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The Revolution of Shared ‘Self-Care’

How the internet helped reclaim a mode of black healing

Pizza Fingers
Pizza Fingers

Weeks after its release, Solange Knowles’s A Seat at the Table continues to bring on new emotions. My time with the album has been a journey with several stages: the first was listening to “Mad,” and adopting Lil Wayne’s line “got a lot to pop a Xan about” as some sort of personal rallying cry. Stage 2: listening to the “drink it away, sex it away, read it away” progression in “Cranes in the Sky” and whispering to anyone who would listen that it was basically the story of my 29th year.

Now I have reached Stage 3, in which “Borderline (An Ode to Self Care)” is the track that resonates the most. “We been lovers on a mission / So let’s take an intermission,” Solange sings. The song is about finding a safe space when the war is outside the walls.

You hear and read about self-care a lot these days — Tumblr, feminist essays, psychiatrists, Ava DuVernay speeches, magazine cover lines, and beauty newsletters. In its most basic form, self-care is the idea that taking time for yourself is just as important as taking care for others — that you can’t be who you want to be if you don’t take time for yourself. It means different things to different people. For me, it’s listening to the Solange album, eating salad instead of a cheeseburger, and occasionally buying a dress I can’t afford; to my friends, it can mean things as varied as “getting off Tinder” and “five orgasms a week and a nice body lotion.” But in recent years, self-care has been commodified and memed to the point of meaninglessness.

That is, until black women started reclaiming the idea as a necessary aspect of activism and social awareness. When asked about her own definition of self-care and its place on her album, Solange put it in the context of recent black tragedy. “Even in the midst of this last week with the multiple murders of young black men that occurred, I chose this time not to watch,” she told W magazine in September. “Just for the sake of being able to exist in that day, to exist without rage, and exist without heartbreak … [‘Ode to Self Care’] was an ode to how our home becomes a safe space, where we can just love and not deal with some of the intensities that go along with existing in these spaces.”

It’s an idea I’m seeing more and more. In certain circles, self-care is becoming a quiet, communal revolution.

The term self-care, as defined in a 1983 research paper by the World Health Organization, is fairly straightforward: “the activities, individuals, families, and communities undertake with the intention of enhancing health, preventing disease, limiting illness, and restoring health.” Within the realm of health care and psychiatric care, there are several tools for implementing that idea. My favorite is taken from advice to patients in recovery: HALT, an acronym that reminds us that when we are Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired, we are vulnerable. Those four problems feel so easy to fix — eat a sandwich, take a walk, call a friend, get some sleep and you’re good.

On the surface, it’s almost ridiculous that we need complicated psychological terms to encourage basic human tasks like eating or sleeping. Why has it become so hard to take care of ourselves?

“Maybe because it’s just so much easier to not? It’s easier to look at the internet, watch another episode, and just not get enough sleep,” says Simone Kitchens, the associate beauty director at Glamour, whose self-care practices include meditating and drenching herself in oils.

Aminatou Sow, who along with New York Times Magazine writer Jenna Wortham created Bloop (a Goop-inspired guide for black ladies), offered a similar explanation. “Because so many of us struggle to really prioritize ourselves!” Sow told me. “Women especially struggle with being perceived as selfish. Self-care at its core is not a passive act, and a lot of people come to it after a crisis or realizing they’re drowning in stress.” (Sow’s definition of self-care: turning your phone off, getting a manicure, and taking mental health days from work.)

There is a feeling, still, that self-care is acceptable only once we’ve really neglected to do it. In adult life, we often need a phrase to give ourselves permission for doing simple things, or, more plainly, for valuing ourselves. This is especially true when self-care intersects with the Goop-wellness-capitalist-industrial complex, which (even in my own definition, and often to my bank account’s detriment) it so often does. “Even saying the word ‘self-care’ feels indulgent,” said Kitchens with a laugh.

Wortham, Sow’s Bloop cofounder and a host of the podcast Still Processing, is quick to remind me that spending money does not equal self-care. “I don’t want to promote the idea that you have to spend money to take care of yourself,” she wrote me in an email. “I think about that often, how we’ve moved away from the idea of emotional luxuries or personal indulgences — which I would define as sleeping in, spending an hour in bed just reading, cooking yourself dinner … calling your best friend just to talk, or other small intangible things that don’t cost money but improve your personal welfare and mood — to center ‘care’ around ‘spending.’ I’m uncomfortable with that.”

“If it makes you feel better, then great,” Sow said of self-care spending, “but you cannot put a price tag on mental health or buy your way out of crushing self-doubt.” Put another way: Self-care is not about stuff; it is about treating yourself with kindness, in whatever form that takes. “Self-care is a radical choice,” Sow reminded me. “It is investing in yourself and your chosen people. It is a responsibility to ourselves. Audre Lorde already told y’all, it’s a revolutionary act!”

The radicalism of self-care still sometimes feels like a stretch to me — like an overjustification for spending too much money on caftans. But in a world that bombards us with fake wellness and “take care of yourself with this $150 foot cream!” it puts the emphasis back on healing, in a time when we need to remember how to do that.

I’d originally learned about self-care a year ago, when it seemed like the most important thing was to declutter my apartment Kondo-style, lose 20 pounds, and buy a lot of Glossier products. (I tried to do all three; I was successful at only one.) But the theory has since taken on real significance in my personal life recently, as we’ve watched so many black lives end in unnecessary and traumatic circumstances. Initially, self-care bubbled up as a reminder for people who were on the front lines — the dedicated members of Black Lives Matter or protesters who were traveling the country, spending hours planning rallies, participating in protests and sit-ins. But the need for more general self-care became more persistent with every instance of police brutality, and with every instance that brutality seemingly went unpunished. For many black women, self-care became the only antidote to the intense anger, sadness, hopelessness, isolation, and trauma of watching violent videos.

Wortham has written about how important self-care is in the era of Black Lives Matter. “Given that black people die from heart disease and suffer from high blood pressure at higher rates than other demographics, which can be exacerbated by stress and anxiety brought on by things like discrimination and racism, it feels important to acknowledge that we need to take care of ourselves, beyond just sleeping, eating, and exercising,” Wortham wrote me. “And it’s on us to figure out what that means, on an individual level.”

As the tragedies continued, it seemed more important to put my own health, well-being, and welfare first, because I live in a world that doesn’t. So I read pieces like “Self Care for People of Color after Psychological Trauma,” and took the advice to practice mindful isolation. When news of another shooting broke, I took a day off of work. I asked friends not to text me about their own personal outrage. I blocked people on Facebook. I felt overdramatic, but ultimately, I felt better.

In conversations I had with women, I found others were having similar experiences. Fariha Róisín, who coauthored a self-care series with Sara Black McCulloch at The Hairpin, learned more about the theory through Tumblr, after reading discussions of POC users who, like her, were battling depression. “I realized there was a way out, by actually liking myself and learning to look after myself,” she said. Kitchens felt a similar response. “[In Black Lives Matter discussions] is where I feel like I started to hear that word a little bit more more recently and in a way that seemed really — more deserving. I think it felt good that seeing other people are having these conversations. I felt connected to people when they put that out there. I felt a bit of community in seeing that.”

Which is a radical idea for a concept usually hidden in a therapist’s office. This self-care moment, as much as it as about Instagram, or eating when we’re hungry, or wearing Ivy Park when we’re in our Pure Barre class (guilty, always, guilty) is also about a collective permission, a communal agreement that what we need right now is to do whatever it takes to survive — without feeling the nagging worry of “But is this selfish?”

“I think we are all collectively giving each other permission to take care of ourselves,” Wortham wrote me. “Historically, I think it has been hard to individually justify or rationalize the urgency of needing to care-taking for the invisible indignities that we endure on a daily basis, and the internet is really good at the politics of validation and enabling, and seeing other black women say — no, you DO need to deal with this — has been huge. Revolutionary, even.”

Solange’s A Seat at the Table, ultimately, is about healing. Raphael Saadiq, one of Solange’s collaborators, commented in an interview with Saint Heron that the album was a “true testament of healing for me.” And of her ode to self-care, Solange herself said in the W interview, “You know, I probably wrote that because I need to manifest it more in my life.” And, it seems, give others permission to do that, too.