Brief Report: Analyzing Radical Self-Care Origins and Community Self-Care Practice

Written by Vanessa Goodar


Growing up in Chicago, I remember helping my grandmother set up her weekend home hair salon with family and friends. I observed my grandmother, as she thrived in one of her many entrepreneurial successes, provide hair services to other Black women from our neighborhood. As these women sat in our kitchen getting their hair styled, I watched my grandmother console them as they laughed, cried, and recovered figuratively and physically from life’s challenges, as well as the infamous hot comb. My grandmother’s clients would return, week after week, nonetheless satisfied with the results. I, on the other hand, could not understand the logic. Being born in the early 1980s and raised in the early 1990s, I was heavily influenced by resistance in Black popular culture.

Films like Malcolm X and School Daze and television shows like Living Single and A Different World nurtured my perceptions through an alternate lens of Black excellence and beauty. Although I protested weekly, I was rarely successful in avoiding time with that hot comb. Grandma would stress how important it was to look ‘pretty’, especially at church. She would say, ‘pain is the price of beauty’ and if you want to be pretty and accepted, you pay the price. I used to categorize what I and my grandmother’s other kitchen salon clients were doing as mainstream self-care: activities you do that somehow enhance your physical appearance or something extra you get to do that’s fun or luxurious – like when you drink wine after work, go on vacations, get massages or go shopping. I rarely saw examples of the type of self-care practices I now recognize as parallel with healing, such as reciting self-esteem affirmations of self-love and acceptance (Lindsay, 2014). Mainstream self-care seems more like beauty maintenance. The self-care practice that we see in social and mass media can sometimes look lavish. But in the health community, self-care is the intentional monitoring and maintenance of comprehensive healthiness practices with or without assistance from healthcare providers (World Health Organization, 2019).

While there are individuals who include advice and recommendations from healthcare providers as a part of their self-care plans, I grew up watching most of my family avoid healthcare provider interactions until it was absolutely necessary. Historical medical mistrust and mistreatment experiences created circumstances in which my family predominantly relied on home remedies, and ignored pain as long as they could stand it. We didn’t dare show mental or physical weaknesses to each other or openly show emotional responses, like crying. Sitting with emotional pain was worse than physical. Many of us were taught that being perceived as emotionally weak could leave you disrespected, hurt, or worse. Physical pain was understood and anticipated; but no one talked about processing grief, sadness, or childhood traumatic events. Being strong, independent, and ‘magical’ was the Black woman’s gold standard while simultaneously enduring racial, gender, body-positivity, and colorism issues. Black women were praying for magical American miracles.

It seems very normalized for Black women to make ultimate sacrifices to personal health and wellness for the betterment of others. I witnessed Black women set excellent examples through high performance in school, at work or at home while navigating economic survival and being Black in America. My role models steered clear of discussions requiring self-care openness or vulnerability. Family, teachers, friends, and spiritual leaders taught me practical self- care protections. I learned early and quickly that my emotions were dangerous and needed to be buried deep and forgotten.

These social-emotional values stayed with me into motherhood and marriage as I practiced the ‘pray and push through’ strategy on my personal struggles to reach society’s expectations of success. The Strong Black Woman Archetype kept me bound and dishonest for decades about struggling with mental health and trauma. I didn’t know how to explain that a lack of financial resources and understanding of complex reproductive conditions forced my 5-year infertility journey to end with a hysterectomy in 2017. I didn’t know how to process postpartum hysterectomy depression, distress, grief and the mental health hospitalization that followed. The shame and isolation that accompanied these experiences was crippling but I knew I could no longer ‘bury it’ as I was taught. There was no moving on without addressing what got me here.

Becoming a Community Psychologist

After a painful divorce in 2018, I began exploring online wellness communities on social media. I prioritized connecting with culturally-centered healing circles that allowed me to explore yoga retreats, meditation, and connecting to myself through journaling. I found these experiences soothing and therapeutic. There was a great benefit to revising my psychological and emotional toolkit to unpack what happened to me. Through an amazing Black woman support group called Fertility for Colored Girls, I was referred to an incredible, licensed clinical therapist who looked like me. My therapist was patient, gentle and supportive, as she helped me validate and affirm a sense of belonging within every space I enter. Around that time, a dear college friend, Hareder ‘Reda’ McDowell (a.k.a. Dr. Mac), was doing fascinating qualitative research exploring Black women’s sexual communication and empowerment experiences. Reda was doing work through the lens of our shared culture and community, and she proclaimed her identity as a Community Psychologist. Teaching special education in Chicago, while masking my Black Fatigue and the misconceptions of Black motherhood created an urgency and desire for me to impact innovation at the intersection of wellness, socio-cultural emotional experiences, and the process of change. It was then that I decided to pursue a PhD in Community Psychology.

Origins of Self- Care

The actions that create ‘self-care’ can actually be traced back to the beginnings of human existence. It was the non-verbal, verbal, and physical actions that provided safety and preserved humanity from life-threatening illnesses. The term ‘self-care’ gained popularity in the medical community in the 1950s when doctors were describing long term care for mentally ill and elderly patients. Self-care evolved in academic conferences and institutions as a way for helping professionals, like therapists, nurses, and social workers to avoid compassion fatigue and burnout. The late 1970s and early 1980s brought self-care to the mainstream with a focus on individualized wellness and physical health. Explosions of exclusive members-only health clubs and group aerobics put self-care on the map during that time but Black feminists, like Audre Lorde made statements of self-care as an act of resistance when she famously said, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

Radical Self- Care

The Black Panther Party was one of the first community-based groups to introduce meditation, traveling health treatment, nutritional meals, and other prevention and health promotion programs to the Black community in Oakland, California (Bassett M. T., 2016). Ericka Huggins was a leader of the Black Panther Party and helped revolutionize self-care as an alternative solution to sub-par healthcare offerings. In August 1970, activist Jonathan P. Jackson’s attempt to free three prisoners snowballed into a shoot-out outside a California courthouse. Jackson, a judge, and two others died in the attempt. Black Panther Party leader, Angela Davis, wasn’t at the scene but she allegedly bought the guns used in the incident, and was charged with murder, kidnapping, and criminal conspiracy. Angela Davis spent over a year in jail awaiting trial, and struggled with anxiety and depression. Angela watched what happened when other prisoners were prescribed Thorazine to which she observed a vegetative state. To address these dehumanizing conditions, Davis began practicing meditation and yoga and found these activities effective in maintaining her mental wellbeing. The instinct Angela Davis had to instantly shift her wellness practices to better address her mental and physical ailments is known as radical self-care. Radical self-care was described as essential for activists who sought to propel social justice efforts while preserving their own wellbeing. Davis believes, “(Practicing radical self-care) means we’re able to bring our entire selves into the movement. It means we incorporate it into our work, as activists, ways of acknowledging and hopefully moving beyond trauma. It means a holistic approach.”

Radical Self-Care, Participatory Action Research, and Community Psychology

In an attempt to take a holistic approach to my dissertation work, I synthesized photo ethnography, Photovoice and intergenerational storytelling methods into my self-care participatory action research project. Photo ethnography embeds the use of photographs as a researcher observes and/or engages with a culture or group for the purpose of discovering the phenomena of social interactions within everyday life (Reeves,, 2013). I wanted to observe Black women collaborating about self-care; and because of my identity as a Black woman, I also wanted to be a participant. Photovoice is a methodology coined by Caroline Wang and Mary Ann Burris (1994) as a participatory action research strategy used with marginalized populations. This qualitative method was designed to articulate community concerns, represent community culture, expose social problems and ignite social change (Sutton-Brown, 2014). Wang and Burris (1994) stated that Photovoice, “does not entrust cameras to health specialists, policymakers, or professional photographers, but puts them in the hands of children, rural women, grassroots workers, and other constituents with little access to those who make decisions over their lives”. Photovoice aligns with what Brazilian educator Paulo Freire (1973) termed ‘education for critical consciousness’, because participants get to document and discuss their life conditions as they see them. This research design also may incorporate intergenerational storytelling and acknowledge Black women’s shared culture, historical trauma, and strengths. Intergenerational storytelling has been a method of communication and connection for a number of centuries among African-American community members (Chioneso, et. al, 2020). Storytelling methods may strengthen community ties and promote positive intergenerational relationships. It’s how many Black community members pass down wisdom and common sense to the next generation (Westrate, Glüte and Ferrari, 2018).

Health Disparities and Participatory Action Research in the time of COVID

Heart disease, stroke, diabetes, breast cancer, cervical cancer, fibroid tumors, premature birth rates, sickle cell disease, sexually transmitted diseases, and mental health issues are killing Black women in the United States at disproportionate rates (Chinn, et. al., 2021). An ecological investigation of successful self-care practices with intentional, intergenerational dialogue seemed to be an effective strategy to address health concerns safely as a community. My plan was to explore how self-care was impacted by vulnerability, the obligations to help others and socio-economic factors of income, religious affiliation and marital status while using a storytelling, photo-ethnographic approach to Photovoice methods. Then COVID-19 completely changed that plan. The scientific approaches to research design and data collection had to be reimagined. Intentional decolonial work in qualitative research seemed more important than ever in this new age of empirical investigation. The study I created for implementation in-person had to be converted to virtual Zoom rooms because gathering could be a life-or-death situation. This brought up the need for an extra layer of care and concern for my participants’ well-being socially, mentally, and emotionally.

Healing Space Creation & Sense of Belonging in Community Psychology

Healing space creation is when people gather to promote wellness and health empathetically and unapologetically with other community members and trained facilitators. Healing space creation also can be used for the acknowledgement and release of shared pain, suffering, or generational trauma. As researchers, we must consider how to expand healing space creation by building capacity within professional, academic, and social settings in person, virtual, and hybridly. Building a sense of community among participants with shared lived experiences inclusive of the researcher is helpful, and ethnographic research approaches allow opportunities to do more than just observe during data collection (Coghian, 2001). As Community Psychologists, we should be more intentional about centering health promotion and prevention with the cultivation of belonging. For example, sharing my own Photovoice experience as a researcher-participant after all the other Photovoice participants had presented was very successful, as measured by new participant engagement in wellness promotion in other communities of practice. Samples from the Black Women’s Self-care Photovoice Project are in Table 1 (Goodar, 2021).

Implications: Reclaim Self-Care Chicago

Operationalizing self-care requires looking through ecological and cultural lenses. Self-care has many different application components and is typically defined by an individual. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there are more cultural-community definitions of self-care emerging daily. Researchers may consider designing intervention tools or programs that explore culturally-specific self-care strengths and struggles using active

In 2020, I started Reclaim Self-Care Chicago, a Chicago-based consultancy and self-care lab. In this space, community psychology has supported a merge of intergenerational knowledge, shared life experiences, and story healing that has expanded my own cultural-community self-care capacity as a researcher. Reclaim Self Care Chicago centers illness prevention and health promotion as we seek to reclaim Black wellness and rest – using nature, culture, and community. Critical cultural-community lenses are more necessary than ever for access to stress-reducing education and outreach designed for marginalized groups, such as Black women, who are most vulnerable to stress-related illnesses.


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