The history of self-care is something you may not know much about. The term “self-care” has grown in popularity, with over 54.1 million tags on Instagram. It has been a trending term especially during the lockdowns and isolation periods of Coronavirus in 2020 and 2021.
If you haven’t already, you’re probably starting to hear more and more about self-care routines and practices. Ultimately, self-care is a way we prioritize our emotional, mental and physical wellbeing. But successful self-care looks different for each of us. And understanding the origin of self-care may help you connect more deeply with what you want to get out of your own self-care.
So, where did the term come from? The history of self-care began in the 1950s and grew in power and popularity through the civil rights movement. Today it’s a well-known term. It means taking care of yourself and doing what’s holistically healthiest for yourself on any given day. But it hasn’t always meant that. Knowing its history helps frame its significance in today’s context especially.
The radical and powerful history of self-care
The ideology of self-care originated in the 1950s in the medical community. With the rise of “person or patient-centered medicine” came a greater emphasis on individualistic acts and practices that would improve the health of patients. This introduction of patient autonomy to healthcare gave birth to the first-ever self-care movement.
A poster about mental health awareness at the Minneapolis Health Fair in 1944.
The term self-care was integrated into medical ethics teaching and used first in mental hospitals for institutionalized patients. Encouraging patients to practice self-care in order to regain self-worth was the emphasis. Tasks like exercising or personal grooming or learning to eat well actually came from the medical world.
Self-care soon became a widely adopted idea in medicine. But really only in specific psychiatric settings. But it was an idea that became a core part of “community care” during the civil rights movement, thanks to the Black Panther Party.
Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton speaking at a 1969 rally
Known for promoting social justice and change, the Black Panther Party used the radical idea of “self-care” to fight against systemic racism. They had an understanding of the important role self-care played for the rights of women, black people, and marginalized communities at large. In order for the Black Panthers to keep up their momentum, they realized they needed to take care of their own group. By encouraging acts of self-care among their members, the movement could stay energized to fight for justice.
The Black Panthers wrote a chapter on the history of self-care with the basic idea that communities deserved initiatives that encouraged emotional health and mental health. Especially since black communities often lacked access to basic health care and social services. So, the Black Panther Party started programs, groups, and centers to provide various kinds of professional care.
But there was a reason for self-care. It was community-based. It was value-driven. It was activism-supporting. Practicing self-care was the only way to ensure lasting social justice for communities ravaged by police brutality and systemic racism.
Going into the 1970s, the history of self-care overlaps with the increasing awareness of medical racism. In 1972, the Black Panther Party released their Ten-Point Program, which emphasized the health of black people as a key to their resilience in the fight for social justice.
“We want completely free healthcare for all Black and oppressed people…health facilities which will not only treat our illnesses, most of which have come about as a result of our oppression but which will also develop preventive medical programs to guarantee our future survival.”
The Black Panther Party helped pivot towards justice-based medical ethics. Plus it enabled community access to equitable health care.
Black Panther Party with a banner at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. in 1970.
This idea that taking care of your health was essential to staying involved and energized for a human rights movement. This was radical. Self-care was a way to avoid burnout as an activist. It was a way to stay engaged and move forward despite your stress, trauma, and continued adversity.
This was a pivotal time in the self-care movement. The history of self-care began as a part of black history. But it would soon become a holistic approach with widespread adoption by many. Plus, this pivot from a community center initiative to a medical necessity for everyone would help frame self-care as a health and wellness term in the future.
Carrying forward the ideas started in the Black community, Audre Lorde was a prominent activist for self-care. In many ways, Lorde brought a seat to the table for black LGBTQ voices on the topic of health and wellness. In 1988, Lorde wrote famously, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
Activist Audre Lorde teaching a class, "women are powerful and dangerous" displayed on the chalkboard. Robert Alexander/Getty Images
A black lesbian woman with strong stances on the essential daily practice of self-reflection and health autonomy as a civic duty, Lorde died after a 14+ year battle with cancer. Her life is emblematic of the radical roots of self-care. And serves as a reminder that our present-day understanding of the term self-care has undergone a massive evolution from its origin.
Lorde’s contribution on the topic of self-care, however, was really only recognized by smaller marginalized communities. Though her work was prophetic and hugely influential in the decades after her, it wouldn’t be until the 2000s that the idea of self-care would get the attention it deserved.
The decade of the 90s is remembered as a time of economic boom and political peace after the decades-long Cold War ended. While it wasn’t all roses and butterflies, it also wasn’t a time of revolution, uprising or significant social change. But at the start of the 2000s, specifically after the events of 9/11, our nation was thrust into a new era of self-reflection and belonging. The term self-care underwent major redefining.
Flag on a name at the 9/11 Memorial in NYC.
Before now, the term self-care was still closely tied to the movements from which it came. It was used to encourage activists to avoid burnout. Yashna Padamsee, who has worked for the National Domestic Workers Alliance, has written a lot about these origins as she tries to honor them today in her own practice.
She says, “Self-care is an act of shoring up and resourcing ourselves to bring a stronger self to the movement. That’s the school of thought I come from.” So, she says, “What is the purpose of your self-care? Is it to do this for all of our lives, not just yours?”
However, the 9/11 attacks brought unprecedented devastation and loss. As a nation, our collective understanding of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) changed. The attacks sparked a new movement of trauma therapy for veterans, victims, and first responders.
Karestan Koenen, a professor of psychiatric epidemiology at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, has devoted a lot of her study to PTSD. She said, “I think the 9/11 terrorist attacks really brought home that trauma could happen to anyone, that it can happen and not be your fault.”
In the years following 9/11, the term self-care rose to new prominence. Psychiatrists and therapists began using the term with trauma victims. Versions of this therapy-centered self-care approach were shared with the larger American public as a way to regain resiliency after a nationwide, earthshattering event.
The New York City skyline, showing the World Trade Center before the 9/11 attack.
This was all followed just a few years later by the economic recession in 2008. These events are key plots on the historical timeline of self-care and its integration into the American health and wellness dialogue.
With the election of President Trump in 2016, the term self-care exploded. For six days (from 11/13 to 11/19) post-election, the term “self-care” saw a spike in search interest in Google Trends. And articles with self-care in the title were being published in the weeks after the election. Ones like “A Self-Care Guide of TV to Watch to Forget About Donald Trump’s Rise” on Mic. And an article on Quartz titled “The Rise of Donald Trump Demand We Embrace a Harder Kind of Self-Care”. Self-care become a nationally-recognized necessity somewhat overnight.
Peaceful protester holding a sign that says, "Time for change".
Since then, self-care has gone viral as a much-needed and encouraged practice for everyone. It has come at time when mental health awareness is on the rise. The 2010s, in response to much of the trauma of 9/11 and the economic recession of 2008, are responsible for the “mainstreamification” of self-care. It has grown out of its beginning days of reenergizing activists. And it’s become a widely-adopted and widespread term.
How should the history of self-care influence your self-care routine today?
The timeline of events leading up to our present understanding of self-care may influence how you see the term now. A quick glance at the #selfcare hashtag on Instagram or TikTok shows images of sugar scrubs, manicures, quote cards, and mountaintop views. And while all of those things represent self-care for someone today, it shows just how much the term has changed.
It's important to consider ways we can honor the radical history of self-care. The origin of this term is built on a foundation of activism and representation. So, here are some things you can do to consider the radical roots of self-care when thinking about your own self-care routines and rituals:
- Reflect. What about the history of self-care did you not know? Jot down the parts that are most significant to you.
- Evaluate. Are you involved in a community, cause or activism? You probably do but don’t even know it. Think small and practically.
- Identify your needs. How could self-care fuel your involvement in something outside of yourself? In what areas of your life are you burnt out or weary and need energizing?
- Enhance your self-care routine. Are there things you could add to your current self-care routine that would support your extracurricular involvement?
It’s important to look back in order to look forward. And considering the history of self-care is one way we can deepen our practice. We can connect self-care to its origin of activism and community involvement. And we can challenge ourselves through self-care to experience more personal growth and self-discovery.
For more ideas about how to incorporate self-care into your daily life, head over to our Silk+Sonder blog. We explore topics like the power of intention setting rituals, establishing healthy habits, and journaling prompts about self-love and quotes about overcoming fear!