The Radical History of Self-Care


Last year was undoubtedly the year of extreme self-care, and with good reason. Between a pandemic, a presidential election, and a summer of protests against police brutality, self-care has evolved beyond a modern luxury and into a literal means of surviving during a pivotal time in our nation’s history.

If you go by social media, it’s easy to think self-care is simply a series of Instagram posts, candles, bubble baths, and yoga pants mainly accessible to well-off young people in expensive urban areas and the suburbs. However, the origins of today’s self-care industry are deeply embedded in the Black Power movement of the 1960s and ’70s, in underserved communities across the country.

The medical community latched onto the term self-care in the 1950s, before the Black Panther Party popularized — and politicized — it in the United States during the height of the civil rights movement. The fullness of the Black Panther Party’s legacy has only recently been uncovered, and yet it can be seen everywhere in the wellness space.

“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,” says Maryam K. Aziz, Ph.D, postdoctoral research fellow at Penn State University.

Trailblazers and former Black Panther leaders Angela Davis and Ericka Huggins adopted mindfulness techniques and movement arts like yoga and meditation while incarcerated. Following their release, they both began championing the power of proper nutrition and physical movement to preserve one’s mental health while navigating an inequitable, sociopolitical system, creating wellness programs for adults and children in recreational centers across the country, in neighborhoods like Brooklyn, New York, and Oakland, California.

“It is exactly this type of activism that [is] so prevalent today, and it is really rooted in the work of Black women,” adds Aziz, who is also a self-defense instructor.

Self-defense was a key component of the Panther’s famed Ten-Point Program, outlined by cofounders Huey Newton and Bobby Seale in 1966. By the time the Ten-Point Program was modified in 1972, medical racism had become an increased focus. The Black Panther Party’s persona as militant warriors was birthed out of necessity to preserve the health of Black bodies.

“Rather than focusing on the physicality of such moves, the [Black Panther] Party’s martial arts program emphasized appreciating one’s Black body as it was,” says Aziz. “Martial arts practice teaches Black women and girls to unlearn the idea that they are not strong and powerful. This is important for not only young Black girls, but for young, Black, nonbinary, and gender-nonconforming youth as well.” Instagram pages like Black Women Martial Arts continue the legacy, showcasing the power of martial arts reinforcing self-defense and self-healing.

By the 1980s, activist and writer Audre Lorde amplified the intersectionality of self-care and civil rights as she dealt with cancer, in her book A Burst of Light: and Other Essays, which now stands as a manifesto for the Black female identity.

“Audre Lorde’s teachings highlight how self-preservation is foundational for community building,” says Sabre Burroughs, cofounder of Newark Water Coalition. Based in Newark, New Jersey, the organization focuses on making clean water accessible for all. Burroughs says revisiting civil rights icons’ teachings on self-preservation has helped her maintain her mental health at this time.

Today the self-care industry has ballooned into an estimated $10 billion business, with a large portion coming from the beauty sector. Following the Black Lives Matter protests in June, a number of beauty brands spoke out against racial injustice before the majority of their social media feeds noticeably moved on.





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