“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” Audre Lorde, writer and feminist

What do you think of when you hear the term self-care? Do bath-bombs, luxury spa days or yoga retreats spring to mind? Is it reminiscent of a solitary walk in the woods or of curling up with a good book by the fire? Maybe it simply means cooking yourself a good meal or going to bed on time. More importantly, do you react positively to the term or do you view it as somewhat self-indulgent?

Self-care relates to the self. It is personal in nature. Thus, it makes sense that self-care looks different for each of us. However, the concept has an interesting and complex history that most people have forgotten about.

With the advent of the women’s movement and the civil rights movement in the United States in the 1960s, self-care became a political act. Women and people of colour perceived the white, patriarchal medical system as inadequate for their specific needs and – worse – as sexist and racist. To tackle hierarchies of race, gender, class, and sexual orientation, marginalised groups had to look after their own health, simply because nobody else would. For women, taking the time to self-care also went against patriarchal ideas about women’s role in society, as women are often type-cast as carers of others rather than self-carers.

As Sadie Trombetta writes, for these groups, “[self-care was] a courageous act that started with acknowledging that they had needs, that their needs were important, and that those needs deserved to be met, no matter what their oppressors said”.

Many black people at the time lived in the kind of sub-par conditions strongly correlated with ill-health. To help address this structural inequality, groups like the Black Panthers set up free community-service programs to look after the healthcare needs of their community and ensure their access to healthcare. Women’s groups took their cue from these community programs and opened health clinics to ensure women – particularly poor, working-class women – could get the care they needed. This often included access to reproductive services.

Around the same time, a broader wellness or self-care trend arose within society – however, this had more to do with improving quality of life than ensuring access to healthcare. People began doing activities such as yoga and paying attention to their diet in order to create positive health (rather than the mere absence of illness). By the 1980s, this trend had become mainstream and commercialised, and soon it developed into the mass billion-dollar industry we are familiar with today.

As a result, some argue that self-care has been hijacked by capitalism and that the concept has been reduced to something we buy – wholly divorced from its political origins. However, for marginalised groups the act of looking after oneself is still arguably a radical act for the reasons outlined by Trombetta. Furthermore, in airplanes we are told to tend to our own oxygen masks first before helping others. This isn’t selfish – rather, it puts us in a better position to help others and to deal with life’s challenges. Used wisely, self-care can help us become our best selves so that we can also serve society – a noble aim for any aspiring activist!

If we are seriously concerned about effecting change in our world, it is important to keep psychologically healthy so that we don’t become disheartened or burn out. The fact that the term ‘self-care’ was googled twice as much in the week after Trump’s election illustrates this point beautifully.

Now, where are my bath salts…?

Photo via Pixabay

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