How You Can Honor the Radical History of Self-Care
Who made self-care possible for you?
It's a big question, and while instinctively your answer might be, well, yourself, that’s not quite the whole story.
Self-care has deep roots and a radical history that often gets swept under the rug when we start talking about our bubble bath rituals and "me time."
The term "self-care" was coined in the 1950s.
Initially, it was to describe how patients who were institutionalized could cultivate a sense of self-worth through acts of care and preservation. It picked up steam in the following years, particularly in academic circles as a way to understand post-traumatic stress in various people.
The term spread from the medical community to the larger community in the 1960s, thanks to civil rights activists—particularly, The Black Panther Party.
The Black Panthers were a party of organizers, community leaders, political leaders, and more who were focused on the revolutionary fight for racial justice in the United States. They fought for the freedom and liberation of marginalized communities, and protested against police brutality—but they also showed up by practicing community care.
By distributing food to those in need, creating health clinics, building programs to educate and share accessible information with others, and more, the Black Panther Party put care into action in real tangible ways for their communities.
Those acts of community care were also acts of survival, writer Aisha Harris explains in an article for Slate on the radical roots of self-care. At the time (and still today), Black communities and people of color often lacked access to basic health and social services because of systemic barriers.
These community-wide efforts, many spearheaded by the Black Panthers and other activists, changed the narrative about caring for oneself.
Additionally, the practice of self-care was popularized to counter activist burnout.
"For a long time, activists did not necessarily think that it mattered to take care of themselves in terms of what they eat, mental self-care, cultural self-care, spiritual self-care," civil rights activist Angela Davis said in a 2018 AFROPUNK interview.
She said some Black Panther activists, like Ericka Huggins, encouraged self-care through practicing yoga and meditation. And for Davis herself: She started meditating and doing yoga while in prison.
"(Practicing radical self-care) means we're able to bring our entire selves into the movement," she said. "It means we incorporate into our work as activists ways of acknowledging and hopefully moving beyond trauma. It means a holistic approach."
Ultimately, the act of taking one's health into your own hands by practicing self-care trickled into mainstream society.
Those roots, paired with national reckonings and the gradual lift of restrictions around accessible methods of care, have shaped the wellness and self-care culture we’re a part of today.
Today, many still practice self-care as a radical act of resistance—and bring to life to what civil rights activist Audre Lorde called “an act of political warfare.” And the Internet has helped create more spaces for marginalized groups to practice community care together.
“Women, people of color, and the LGBTQ community have been able to carve out spaces for themselves online that were not always open to them before, sharing knowledge and supporting each other in unprecedented ways,” Harris writes.
It’s a critical part of the time we are in now—and one that activists and elders like Davis emphasize for our current movements and fight for Black lives today.
"If we don't start practicing collective self-care now, there's no way to imagine much less reach a time of freedom," Davis said.
Honoring the history of self-care can help us inform our own self-care practices, too. While these incredible people and so many more may have paved the way for a larger understanding of self-care, individually we carry a history of self-care.
Recognizing and reflecting on your own self-care history can be a helpful exercise.
Reflecting, whether in a journal or just in your mind, can be a powerful tool when it comes to knowing how to best care for ourselves in any given situation.
While it might seem counterintuitive at first to look back in order to move forward, don’t forget that you must know where you’ve come from in order to go where you’re needed. By reflecting on your self-care journey, you can understand your habits and routines better—and yourself.
To honor International Self-Care Day, we encourage you to revisit your personal self-care history. Use the following reflection questions to think through what self-care has meant to you and why you find it important to continue prioritizing your mental and emotional health.
As you reflect, remember Davis’ words: “Anyone who is interested in making change in the world also has to learn how to take care of herself, himself, theirself.”
●︎ Who are the people who have made self-care possible for you?
●︎ Why is self-care important to you?
●︎ What’s the first memory you have of practicing self-care?
●︎ What did your self-care practice look like when you first started?
●︎ What prompted you to start prioritizing your mental health with a self-care practice?
●︎ How has your self-care changed over time?
●︎ How do you feel when you take care of yourself?
●︎ What have you learned about yourself from your self-care journey so far?
●︎ Is there anything that your self-care practice has helped you overcome?
●︎ What does it look like—and how does it feel—when you feel cared for by yourself or your community?
●︎ Who has influenced your self-care routine?
●︎ How do you want your relationship to self-care to grow in the future?
●︎ How can you be a self-care advocate for someone else in your community?
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