that actually is like a moisturizer, they’re used to something that feels a little drier in the way that lotions typically do. It just feels like you’re, you’ve got some wet skin with a tiny, tiny bit oil there, which is what most people are looking for.

35:01

Jasmine Bina:
That’s interesting. So you’re saying that we weren’t even really addressing the problem of something so basic, like moisturizer, because there’s this weird bias about what moisturizer is supposed to be.

Jerome Nichols:
Yes, exactly. There’s a lot of just like a fear of feeling… the word that I always come up with this nourished because that’s often what’s happening. For example, one of my biggest overarching goals with the Butters is to help white people stop washing their hair. So doggone much turning it into straw, leaching out all the color that they dye into it, turning the blond color that they dye it brassy, just doing all these things that make their hair, not be rich, full, hefty, and oftentimes much more curly hair that it naturally is because what they’re trying to do is get it to look like the people that you see in magazines and stuff, just like black people do.

They’re trying to straighten their hair to make sure he doesn’t even have the slightest wave. You know, when Sharon did that back, whenever she made that popular, she changed the way everybody thought about how hair was supposed to look. And that really damages people all the way up until right now.

36:19

Jasmine Bina:
There are two things that you said that, that make me think on this topic. So one the fact that you really wanted to make something that works. And I noticed on the labels of the bottles that you use for your products, it says you can use anything from the Butters… I’m paraphrasing. You can use anything from the Butters in your regular routine. You don’t have to buy all Butters stuff my stuff just works. And what’s interesting is… That’s a very… I felt your voice in the brand. And I want to talk about this for a second. Your voice is all over this brands. I feel your presence even coming to the homepage of your website, it starts at the top with a description of what you are using right now. Was that a conscious decision?

37:03

Jerome Nichols:
Absolutely. I’m a very opinionated person firstly. So that makes me very apt to what to share my opinions on things. I’m also very proud of who I am and what I do and what I make and what I put into the world. My brand’s voice is meant to be comforting and authoritative. It has a very masculine edge to it. It’s very in your face. It’s very bold. And at the same time the colors and things that we use, the color Butters blue, which is definitely not blue, it’s very green, blue, it’s more green than anything.

It’s meant to evoke a sense of calm and peace and serenity and safety. And I spent quite a while putting that color together, making that color myself, looking at it and making sure that I did actually feel what it is that I wanted people to feel. In my choice to brand the Butters, the way I do, which is what the tagline 100% bullshit-free. It is meant to be just that a lot of times when you’re buying into a brand you’re buying into their emotional experience. And while it’s true. The first things out of my mouth were, “I want to make you feel comforted. I want you to make you feel safe and you know, like you’re making a good decision.” But at the same time, I’m not lying to you about that. You are actually making a good decision.

38:43

When you come to the Butters, you’re actually making a choice that is going to be worthwhile for your dollar, your time. You’re getting a product that is made to last, and that is supposed to come through with that bullshit-free thing. We tell you everything that’s in our products. We don’t use shit that you don’t want to put on yourself. We don’t use parabens. We stay away from alcohols as much as possible, except for like hand sanitizer.

We purposefully make sure that we’re actually staying on the cutting edge of things to take out of products. And we’re making sure that even down to making sure that like the ingredients, the version of ingredients that we get are extracted safely, they’re coming from cruelty-free places. Um, and we’re just making sure that everything is thought completely through. And that sense of completeness and upfrontness and thought rightness is a part of who we are. Our brand values, that 100% bullshit-free thing. It actually breaks down into a set of values that are courage, prudence ingenuity, respect and honesty. Those are the five that we live by here. And I think they’re important to every business, but for us, they are what we are putting forth as the things that matter most to us.

40:11

Jasmine Bina:
Yeah. And now that you mentioned those five things in those, the second thing I was going to mention there is a feeling, once you get into the brand, once you use the products, read the language, watch the content, follow you. There’s also a feeling of rebellion, I think, rebelling against what you should expect. And I think those five things kind of capture that. That’s super interesting. Something else I noticed about your brand that… let me know if it’s actually there, but I get this sense that there’s something ritualistic about the way you’ve kind of packaged these products. And let’s talk about some of these products, too. You have everything from haircare and skincare to sexual wellness things like lube, you have packages for like pregnancy and for moms, which was so interesting to me.

How do you start about the rituals around these things? Was there a ritual put into the sprint? And I asked because one, I sensed so it’s a big part of self care right now.

41:08

Jerome Nichols:
Absolutely. For me, rituals are a part of my life. And when I’m making all of these products, it’s inevitable that I’m thinking about the way in which you’re going to be using them, the experience you’re going to have everything from going to the website, through opening the package, to actually using it. The way the instructions are written are supposed to give you a strong sense of presence and where you are and centering your mind. One of the most common ones that people point to is the instructions for our scrubs.

A lot of them say something to the effect of damping your skin, take a little bit of scrub, rub it in lightly, let the scrub do the work, rinse off, glow up, and then make them pay your rent and never call them back hashtag.

And while I don’t necessarily always support taking things from people I do expect that you should feel like you’re worth that while you’re using our scrubs. Scrubs are luxurious thing. They take time, they take purpose from the opening of the jar. Their sound their smelled radiating up from the jar. You have the sounds of the water, the feelings of the water running over your skin. You have the actual scrub itself, the texture, the grit, all of that against your fingertips, against the actual skin itself, you can feel and just sort of be in that moment.

42:49

And every single one of our products has that thought put into it. It’s why when you open the jar, they’re so beautiful looking while the texture is just like so smooth and things are sort of like tweaked to a perfect gloss so that you can really feel special and take some time out of days that are very rushy.

A lot of the people who buy from me are like retail workers. That’s a lot of the people who I serve. It’s part of why the prices are the way they are. Most things are under $10. Well, not mostly like 90% of things are under $10. But I would say even like 75% of them are under like $7. You can get like a two to four ounce for that price. And that allows for people to actually come to us and add bits of luxury, bits of ritual, bits of mindfulness to their day, which helps us out overall as a community, as a people. And that gets into like self-care as a thing being one of the things that I push with all of my products.

43:58

Jasmine Bina:
Yeah. Let’s talk about the pricing. I noticed it was like wildly affordable and they’re really nice products. And you really demonstrate through the user experience, all of this thought that goes into each one of them. So did you know who you wanted your user to be and you developed this for them or did your user evolve and you came to learn about them and then kind of build a brand around them. How did that work?

44:23

Jerome Nichols:
For me when… Okay. When I was sitting down to talk with my business advisor and we were discussing these things, when I actually figured out that I wanted this to be a real business and I was going to work to make this into what I call it the Jiffy mix of health and beauty. What I said to him was that I am essentially the customer, because at the beginning of this, I was the person that I was trying to serve. And I am unique, but not singular. And I think a lot of people are unique in the same way that I am.

They have similar issues that I have, or I have the expertise to help them in a way that bigger corporations do not want to. One of the values that is at the core of me is making sure that all things are equitable and that’s equity not just in chance, but in outcomes.

So I understand that there are a billion, different shampoos on the market. There’s a billion, different lotions, body butters. You can go different places, get things. There’s a lot of people who make stuff. But the fact of the matter is no one was making stuff for me, nobody was making things with a masculine edge that were also soft and comforting and caring, and actually did what they were supposed to do. And there’s a lot of like, “Oh, I like how this smells or I like how this feels, or I like how this looks.” But when you buy the butters, you’re, you’re supposed to experience all of it at once.

46:04

Jasmine Bina:
It’s a unisex brand, you, most of your products, it seems are for everybody. But I did get the sense that you are presenting a very rich, nuanced, new look or take on masculinity.

46:20

Jerome Nichols:
Yes, absolutely. I grew up in a household full of women. There is me, three female cousins and then over the years there were aunts and aunts. [crosstalk 00:46:34]. We didn’t have a grandfather because he died before I was born. My entire life has been surrounded by women. I mostly socialized with women. And from that, there has been a lot of, men are trash, men are horrible. Men are this or that and a lot of times men are horrible people. It’s like, we are humans. But that did leave me a little worried about what it is means to be masculine, what it means to be a man, what is my nature? What is… who am I in this modern world? What desires of mine are normal are things that… Are there parts of me that are antiquated and shouldn’t be put away? Or are they situational? All these different thoughts about masculinity that led me to question myself a lot.

And in the time leading up to the creation of the Butters, I was often making sure that I was not shying away from masculinity, making sure that I could experience it for myself and sort of redefine it for myself. And when I got around to actually taking the time to graphically design the brand, it was important to me that it not look girly, but not also hard-edged and masculine, because the hard-edged masculinity that you often get is dealing with like leather and birchwood and pine and [inaudible 00:48:10]. And like all these other like stupid things that are just… I don’t even want to call them stupid. They’re just a vestige of a period in time that like our president is from where things were made to be big and explosive and coked out and crazy. And that is not the person that I am.

48:29

That is not the masculinity that I have. I am a very chill dude and I think that is a type of man and a type of masculinity that we don’t get to see a lot but I think it’s very important to share. The brand is all me, the brand is all myself and my values and the things I want to push forward in life. So having that right there in front, that boldness, that courage, that prudence, those values, it is crucial to making sure that the Butters is what it is.

Jasmine Bina:
And then how did men respond to the brand? What kind of feedback do you get?

Jerome Nichols:
I surprisingly get a lot of men buying. That alone is an endorsement because men often shop differently than women, or even just say like masculine or feminine people, oftentimes more feminine people want a more social experience.

49:31

They want help. They want to be told about things and oftentimes guys just want to have the information put out in front of them or masculine people want to have the information put in front of them, or they’ve come to the store already mind made up about the thing that they need. And they just want to get it in the most efficient way possible. And I try and cater to both of those needs by making sure that all my product are descriptive.

We’ve got reviews from lots of different people, including like user reviews that we have on the site. We’ve got videos on a lot of things, instructions, all the ingredients, things that it doesn’t have, things that’s compatible with, all this very important information that if you are a person who’s like going to go out there and actually read the information for yourself, you absolutely can. Then there’s this other facet of what we do here, which is a very close communication with all of our customers. And we allow… we have a phone and email that you can just contact us when people call the phone number.

50:32

Jasmine Bina:
Yes. I’m going to interject here and mentioned that on the homepage not at the bottom, not hidden boldly in the middle of the homepage, you have your phone number and I called it and you picked up before I even knew I was going to do this interview. And that’s typical for you, right?

50:48

Jerome Nichols:
Yeah. We get, we get quite a few calls a week and sometimes people will just text message me to ask me a question about something and being able to just be there for people to offer them that helping hand is super important to me because that’s what they need. And when I was speaking about equity earlier, a lot of it is making sure people have what they specifically need to succeed, which is why we have so many different products. This is why we have so many different variations.

It’s why we make even small batches of things that may go out of stock for awhile. But we also offer the ability for you to wait list and be made… So that we know how much to make, we can make more. And we’re always trying to make sure that even things that aren’t selling the most are kept available for people. Because one of the things I hate is when things get taken away, that you finally found something that really worked for you and it disappears.

51:41

Jasmine Bina:
What I’m hearing is you have a real sense of responsibility to your customers that seems.

Jerome Nichols:
Absolutely. I’ve always had a sense of responsibility to just the community and people around me. It is just kind of my natural state that when you are in my space, in my presence, it is incumbent upon me to make sure that things are chill and cool. It’s not necessarily a big servant type person, but I absolutely make sure that people have the comfort. And when I have different friends over, I’ll make sure that they have three different drinks. If they all like something specific, I will just do that. For me that’s just normal.

52:26

Jasmine Bina:
Yeah. I did feel that like when I had the unboxing experience and I started using your products, by the time I had gone through so many things and just as a customer, not even doing research, just casually coming across the brand, looking at some of your content. It felt like you’d created a vibe in my home. I think that’s really powerful. I want to talk about, you have a huge spectrum products, but one of your absolute best sellers that seems to get like out sized press and awareness is your lube.

And I’m going to talk about this because it feels like and it’s been researched and we’ve talked about this, wellness and self care kind of created an avenue for sexual wellness and sexual health to really come to the mainstream into the forefront. Without shame, without old baggage, without having to go to that weird sex store in that district of town, it’s suddenly like a public good almost. It’s a moral obligation to take care of your health sexually. What part of sexual wellness did you want to explore with your brands? I know that you have the lube and it’s a functional product, but what was your thinking behind adding this to your product mix?

53:38

Jerome Nichols:
Well, I didn’t add it to my product mix. I added everything else to the lube because the product that started the Butters are the Butter Original Moisturizer, but almost immediately thereafter was the lube. Because when I was thinking of this, I wanted something simple. That would be versatile. And then I wondered if I could make something that would be both like a great body moisturizer, something that would keep me not being ashy. And then also something that would allow me to have sex on the way that I wanted to have sex. Because like before I had started the butters, I was a blogger for about seven years…seven years just kind of threw me off.

I ran a blog on LTASEX.com. It’s still available actually. And I post probably two or three times a year with updated things and I’m still actually working on a book and stuff, but that is separate. Before I got into the Butters, I was doing that and I went to college for sexual health. I was in high school, I was reading how to sex books out of interest. I’ve always been a very sexually interested person.

And somewhere along the way, I kind of understood that sexual liberation equals all other liberation because sex is the one of the unifying things about the entire human race and all animal race really there’s very, very few things besides like respirate and the basics of life that we do but sex is one of those things. And for humans specifically, sex is a bonding thing. It’s a healing thing. It’s a pleasure thing. It’s a safety thing. And a lot of times we treat it as just like this scary procreative mess. And that is not how a little gay me could ever experience it really, except for the mess part and I was lucky… but-

55:48

Jasmine Bina:
Sorry, I was going to say when you describe it as pleasure bonding, healing, all those things you just said, if you take it out of the context that’s self-care, it could be self-care-

Jerome Nichols:
Yeah absolutely.

Jasmine Bina:
… it can be sex, it could be wellness, it can be health. It’s interesting. If once you unpack all the stigmas it’s what’s left, it only makes perfect sense that it would be considered part of your self-care routine.

56:11

Jerome Nichols:
Exactly. And for me, there’s no option, but to have it there, sex is just a part of my every single day life. And I think for a lot of people that is the case, whether they’re waking up and just looking at themselves in the mirror and being like, “Oh my God, you look so great. Oh, my God…” Or falling asleep at night with their hand on their chest and being like, “Oh, I like the way that feels.” Or whether it’s masturbating or whether it’s all things. Uh, just in any number of things, rather that evoke that sexual arousal, that pleasure, that awareness, that being aroused causes any of that helps you feel more grounded and safe.

I literally use masturbation is one of my mindfulness practices because it allows for extended breathing, repetition, it’s basically meditation.

57:13

Jasmine Bina:
It does force you into the present too.

Jerome Nichols:
It does. In the same way that many of my other rituals do, including all of my products.

Jasmine Bina:
So, where do you feel like the future of sexual wellness in this context, sexual self-care, whatever you want to call it, this part that you are working in, where is it going? Where do you think it’s headed? And also, what are you trying to create or push forward for your customers, especially the men because at that part interests me.

Jerome Nichols:
Although I plan a lot of things, this is not one thing that I have planned or even thought about, but the phrase that came into my mind instinctively was that it’s all good. And I mean that in like the black people, way of that, like even down to the molecular level, everything is fine.

It’s working the way it’s supposed to work. Everything exists, everything’s normal. And we kind of have to get past a lot of the stigma that’s been put on throughout society as we’ve come together and like bigger groups and made different norms. We have to peel back through that and go back and understand why it is that we’re doing a lot of things that we do. And that’s bigger than sexuality, but it’s still crucial to like our health overall as like a community and a society and as a people.

58:42

Jasmine Bina:
Right. So do you see anybody besides yourself in the landscape doing anything interesting or provocative or kind of moving the needle in a way that you admire in any of these spaces?

Jerome Nichols:
For me, that answer is hard because I respect a lot of people, but for my specific brand of sexuality and pushing things forward with open arms that are ever working to be wider, I don’t know that there is, but that gets to why the Butters exist as well, which is the sense within me that if it doesn’t exist to make it, so I’m making it. I’m making a space wherein trans people are normal. I’m making a space where the language is different. I’m making a space where things are chill and I’m pushing that message that lifestyle through the brand of the Butters. It’s that masculine, emotional penetration skill that I enjoy using so much.

59:52

Jasmine Bina:
That’s amazing. So you’re creating this space, you’re holding it for so many people and it’s… the brand is a fantastic experience. That’s why I wanted to talk to you about it, but I have to ask you right now, what are you doing personally to practice self-care?

01:00:10

Jerome Nichols:
Making sure that I take it easy on myself. That is hard for me because I am a boy and I like working hard. I like even straining my body and being put through things that are a bit treacherous. I enjoy that. It’s just a part of my nature. And one thing that I will do is I will often overwork myself because I enjoy working.

And right now I need to be sitting my down and delegating, practicing being the CEO that I said I wanted to be, practicing relying on people, practicing being a part of a community. And those things are not things that always come naturally to me. But there are things that are really important to me being able to feel healthy and safe and that this thing that I’m doing, I’m not just extending all of my care and energy out into the world and then leaving myself an empty husk. But instead I am actually being fulfilled by what it is that I’m doing. And when I can’t do as much, I can still be fulfilled because I’ve built something that people want to be around and be within.

01:01:31

Jasmine Bina:
Thank you. Thank you so much for listening to this episode of Unseen Unknown. If you’re new here and you like what you’re listening to, I have one request and one offer. First, we’d love it if you left us a review, I read those reviews. They mean a lot to me, but more importantly, they help us get this podcast in front of the right people. Secondly, I’d love to give you more of our brand strategy thinking in the form of articles that we write, the videos that we publish and anything else that captures our attention, just sign up for our newsletter @conceptbureau.com/insights. And I promise you, won’t be disappointed. Thanks for listening. And we’ll catch you next time.

 

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