It’s easy to see why self-care has become such a massively popular concept. What could possibly be more foundational to a good, happy life than loving on yourself every chance you get? There’s one name often missing from the conversation, though, and that’s the lady who started it all: The inimitable Audre Lorde.
Audre Lorde was, in her own words, “a black feminist lesbian mother poet.” For her, these identities were inextricable from one another and inextricable from her creative and academic work. She worked throughout the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s on poems and essays that explored identity, oppression, sexuality, power, sisterhood and other topics. She is one of the pre-eminent Black feminists, and one of her most famous quotes is this:
“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
Audre Lorde published these words in 1988, when she’d just been diagnosed with liver cancer after already surviving breast cancer six years earlier. As a Black lesbian, Audre was coping with centuries of interwoven traumas on top of her personal battles with illness. As a feminist, she was attempting to fight these oppressions in a universe where Black women’s pain is routinely made invisible, even by other women.
In this context, simple “self-preservation” is an act of defiance and absolutely an act of political warfare. Decades after Audre’s death, Black feminist activism has taken her words to heart. Healing is now a central component of the mission, and the message is clear: No matter what society tells us about self-sacrifice, we cannot possibly win the fight without caring for ourselves.
As Audre’s writing teaches us, the primary importance of self-care is that it says clearly: I exist, I matter, and I’m here to stay. This is radical for Black women, but it’s beneficial for everyone. It’s the aspect of self-care that made it far beyond Audre Lorde’s audience, to the myriad of books, blogs, podcasts and T-shirts that focus on this message.
Not all forms of self-care are equally accessible to all women. Not everyone can afford massages, days off, or dinners out. It’d be a shame if this revolutionary practice became one that is targeted toward the most privileged among us, especially when the most basic forms of self-care are quite simple: Go to bed on time, eat until you’re full, listen to your body.
Whether you share Audre Lorde’s many identities or not, it’s useful to remember the historical and cultural context of this phenomenon. Self-care was defined and made popular by a Black woman. Practicing in the spirit of Audre Lorde means putting yourself first — whatever that means for you.