Self-care has grown into a $1.5 trillion dollar industry, with products and services that play into the same message: individualism is in, and community is out. Instagram femininity coaches tell us that in order to attract high-value men, we need to reduce our friend groups. TikTokers tell us alpha men don’t run in packs, and Twitter gurus tell us to cut off friends who don’t give off good vibes. These posts make it easy to think that the self-care and wellness culture is just another capitalist scheme to make money off the masses. However, the self-care industry as we know it has its roots in marginalised Black communities of the 1960s and 1970s.
The term, ‘self-care’ was coined by medical experts in the 1950s, but by the late 1960s, it had been popularised and politicised by The Black Panther Party. The Black Panther were a revolutionary party that fought for the liberation of marginalised and oppressed communities and protested against police brutality. They also practised real and tangible community care by distributing food to those in need, creating free health clinics, and distributing resources and information at a time where Black people lacked access to these basic needs due to systemic barriers. To the Black Panther party, community care was self-care.
Civil rights activist and feminist, Audre Lorde, journaled about her battle with lung cancer in her 1988 essay, A Burst of Light. To her, honouring her body and needs was an essential part of sustaining her activism, and was, therefore, an important part of that same activism. “I had to examine, in my dreams as well as in my immune-function tests, the devastating effects of overextension,” she wrote. “Overextending myself is not stretching myself. I had to accept how difficult it is to monitor the difference. Necessary for me as cutting down on sugar. Crucial. Physically. Psychically. Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.’
To her, self-care wasn’t about healing alone or ignoring our relationships, but about ensuring that we aren’t measuring our worth by our weariness. It means healing and protecting our health, so we can effectively care for our communities. This way, prioritising our needs and wellbeing means prioritising our community.
Today, activists and builders are continuing to reaffirm the importance of prioritising community. For Anwulika Ngozi Okonjo, a strategy lead at Shape History and founder of Ijeruka, “The last few years have only strengthened my belief in the importance of community tenfold. I have spent my entire life living between different continents and countries, so maintaining relationships has always been a challenge, but the community is non-negotiable. From activists and organisers to just groups of friends, communities that create space for vulnerability, truth and shared purpose nurture strength and wellbeing.”
Anwulika’s statements have been proven to be factual: research has found that neighbourhoods with higher levels of social cohesion experience lower rates of mental health problems than neighbourhoods with lower social cohesion, independent of how rich or poor the neighbourhood is.
Strong support systems have also been shown to reduce anxiety and depression, and improve coping mechanisms. “For me, community is the difference between feeling like I have the weight of the world on my shoulders, and feeling excited about my ability to shape the world because I am affirmed by people who believe wholeheartedly in whatever I do,” Anwulika continues. “Community doesn’t just make you feel powerful, it reminds you of your power. It replenishes you when you need it the most. When you pour into others, they pour into you. That is its ultimate beauty.’
As more people continue to realise that we cannot do life alone, and shouldn’t have to, community building is starting to happen organically. Communities for housing homeless marginalised folks, communities for ride shares, communities for food kitchens, and communities for sharing resources and job opportunities. Titilope Adedokun, founder of Sisterly HQ, says she started the community to close the massive information gap that exists for Nigerian women. “With over 100 million women in Nigeria, it’s crazy how there aren’t enough stories, opportunities and resources for Nigerian women. Sisterly HQ is bridging that gap, one post at a time.”
Titilope shares Audre Lorde’s views about the importance of community builders and workers prioritising their mental health. “[At Sisterly HQ], we are very big on self-care,” she says. “For instance, volunteers can take breaks for anything at any time, including mental health, and burnout. I always say this: I can’t build a safe space for women and not have a safe space for the women who work with us. Sisterly HQ is its women.”
Right now, we are at the tail end of a pandemic, in the middle of economic fragility and inflation, and at the beginning of election season for a number of African countries. Just like Titilope and Anwulika have affirmed, we need community now more than ever. We need to be intentional about showing up for each other even when governments and policies fail us. And we need to ensure that our communities are sustained, and our people are protected.
Boluwatito is a self-professed rom-com connoisseur powered by shawarma, quick naps, and romance novels. She currently works as a publishing assistant at Cassava Republic Press, and has bylines in gal-dem, Bubblegum and her mom’s Whatsapp status