popular science

self-care origin story: political activism

What often gets forgotten when we talk about self-care is that it has a radical history deep-rooted in activism and women’s and civil right movement. “Me time” is and was a political act.

Welcome to the 70-year-long history of self-care class.

In the 1950s, “self-care”, as the newly coined term, was a medical concept — mostly used with psychiatry patients and the elderly who required long-term medical care.

Later on, self-care took a U-turn from patients to doctors, emergency medical technicians and paramedics, firefighters, therapists, social workers, and others with mentally and physically daunting professions.

The reasoning behind self-care at the time was logical and simple:
If you don’t take care of yourself, you cannot handle other people’s problems properly.

And just like that, self-care becomes a political act of survival and revolt against the racist and sexist medical system in the United States at the time.

Researchers attribute the popularization of the phrase to activist and writer Audre Lorde, whose 1988 collection of essays titled A Burst of Light described self-care as a way of coping with the personal journey of cancer, but also the structural trauma of racism.
The term spread thanks to civil rights activists—particularly, The Black Panther Party who were focused on the revolutionary fight for racial justice in the US. They fought for the freedom and liberation of marginalized communities, and protested against police brutality — but they also took care of their community.

They distributed food to those in need, created health clinics, built 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.

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 2018.

Anyone who is interested in making a change in the world also has to learn how to take care of herself, himself, and themself. Practicing radical self-care means we’re able to bring our entire selves into the movement. It means we incorporate into our work as activists ways of acknowledging and hopefully moving beyond trauma.
Angela Davis

Ultimately, the act of taking one’s health into your own hands by practicing self-care trickled into the mainstream.

As Aisha Harris mentioned in her Slate piece, another factor for renewed interest in self-care in the black community was the rise of media attention to police brutality against unarmed black people.

With that, an increasing number of studies have shown that even just seeing these disturbing videos repeated on social media and on the news can trigger the same symptoms as PTSD — especially if the viewer identifies with the victims.

Caring for myself is not self-indulgence. It is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.
Audre Lorde

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