• Sarah Taylor

Self-care, Audre Lorde and Black Radical Activism

An examination into the origins of "self-care"


At the time of writing in mid-July, there are currently over 30.6 million Instagram posts containing the hash-tag #selfcare. Scrolling down the explore page, this tag presents images of quotes – 'Bad Times Aren’t Forever' – photos of slim white girls practising yoga, and many sponsored #ad posts of beauty products. These photos fit into our current narrative of the term “self-care”, which conjures up images of face-masks (the pre-Covid type) and Gwyneth Paltrow’s dubious advice to stick a “Jade Egg” up your vagina.

Self-care is a flexible term, and fundamentally boils down to the preservation or improvement of one’s own mental and physical health, well-being and happiness. Self-care advice ranges from sleeping 8+ hours, to bullet-journaling, to taking regular STI tests and to daily walks. Its essence is so diverse, that any action which ends in oneself feeling happier and more positive can be attributed to it.

In recent years, the concept has been incorporated into mass-market consumerism. Self-care has become synonymous with Treat Yourself, which is shorthand for Spending Copious Amounts of Money to Feel Marginally Better. Brands have capitalised on this, and self-care is mingled with advertising and persuasive copy-writing: 'you too' can feel deserving and self-satisfied, for a price. Beauty Bay, an online cosmetics and beauty shop, has a whole page dedicated to self-care products. This includes cucumber facial wipes, hair masques and facial rollers. According to an American consumer report, the self-care industry is estimated to be worth $450 billion by the end of this year. 

More recently, during the Coronavirus pandemic and global lockdown, self-care has been included into general medical advice. The WHO has a page on its website detailing 'Self care during COVID-19.' This advice is mainly medical and practical, for example, seeking HIV self-testing or HPV self-sampling. It is also highly specific to the current climate, and includes tips such as accessing digital check-ups and telemedicine for pregnancy. This sort of self-care is different to the capitalist, brand-focused Treat Yourself type. But both are important, and both do relate to self-preservation and self-improvement (even if certain types are pricier). 

All of this suggests that self-care is a novel phenomenon, designed to alleviate modern-day pressures and pandemic-fears. However, the concept of self-care dates back to the late twentieth century, and has origins in anti-racism, radicalism and revolutionary politics.

In 1988, black lesbian activist poet and writer Audre Lorde detailed the concept of self-care. A Burst of Light: and Other Essays is a collection of essays written while living with an aggressively growing cancer. A Burst of Light explores her lesbianism, her identity as a black woman, her reflections on cancer and international struggles against oppressive and racist regimes. In her titular essay “A Burst of Light: Living With Cancer”, Lorde discusses self-care as a revolutionary political act. “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence,” she writes. “It is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” For Lorde, self-care is a necessary radical tactic for black people, especially black queer women. It is a way to save energy and ensure personal resilience against racism.

Lorde wrote on racism and white supremacy for the majority of her adult life. Much of her work, including Zami: A New Spelling of My Name (1983) and Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (1984) are widely praised for the discussion of lesbianism and racism, and her critiques of white and non-intersectional feminism. Lorde’s work and activism represent a groundbreaking contribution to black theory, particularly black queer and black feminist theory. 

For Lorde, caring for one's self offered preservation and protection from an overly racist society. In its origin, self-care is a revolutionary call-to-arms and political act against a white supremacist capitalist patriarchy (a phrase coined by bell hooks).

Self-care was also used as a health initiative in the twentieth century, primarily for people of colour. The Black Panther Party, for example, promoted medical self-care as a tool against white supremacy in their 'survival programmes'. The BPP set up health-care clinics and sickle-cell anemia testing centres in order to treat black people who were neglected by the traditional American medicine. This type of self-care guaranteed preservation and autonomy over one’s own body at a time when state would not provide that. 

*(I say “at a time” here as though the American medical system towards people of colour has radically and magically improved in the past fifty years. This is nowhere near correct, and the statistics on American people of colour and medical disparities are terrifying, especially during Coronavirus. There are some links below for more information/to donate.)*

Self-care in this sense is an inherently political act. It asserts a rebuttal of the white oppressive state, and is used as a tool for black radical activism and community building. It is slightly ironic then, that self-care nowadays has been co-opted by the capitalist state and by the white wellness movement. The very institutions that black activists were dismantling with self-care political tactics are now themselves promoting their own versions of self-care. 

With the growing awareness and rise of mental health issues, particularly depression and anxiety, it makes sense that the world has turned to self-care. In the current Corona-climate, it is even more important that people are taking care of their physical and mental health. But it is crucial that the origins of self-care remain known and that the concept does not lose its radical origins. Self-care should stay with radical political activism at heart, and cannot become sanitised by the white wellness or capitalist movement. In the recent months since George Floyd’s murder and the global Black Lives Matter movement, the true notion of self-care has reappeared. Countless black activists, speakers, writers are now urging white people to self-educate and learn for themselves, rather than relying on black emotional labour. On Instagram, I have seen free therapy and counselling for black people advertised, and pro bono legal advice for black people wrongly arrested in the protests. These are the types of self-care strategies that Lorde was referring to, and ensure self-preservation for black people dismantling white supremacist society.

With this reclamation of the term, self-care should once again become an “act of political warfare”, rather than only a yoga class or face-mask. 

**Links for more information and places to donate: