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Illustrations by Maia Boakye

The revolutionary origins of self-care

Don’t believe the hashtags. Self-care is not a modern luxury—it’s a radical act with a long history

There are over 15 million Instagram posts tagged with #selfcare. They depict everything from yogic contortions on beaches to nail art to organic herbal lotions. You could say that self-care is having a moment, but it’s not a new concept. What has changed are the overtones of luxury and indulgence that the phrase now carries—a far cry from its origins.

The term self-care actually has medical roots. It was coined in the 1950s to describe activities that allowed institutionalized patients to preserve some physical independence—simple tasks that helped nurture a sense of self-worth, such as exercising and personal grooming.

Then in the 1960s, academics began taking a serious interest in post-traumatic stress disorder in first responders. Self-care was recommended for people in careers that involve repeated exposure to pain or trauma, such as firefighters, social workers and health-care providers. The advice of the day addressed physical needs (eating nutritional foods, getting adequate sleep and being proactive about medical care), psychological and emotional needs (doing activities such as journaling and self-reflection) and spiritual needs (engaging in pursuits like meditation, finding spiritual community and enjoying nature).

Fast-forward to the 1970s, and the concept of self-care really took off in North America, when the Black Panther Party began promoting it as essential for all Black citizens, as a means of staying resilient while experiencing the repeated injuries of systemic, interpersonal and medical racism.

Health-care reform was, in fact, an important part of the Black Panthers’ platform. Historically, doctors had often failed to diagnose sickle-cell disease, a painful inherited blood disorder that mostly occurs in people of African descent. To compensate for this failing, the Black Panthers created free community health-care clinics that tested for the illness and provided follow-up care.

Illustration of a woman practicing Yoga

In their 1972 Ten-Point Program, the Black Panther Party stated, “We want completely free healthcare for all Black and oppressed people…health facilities which will not only treat our illnesses, most of which have come about as a result of our oppression, but which will also develop preventive medical programs to guarantee our future survival.”

The Black Panthers’ understanding of how oppression affects health has since been proven by science. For instance, experiencing racial discrimination is linked to high blood pressure. And perceived experiences of racism correlate with higher incidences of breast cancer among Black women, particularly young Black women.

In the 1980s, activist audre lorde, a Black lesbian, built on this momentum, discussing self-care in many essays and journal entries, most strikingly when she made a resolution to direct the course of her own treatment after being diagnosed with cancer: “I must not surrender my body to others unless I completely understand and agree with what they think should be done to it. I’ve got to look at all of my options carefully, even the ones I find distasteful.” In her 1988 book, A Burst of Light, lorde wrote the sentence that has become a manifesto for self-care among Black women: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

In a society filled with messaging that certain types of people don’t matter, this kind of self-care contradicts, reaffirms, heals and fuels individuals to continue their work of overturning oppressive systems and strengthening communities.

Over the past few years, particularly after the divisive 2016 U.S. election, the term self-care has entered public discourse in a major way. The world can feel overwhelming, with huge systemic problems, not to mention the proliferation of mass marketing, our increasing addiction to screens and the joy-grinding omnipresence of the 24-hour news cycle.

Illustration of a doctor's note and a pile of pills

At this point in history, we’re becoming increasingly isolated and enjoying less and less nourishing human connection, which can exacerbate loneliness and mental illness. In Canada, one in four people will experience serious depression or anxiety at some point in their lives. Add to that the fact that many demographics of people feel burdened with the emotional labour of educating others and are harmed by systemic injustices: In North America, racialized and LGBTQ+ people report higher stress levels than white and straight people, and women report higher stress levels than men.

Under these circumstances, it can be tempting to seek retreat, using luxurious #selfcare strategies as a means of disengaging from the infuriating aspects of civic life.

The problem with this newer take on self-care is that not everyone is equally able to disengage through pampering. Systemic oppression can’t be outrun, and many people can’t spare money or time for the products and services that promise escape. Self-care with a modern luxe twist runs the risk of becoming a temporary solution, accessible only to some, as a means to briefly quiet the pain of recurring bad feelings and make modern life feel more bearable.

But what the world actually needs isn’t escape—it’s change! We need to overturn the oppressive parts of society that cause those hurts in the first place: the sexism that leaves women emotionally overburdened and chronically underpaid, the systemic racism that hurts so many aspects of racialized people’s lives, the homophobia that harms queer people, the ableism that makes life with a disability or mental health issue so much harder than it needs to be.

Inequality is the root problem we all need to fix, and it would be dangerous to let self-care evolve into a way to ignore it. Our culture is already structured in a way that encourages us to turn inward and away from one another—and retreating into isolating, pampered forms of self-care can increase this distance.

Reaching out to others, pursuing connection and creating community can feel vulnerable, but research shows that socializing (even something as simple as sharing a meal) markedly increases well-being.

This means that the best self-care might not really be focused on the “self” at all, and it’s probably a far cry from finding the newest skin-care product. Instead, true self-care might look like forging human connections, processing and validating our feelings through reciprocal relationships and creating true community with the people around us. These are low-cost, high-yield actions which, in the long run, increase our individual well-being and give us the strength to do the real work: the work of collectively making the world better—for everyone.

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