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The Radical History of Self Care

Updated: May 17, 2022

How did self care even become a thing? The answer is a bit complicated.

What we now know as self care has quite an interesting, yet radical history.

In the 1950s, self care was a medical term used to help institutionalized patients cultivate a sense of autonomy through individual and intentional acts of care. Patients were encouraged to recognize their self-worth by prioritizing tasks such as exercising, eating, and grooming.

Although the topic of self care was used in the medical field, mental health support was mostly provided in psychiatric wards.

Mental Health Awareness display in Minneapolis 1944

In the 1960s, self care became critical in the civil rights movement and The Black Panther Party. The leaders of The Black Panther Party realized the importance of encouraging their community to take care of themselves in order to show up for each other. They recognized the power in self care as a part of community care, especially since they did not have access to basic health care and social services.

As they fought for liberation and advocated for civil rights, they established survival programs that prioritized the health and wellness of the Black community. The Black Panther Party started free breakfast programs for children, established health clinics, mentored youth, created student unions and so much more. The Black Panther Party knew that they had to sustain themselves by promoting self care and community care in order to survive.

Sickle Cell Anemia Testing Site, Oakland CA, 1972

Self care quickly became a radical act of self preservation. In the 1980s, activist, Audre Lorde advocated for the rights of others as a Black lesbian woman. Lorde's work forged a path for many to learn that the ability to sustain activism was rooted in the care of self. The audacity to recognize that even as a member of marginalized communities, you still had important needs AND that you those needs deserved to be met. Lorde helps us understand that self care is a radical way of pushing back against oppressive systems and structures that tell you what you are not deserving of prioritizing your health and wellness.

Lorde is known for the popular quote “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

Audre Lorde, Berlin, 1984.©️Dagmar Schultz; From Dagmar Schultz, Audre Lorde, The Berlin Years 1984 to 1992, 2012

"Soooo how does this relate to teaching?"

Consider all of the ways teachers are told that they should not put themselves first or prioritize their needs. What messages do we tell ourselves that are detrimental to our own health? What "good teacher" narrative do we chase in hopes to be everything to everyone?

"I want to keep teaching, but I am so burned out."

Good news! You can work your way through burnout. Bad news. It won't happen overnight. Self care has changed so quickly to make one believe that one bubble bath and glass of wine will solve your problems. It won't. Inner work, intentional mindset shifts, mental health support, and community will, though.

By taking care of yourself, you're able to show up and push back within an education system that thrives because of your unpaid labor. By taking care of yourself, you change the dynamic of how society sees teachers. You teach them how to treat you. You show up whole and well for the students you serve. Most importantly, you stay true to yourself.

Have the audacity to put yourself first.

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