Radical Self-Care: By Whom for Whom?

Radical Self-Care: By Whom For Whom?
Self-Care History Is Black History
Jacob "Wolly" Wollinger

The 21st century has been a rough one so far. Marked by war, climate crises, and the rising cost of living, many of our stress alert systems have been working overtime. In the face of these challenges, reservoirs of hope & optimism can be found springing up in likely & unlikely places. One of these has been the growing relevance of what’s called “self-care”.

As a mental health professional, the concept of ‘taking care’ of one’s self is everywhere. It’s our ‘stop, drop & roll’--take a breath & take some time, you’ll be fine. Spreading this ethos among consumers of care can be a joy & a helpful reminder to ourselves. When people who’ve been beat up for years find the self-love necessary to start taking care of themselves? That’s fantastic.

Therein lies the beauty of the self-care paradigm shift. In a world of production for profit’s sake, in which the phrase ‘going above and beyond’ has become standardized for the working class, the centering of ‘taking care’ of yourself feels decidedly new. It almost feels like it’s against the rules–it almost feels, radical.

Where does the concept of “radical self-care” come from? For some people it’s become synonymous with the weekend bubble-bath; the netflix night. Surely these can be self-loving additions to a challenging week. It would be wise to wonder: what’s the purpose of this self-care? In whose name is it done?

Today’s self-care takes many forms, some more “radical” than others. On one end of the spectrum is Gwyneth Paltrow’s side-hustle, Goop. Paltrow’s ‘wellness & lifestyle’ brand offers a range of products, from a $125 white tee to the ‘Love Letters Book Clutch’, clocking in at just over $1600. The Goop website reads like an article out of The Onion.

Radical self-care, by whom? For whom? In the case of Goop, the answer is: rich, mostly white women.

I am not attempting to means-test loving & taking care of yourself. Self-love & self-care belong to all people. Stress and trauma percolate into all spheres of life, and by extension so too should treatment & recovery. However, not every act of self-care is made equal. In fact, when the self-care of one class ($1600!!!) comes at the direct expense of another class? Self-care for the few translates to the calculated collapse of poor & working-class families. 

Self-care that is by & for “the people” has a long & rich history in the US. A type of proto-self-care can be found in the state mental asylums of the 1950s. People working with institutionalized patients found that caring for their ‘mental hygiene’ allowed patients to recover with greater efficacy. This is how “person-centered care” and “self-worth” first became relevant in the healthcare world. 

If the medical profession is where the seeds of modern self-care were planted, then it is in the Black Power movement that loving & taking care of one’s self first flourished. 

The 1960s were an exciting, turbulent time. In the wake of war-time prosperity, the gaps in socio-economic equality among the various classes of Americans became (even more) glaringly obvious. The emphasis on “fighting for freedom” in Vietnam was juxtaposed with the overwhelming lack of freedoms in our own country, which led to a growth in racial- & class-consciousness. Springing out of a long history of American radicalism came Black Power.

The Black Power movement constituted a revolutionary cultural shift. Along with an emphasis on legal & civil demands, phrases like “Black Is Beautiful” became popularized. In a world that believed Black folks to be inferior in a variety of ways, positive affirmations like that marked an important step in the cognitive recovery from centuries of oppression & abuse, surpassed in importance only by the abolition of slavery itself. 

It was in groups like the Black Panthers that “self-care” took on its truly radical dimensions. As research fellow Maryam Aziz of Penn State puts it: “Holistic needs of Black communities and Black activists have always been a part of community organizers’ tactics. Black women, often queer, pushed other activists toward caring for themselves as a necessary, everyday revolutionary practice”. 

Women like Angela Davis & Ericka Huggins are some of the well-known advocates for & stewards of the growing self-care movement. Practices of mindfulness, meditation, & yoga were developed during their respective periods of incarceration (thanks prison industrial complex!). These practices were then championed throughout the Black Power & Civil Rights movements. Wellness programs were developed & maintained in rec centers throughout the country, so that working people could care for themselves while fighting for a more just world.

Audre Lorde is another famous pioneer of radical self-care. Writing after the rise & demise of the Black Panther Party, she continued the conversation on the intersectionality of self-care in her highly acclaimed “A Burst of Light: And Other Essays”. As a Black Feminist battling cancer, her understanding of self-preservation’s role in fighting oppression & building community was quite well-informed, to say the least. 

The last 75 years of “self-care” have seen various flavors: from the clinical to the radical; from the political to the commercialized. Although brands occasionally pull off a radical aesthetic (Goop’s front page features a Black woman), some in the community see through the facade. A’dreana Williams, a student & organizer at Howard University, has stated: 

“In terms of representation, I’ve been starting to see myself more, but it feels performative. Sometimes, I feel inspired and happy and proud of everyone and everything that is going on. And then I feel hopeless, sad, and strung out because I feel as though change isn’t happening.”

The history of self-care, like most things in the United States of America, is Black History. As purveyors of wellness, therapists & other mental health workers should know who their forefathers (foremothers?) are & were. Without the contributions of Black Women, who knows what our relationship to concepts like “self-love”, “self-worth”, and “radical self-care” might be? 

Take care of yourself today; so that you may fight tomorrow.