The history of self-care.

How “Self-Care” Went From Radical to Frou-Frou to Radical Once Again

How “Self-Care” Went From Radical to Frou-Frou to Radical Once Again

Arts, entertainment, and more.
April 5 2017 5:55 AM

A History of Self-Care

From its radical roots to its yuppie-driven middle age to its election-inspired resurgence.

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Women and people of color have viewed controlling their health as a corrective to the failures of a white, patriarchal system.

Photo illustration by Slate. Images via K. Kendall/Wikimedia Commons; Wavebreak Media; Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

The articles began to pop up almost immediately after Nov. 8, speaking to readers in a tone of grave concern, like a dear friend comforting you after a breakup or the death of a loved one. “Get off social media,” they implored. “Round up your favorite girlfriends and hit some bars, slam some chasers, and take your rage out on some truly regrettable karaoke.” “Give yourself a makeover like you’re seven years old and at a sleepover.” Podcast hosts and media personalities (Slate staff included) shared their own coping methods for perilous times.

Aisha Harris Aisha Harris

Aisha Harris is a Slate culture writer and host of the Slate podcast Represent.

It’s not that “self-care”—as the concept of consciously tending to one’s own well-being has become known—was invented during the election season. But in 2016, self-care officially crossed over into the mainstream. It was the new chicken soup for the progressive soul. The week after the election, Americans Googled the term almost twice as often as they ever had in years past. Many of them simply wondered, “What is this thing?” Months later, others still wondered where it came from.

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Self-care originally caught on as a medical concept. Doctors have long discussed it as a way for patients to treat themselves and exercise healthy habits, most often under the guidance of a health professional. Prior to the late 1960s and early 1970s, these patients were usually mentally ill and elderly people who required long-term care and otherwise had little autonomy. Later, academics began to look for ways for workers in more high-risk and emotionally daunting professions—trauma therapists, social workers, EMTs, and so on—to combat stress brought on by the job. The belief driving this work was that one cannot adequately take on the problems of others without taking care of oneself (by reading for pleasure or taking the occasional vacation, for instance)—a sentiment you still hear from activists today. And that applied not just to physical welfare but to mental and emotional health.

It wasn’t until the rise of the women’s movement and the civil rights movement that self-care became a political act. Women and people of color viewed controlling their health as a corrective to the failures of a white, patriarchal medical system to properly tend to their needs. Self-care was “a claiming [of] autonomy over the body as a political act against institutional, technocratic, very racist, and sexist medicine,” Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, an assistant professor at the New School currently writing a book about the history of American fitness culture, told me.

As Jennifer Nelson wrote in her book, More Than Medicine: A History of the Feminist Women’s Health Movement, a push to redefine health care beyond just treatment of the individual body gained steam within various movements in the ’60s. Activists saw that poverty was correlated with poor health, and they argued that in order to dismantle hierarchies based upon race, gender, class, and sexual orientation, those groups must be able to live healthy lives. In turn, living healthily “required the involvement of individuals and communities in their own health promotion.” Yet while the federally funded Community Health Clinic network and other free clinics popped up around the country, Nelson observed, there still existed rampant sexism, with the female body widely perceived and treated by medical staff as “inherently sick” (if they were middle- or upper-class) or, more disparagingly, as a “vector of disease” (if poor or working-class). This, along with providers’ hostile attitudes toward reproductive rights, led women’s liberation activists to open their own clinics designed specifically for women’s needs.

The women’s lib movement, of course, took cues from the civil rights movement in many ways, and as Nelson points out, this was especially true with health care. Civil rights leaders had made health care a priority, with Martin Luther King Jr. saying, “Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health is the most shocking and the most inhuman.” The Black Panther Party carried this idea forward. Alondra Nelson chronicles the Panthers’ efforts on this front in her book Body and Soul, which opens with the Black Community Survival Conference held in Oakland, California, in 1972—“a rally, street fair, and block party” in which speeches were given and information distributed about the party’s free community-service programs. Those programs were established both to make up for the dire lack of adequate social-service programs after the waning of the War on Poverty as well as to provide a coping mechanism against the harassment and surveillance that black people suffered at the hands of the police and the federal government. These nationwide clinics recruited nurses, doctors, and students to test for illness and disease rampant within the black community (including lead poisoning and sickle-cell anemia), as well as to provide basic preventive care. For black people and especially black women, this kind of self-care was brought to fill a desperate need. The “survival programs” of the Panthers were about just that: survival.

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Both of these movements also coincided with a more niche “wellness” trend, one that was less about procuring the most basic tools for survival and more about improving one’s quality of life. It was borne from a disappointment among doctors and nurses with the ways in which traditional Western medicine failed to address the full needs of its patients. The public’s attitude toward those who championed a more holistic approach to fitness—one that pushed for “ ‘positive health’ rather than just the absence of illness”—was not unlike that toward hippies. (The trend was particularly concentrated in the San Francisco Bay Area.) Petrzela pointed me toward a 1979 60 Minutes segment that opens with Dan Rather saying, “Wellness: Now there’s a word you don’t hear every day.” He goes on to explain, “Wellness is really the ultimate in something called ‘self-care,’ ” before presenting some of the patients and doctors he interviewed with allegations that they were a “cult.”

Holistic fitness lifestyles like the one Rather profiled marked the beginning of a new era for self-care, one that disassociated it further from politics. That shift continued in the late ’80s and the 1990s, Petrzela notes, when fitness and wellness lifestyles began to move from the fringes of society to the mainstream, becoming more commercialized and associated with the wealthy. Yoga classes suddenly appeared on YMCA schedules and in health clubs, for instance, contributing to what she described as “the lightening of the tone of many of these originally more subversive ideas”—think upper-class moms picking up their kids in Lululemon pants, or Fortune 500 companies touting their wellness centers provided for employees. (Not to mention the fact that, by the 1980s, the Black Panthers and many of their successful community programs had been destroyed by a number of factors, particularly government interference and infighting.)

It took 9/11 for self-care to begin to reclaim its roots as an act of political resistance, according to Petrzela. The collective trauma of that experience led to a notable increase of studies on the effects of PTSD, and it made psychiatrists expand their criteria for who might be considered to be a PTSD victim, to include even some who had a more indirect experience of witnessing the towers fall or may not have noticed symptoms until years later. Petrzela notes that in the fallout from the attacks there was a “turning inward in a lot of ways”:

You see the whole mind-body space in the fitness arena boom after that. And you see—I’m not saying it wasn’t commercialized—but there’s a kind of sense that taking care of yourself, exercising, eating well, etc. is something really kind of crucial to do in a moment of great political and cultural instability. I think that that seed has been growing in the 21st century.
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The rise of blogs hasn’t hurt, either. Women, people of color, and the LGBTQ community have been able to carve out spaces for themselves online that were not always open to them before, sharing knowledge and supporting each other in unprecedented ways. For about a year, between 2014 and 2015, the women’s blog the Hairpin featured a regular column from Fariha Róisín and Sara Black McCulloch in which they interviewed different women about self-care and what it meant to them. In their inaugural post, Róisín wrote, “This column has a singular purpose: to talk to women about navigating a world where they are their own savior.” In those conversations with others and among themselves, they explored not just their regimens, but the struggles they had with practicing something that is often regarded as navel-gazing.

The first time she heard about “self-care” was “right after a pretty awful breakup,” Róisín told me via email, when her friends “kept repeating” the phrase to her. At first, she found the idea unrealistic, “because I wasn’t conditioned to care for myself.” Now, she says, she realizes that “true self-care is figuring out what works for you, and honoring what your needs are, working within your limitations.”

In the past few years, self-care has also become a particularly popular topic within the black community once again, appearing frequently in magazines and blogs such as Essence and Madame Noir—not to mention on Solange’s 2016 album A Seat at the Table, which featured a song titled “Borderline (An Ode to Self-Care).” Black celebrities (especially women) are frequently asked to expound on their personal self-care routines. The hit series Being Mary Jane, meanwhile, has made this a long-running theme throughout its four seasons: Gabrielle Union’s titular protagonist is constantly taking on too many of her family members’ emotional and financial burdens (including helping out her teenage niece, a struggling single mother of two kids) while also trying to further her career and maintain her friendships and romantic relationships. She embodies many black women, in that she is expected to be the one who takes care of everyone around her to the detriment of her own physical and mental health. In a recent episode, Mary Jane worries that having finally left her hometown of Atlanta to take a new job in New York City, she’s also left her family out to dry, after learning that her niece has gotten herself into trouble again. “I thought you were done playing the rescuer,” her brother says.

“So I did the right thing?” she asks, hesitantly.

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Of course you did the right thing.”

Monnica Williams, an associate professor in psychological sciences at the University of Connecticut and clinical director for the Behavioral Wellness Clinics in Kentucky, told me that she sees this kind of struggle all the time among women of color. “It’s kind of frowned on to think about self-care; people think it’s kind of selfish,” she said. But this lack of attention to one’s own stress levels and diet and fitness can lead to medical issues down the road: high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity. Williams has also noticed a recent shift within the medical field toward taking self-care more seriously, with doctors doing more to combat “John Henry–ism—the idea that you face problems by working harder and harder” and not taking time out for yourself.

Another factor that has prompted renewed interest in self-care in the black community is the rise in media attention to police killings of unarmed black people. As Williams wrote in Slate last year, 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. In an early episode of the popular BuzzFeed podcast Another Round, from 2015, hosts Tracy Clayton and Heben Nigatu advocated for the importance of self-care in the wake of several police shootings—only to re-air the episode (with an updated intro) following the back-to-back killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile last summer. “There is so much demanded of people in the world, society, and the media (especially for those in the margins),” Clayton told me via email, “and we really wanted [our podcast] to be a soft, safe space for everyone to let their hair down, take a break and reenergize.”

That same desire for safe spaces translates to other stigmatized groups as well. Róisín—a queer, Muslim woman of color—said that she “had to find real ways to block the toxicity I felt from the world around me” after the election, which included stepping away from the news and social media. And Jace Harr—a queer writer and mental-health activist who created a viral self-care interactive that challenges its users to check in with themselves (questions include “Have you eaten in the last four hours?” and “Have you taken any medication you need to take?”)—believes that the notion of self-care has “really blossomed” after the election. “[It’s] become a lot more critical, more of a maintenance activity rather than a reaction to feeling stressed out,” he told me. “People are realizing that it’s something they need to do every day to deal with the current climate.”

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As with previous incarnations of self-care, there are those who roll their eyes and criticize proponents for engaging in something they view as extravagant or just lazy. In some instances, they may have a point. Those practicing and encouraging self-care regularly, however, usually echo a famous quote from Audre Lorde’s 1988 book of essays, A Burst of Light: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

And in some cases, the connection between caring for oneself before you can care for others is crystal clear. Shinise Muse, a counselor and supervisor at Crisis Text Line—a not-for-profit hotline offering support to people experiencing everything from suicidal thoughts to sexual abuse—never encountered the concept of self-care until she started working at the organization two years ago. At CTL, she told me, employees and counselors are taught that self-care is necessary to avoid burnout and compassion fatigue. Her regimen begins an hour and 15 minutes before her shift begins and includes, among other things, prayer, meditation (she uses an app called Headspace to assist her with this; CTL offers employees a free yearlong subscription), and visualizing and writing down the things she plans to do that day. This practice helps prepare her to help the crisis counselors help those in need. “I do that every day as a reminder to check in with myself and … know I owe myself myself, as well as giving myself to other people,” she tells me.

Muse’s daily routine is a perfect example of something Petrzela told me. “Caring for the self and caring about society actually can be interconnected,” she said. After the past few months, more people have become aware of this fact than ever before.