Honouring the Radical History of Self-Care

By Lynie Awywen (Follow us on LinkedIn)

If ‘prioritizing self-care’ is one of your resolutions this year — or an ongoing core value you wish to remain in alignment with, it is important to honour the radical history of the term as you embark on your own intention setting rituals. There is power in looking back as we move forward. Reflecting on the history of self-care is one way we can deepen our practice. This post also serves as a nod to Black History Month.

In 2015, I wrote a paper called “You OK, Sis?”: Women of Colour/Aboriginal Women and the Politics of Radical Self-Care.” At the time I was wrapping up my criminology and gender and women’s studies requirements at York University to complete my double major Honours B.A. The gender and women’s studies concentration shaped my self-care praxis; one that is informed by the theorizing of Black feminist and womanist scholars. 

My paper was nominated for the Undergraduate Essay Prize in the department, which I won. I also graduated summa cum laude. These transformative episodic memories are important to me; as they temporarily tamed the imposter syndrome that often reared its ugly head throughout the course of my degree — my entire life, really. I came across a draft version of the paper recently and it sparked my interest as I have been thinking about the evolution of self-care personally and politically. I decided to revisit the responses from some of the participants and see how their own views of self-care have changed (especially at this time when discussion on mental-health, anti-racism, anti-Blackness and anti-Indigeneity are generally more accepted in society). At the end of this article, I will share a link with the response from my beautiful and brilliant friend Joan, who identifies as a trans-national femme (not with the term woman).

My inspiration for the original paper came from a lecture at York University where the late great bell hooks was the keynote speaker. hooks spoke about how white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy permeates all institutions, including academia. She advised that students must practice self-love/care in order to minimize these detrimental effects. When a student asked hooks how to practice self-love/care or what it looks like, she admitted to not knowing. This led to my in-depth qualitative research study that focused on the various radical ways Black, Indigenous and other women of colour (BIWOC) practice self-love and self-care in a white supremacist heteropatriarchal society. Discrimination such as anti-Blackness, colourism and anti-Indigeneity/on-going forms of colonization were highlighted. Through the use of various feminist epistemologies and methodologies, I aimed to uncover the pervasiveness of racism in the lives of BIWOC, irrespective of socio-economic class, sexuality, differing abilities, or age. The effectiveness of radical self-love and care was assessed and evaluated as a method to combat the destructive remnants of these traumatic experiences; to rectify imbalances and heal wounds. Using a detailed questionnaire and following up with a focus group to engage and share ideas, the project aimed to serve as a valuable exchange of information for participants and myself — where developing new methods of self-care practices became an embodied communal exchange. 

At the time, I was frustrated with continuously coming across bodies of work that exposed the realities of racism and demanded systemic revolutions that required major structural and policy driven changes in order to minimize and/or eradicate discrimination. Institutional change does not happen overnight. I craved practical techniques for self-preservation and self-sustenance. Then and now I recognized survival as messy, complicated and multifaceted. One way to strengthen self-sustenance is to love ourselves as ferociously as the systems that want to harm us. This notion gained power and popularity during the rise of the women’s movement and the civil rights movements, where self-care became viewed as a political act. 

A Brief Overview of Self-Care Over the Years

In her piece A History of Self-Care, Aisha Harris presents an engaging critique on the ways in which the concept of self-care transitioned from a radical concept to an adulterated overused one that is now, in many ways, retreating back to its radical roots. Self-care originally was used as a medical concept in the 1950s. The Black Panther Party popularized and politicized  the concept of self-care with the creation of communal social-service programs. The ‘self’ was not viewed separately from the larger community as holistic needs of Black communities and Black activists have always been a part of organizing efforts. “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.

My favourite cultural icon, academic and social activist, Angela Davis and former Black Panther leader Ericka Huggins adopted mindfulness techniques and movement arts like yoga and meditation while incarcerated. 

Carrying forward these ideas, queer activist-scholar Audre Lorde wrote the often quoted “caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self- preservation, and that is an act of political warfare” in A Burst of Light: Essays in 1988. Since its publication, Lorde’s book amplified the intersections of self-care and civil rights as she navigated living with cancer. Lorde’s teachings highlight how self-preservation is foundational for community building.

When fitness and wellness lifestyles gained popularity, self-care became disassociated from politics. That shift continued in the late 80s and the 1990s. Although the corporate hijacking of self-care persisted, its radical roots surfaced again in the Black community due to media attention of police killings of unarmed Black people. Studies have shown that the repeated viewing of  disturbing videos depicting racial violence can trigger the same symptoms as PTSD. Furthermore, the election of Donald Trump in 2016 popularized the term once again. For six days (from 11/13 to 11/19) post-election, the term “self-care” saw a spike in search interest in Google Trends. In recent years, self-care has been a trending term during the lockdowns and isolation periods of Coronavirus in 2020 and 2021 as most of us looked (and continue to) for ways to prioritize emotional, mental and physical well-being during this unprecedented time. 

Reflecting on my original paper, through learning and unlearning, there are a few things I would do differently if writing in 2023. I would use the term Indigenous (not Aboriginal), capitalize Black and include the pronouns of my participants to better encompass the full range of their identities. Specifically on the topic of self-care, I would more thoroughly explore the intersection of self-care/love and capitalism. In 2020, self-care was estimated to be an almost ten-billion-dollar industry in the United States (Caldera, 2020). I want to emphasize that self-care belongs to all of us, not just a privilege for the affluent. Self-care should not be conflated with toxic western individualism, which propels the myth of meritocracy, ‘self-made’ achievements and relentless ‘by any means necessary’ competition. These principles often lack empathy, human vulnerability and are in direct conflict with non-Western ontologies of being-in-community with others. Caldera (2020) states that these concepts often harm Black women the most. She elaborates: 

Self-care is not synonymous with self-indulgence. Self-care does not mean indulging in luxuries such as manicures, facials, and waxes; dining at fancy restaurants; taking expensive vacations; or shopping. In my estimation, these actions are more akin to pampering than self-care and can…lead to extreme consumerism and materialism, which are antithetical to self-care. These supposed “self-care” entrapments are largely products of capitalism designed to promote debt, overspending, and exclusivity. Instead of contributing to our victimization through capitalism… self-care must not be elitist (2020, pg 714-715).

Although I’ve listed some examples that illustrate self-care returning to its political roots, ‘practicing self-care’ is still branded with a distinct aesthetic and being aware of this is liberating for me. Additionally, these days I actively practice self-care with community, not just plan to do so or fall into performative wellness/wellness theatre. 

As previously mentioned I will end by sharing Joan’s 2015 response followed by their resplendent reflection of how their thoughts on self-care have evolved over the years. Joan’s response has given me so much to think about as I reevaluate my own relationship with the term, especially as it relates to community. 

Please click here to read Joan Laxmie Rupram’s response

Wishing everyone a wonderful new year filled with your favourite forms of self-care —both at the individual and communal levels.


Notes Between Us (NBU) is a blog about conversations and topics of interest to the writers. The writers are expressing their personal opinions solely. The essays represent their personal beliefs and not that of their workplaces or any organization they are associated with.