The History of Self-Care and How We Can Use it to Achieve Self-Empowerment

By Madeleine Harvey

In the age of social media, we are bombarded with messages emphasizing the importance of consumer-focused “self-care.” Lounging in a Gucci sweatsuit in a penthouse suite overlooking Central Park, social media influencers proclaim the value in “treating yourself” and practicing “self-care” by participating in consumerism. This could include, but is not limited to, buying a face mask, new clothing, a fancy dinner, or even attending a fitness class. While the brief dopamine rush of purchasing items can’t be denied, university students on tight budgets do not have the resources to buy something every time they feel distress. In addition, we need to recognize that treating our external desires by purchasing is insufficient to address the root cause of the internal struggles we experience in our lives. Understandably, managing internal struggle is no easy task. By looking towards the origin of a more empowered “self-care,” perhaps we may find guidance.

During the Civil Rights era, “self-care” was seen as a way for marginalized groups to “fight collectively to have their rights and needs recognized” in a hegemonic society that ignored non-white and non-male needs1. For example, the Black Panthers exemplified this notion of self-care by providing free healthcare treatment to Black individuals who were unable to access adequate care due to segregation1. “Self-care” also extended beyond traditional healthcare into mental wellness, which sought “a reimagining of what being well could mean for African Americans1.” Self-care became a way to remain resilient during times of oppression, empowering the marginalized individual to seek the care they require to overcome systematic neglect and abuse1. While this is only a brief summary of the history of self-care during the Civil Rights era, through this lens, we can understand self-care as an inherently self-empowering act, recognizing and advocating for our requirements of personal well-being.

How can we implement this self-empowering self-care into our own lives? Clearly, it isn’t as simple as ordering a face mask from Sephora. Ultimately, definitions of self-care rely on the individual. This may mean becoming more assertive for your own wants and needs2. If you value kindness and compassion, perhaps it is best to surround yourself with others who share these same values. Online, this could mean unfollowing social media accounts that are not conducive to a positive outlook on life (I’m looking at you, #fitspo). If you are asked to participate in something that is not favourable to your well-being, such as gossiping about another friend, practice saying “no” if you are able. While the ability to say “no” to studying, working, or other commitments definitely requires privilege you may not have, think about how you can reduce or at least manage the negative stressors in your life. This alone is an act of self-empowerment.

To further complicate this matter, unearthing this assertiveness and determining values is not an easy task. An entire novel could be written about how to find “yourself,” and this probably will not provide a direct route to self-empowerment. Maybe it’s best to start small through the experiences we already know. Ask yourself: what do you currently do in your life that makes you feel empowered? This is a complicated question, but with some thought and reflection, you will be able to find practices that begin to address your internal struggle so that you can empower

yourself. For example, I find empowerment in movement because I can appreciate how my body is able to endure exercise. I also find empowerment in cultivating and maintaining my friendships because I am able to feel like I belong to a community. For others, this may mean attending a therapy session, volunteering, or even just forgiving yourself for a less-than-satisfactory exam mark. While these are certainly not turning anyone into a self-empowered deity, trying to make yourself feel just a little bit better at the end of the day is a great way to begin addressing our internal struggle. Maybe that’s all we can do.

If you would like to learn more about self-care and the Civil Rights movement, please visit the bibliography of this article.


1. Bari S. The radical history of self care. BBC Radio [Internet]. 2020 Jun 22 [cited 2021 Nov 23]; Available from:

2. 7 Tips for achieving self-empowerment. Maryville University [Internet]. [cited 2021 Nov 21]; Available from:

Further Reading:

Bloom E. How “treat yourself” became a capitalist command [Internet]. 2015 Nov 19 [cited 2021 Nov 21]; Available from:

Hickson A & Blumenthal L. The self care obsession. [Internet]. 2019 Mar 25 [cited 2021 Nov 21]; Available from:

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