In the spring of 2020, Crystal McEwen lost her mother to COVID-19 and her husband to an affair. McEwen, a day-care teacher, provided in-home care for her mother, who suffered from bipolar schizoaffective disorder and early onset dementia. Due to strict visitation restrictions in Brooklyn’s overwhelmed hospitals, McEwen couldn’t be with her mother in her last hours. “My mother was my baby,” she said. “But all of a sudden, I didn’t have a family.”

To deal with her grief, McEwen, 38, sought out a therapist, began journaling, developed a meditation practice and increased the time she spent in prayer.

At about the same time, Samantha Purnell, 24, a real estate agent, began investing in new wellness products and documenting her experiences on TikTok, where her videos have amassed more than 8 million views. She calculates that she spends close to $1,000 a month on blowouts, nail appointments, gym classes, self-tanners, massages, makeup, skin-care products, a journal and a subscription to a meditation app. “I call it recharging my beauty batteries,” she said.

Both Purnell and McEwen describe their practices as self-care.

The term now represents a baffling range of meanings. Karla Scott, a professor of communication at St. Louis University, who has been studying the language of self-care for 27 years, says it can refer to any practice that sustains and supports well-being. “If you perform any action that constitutes caring for yourself, you are doing self-care,” she said.

The coronavirus pandemic has offered scholars and individuals an opportunity to reconsider the meaning of self-care and the culture that has risen around it. As part of my work as a research scientist studying how ideologies shape behavior, I spoke to nearly two dozen people from across the country about their relationship to the term.

Before the pandemic, many of my interviewees didn’t feel entitled to take time to reduce their stress — now they see it as an integral component of their well-being. “Once I started allowing myself to have it, self-care was a turning point,” said Kenyah Canady, 22, a customer service representative in Cincinnati. She used the “timeout” of quarantine to invest in natural immune supplements, skin care and hair care.

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For Maya Scully, a 17-year-old student in Seattle, however, the term self-care makes her think of images of wealthy, white women taking bubble baths. “The word is just a way for beauty brands to make money,” she told me.

To deal with the stress of recent climate disasters and the pandemic, Maya began cutting up Japanese manga comic books and replacing the missing scenes with her own artwork. She also developed a journaling habit and learned to cook. But she won’t call her coping strategies self-care; she says the term is too “difficult to relate to” because of its association with consumerism.

McEwen herself has a complicated relationship with the idea of self-care. “No amount of bath bombs will change what the virus did to this neighborhood, and what it did to me,” she said. “But I believe self-care is the only reason I’m still here.”

The history of the term ‘self-care’

To understand how the term “self-care” has evolved, I dug into the history of the phrase. The term has origins in medical research, but its leap from academia to public awareness can be traced back to the Black Panther Party and Black feminist writers.

Scott and other researchers attribute the popularization of the phrase to activist and writer Audre Lorde, whose 1988 collection of essays titled “A Burst of Light” described self-care as a way of coping with the personal journey of cancer, but also the structural trauma of racism. “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence,” she wrote. “It is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” The quote was integrated into feminist canon.

Even 33 years ago, it had been “normalized to be overworked, stressed, to not feel joy, to not be at ease, to not be well,” Scott said. “That makes it very radical to say, ‘I’m going to put on my metaphorical oxygen mask, so I can survive.’ “

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Self-care remains particularly radical for those who face structural inequalities. “As Black women, we are often leaned on to take care of other people,” said Iresha Picot, a therapist and mental health advocate in Philadelphia who is working to bring the idea to more Black women. “Besides other Black women,” she said, “no one in society is really invested in my survival, health or wellness.”

Picot is an advocate for GirlTrek, the nation’s largest self-care network for Black women, which caught her attention when she saw the phrase “self-care beyond bubble baths” in its social media content. Picot now hosts walking groups for other Black women and posts regularly on the group’s Instagram account, where she offers practical ways to engage in self-care, such as incorporating movement into one’s daily routine or protecting one’s time in solitude.

Self-care can also be seen as a radical notion for men, said Christopher Peña, 64, because it is most often discussed and advertised as a feminine pursuit. During the height of the pandemic, Peña faced the onset of a major physical disability. His wellness routine didn’t include facial masks or bath bombs — instead, he learned languages and, when he became fully vaccinated, began teaching a class on Indigenous cultures to members of his assisted-living facility in Tucson, Arizona.

Peña said he feels a sense of comfort when he connects with his cultural heritage. “Men often think we don’t need self-care,” he said. “But it is how I survived.”

The association between self-care and consumerism

Nowadays, as its critics note, many of the practices and products touted as “self-care” by the wellness industry have little relation to the radical approaches to wellness that Peña, Picot and Scott describe. But with research showing that people worldwide are feeling unprecedented levels of anxiety and depression, it’s hardly surprising that the consulting firm McKinsey estimates that the $1.5 trillion wellness market will grow 5% to 10% annually by selling us products and services aimed at helping us look and feel better.

And, no, much of it is not really necessary, experts say. “One of the values of studying Black women’s historical narratives is a better understanding of self-care strategies that are not based on consumerism,” Stephanie Evans, a professor of Black Women’s Studies at Georgia State University, wrote in an email. “Natural movement, homemade crafts, spirituality, sensual pleasures of eating and drinking, and simple peace are free or cheap if done right.”

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But experts have another concern beyond the association between self-care and consumerism. They worry that the rise of self-care terminology is a reflection of the American tradition of dealing with distress in isolation. As our psyches endure more distress, often due to broader social ills, we burden ourselves with the responsibility for alleviating it. Self-care has become “a remedy for what the system has created,” Scott said.

“We live in a society where people take great pride in doing things by themselves,” Picot said. But self-care doesn’t have to work this way, she emphasized.

And, sometimes it doesn’t work at all. In late 2020, as I prepared to spend the winter holidays without my family, I stretched my budget to buy online-only yoga classes and a $70 product called Kantic Calming Cream that promised “self-care through skin care.”

These practices offered me comfort and a solid dose of distraction, but they did not affect the core of my distress. What I needed was regular in-person interaction with my family and friends, and no form of self-care could take its place.

The importance of community care

And when I reread Lorde’s “Burst of Light,” I realized that most of her essays described the care she received from others: “In the bleakest of days, I am kept afloat, maintained, empowered, by the positive energies of so many women who carry the breath of my loving like firelight in their strong hair,” Lorde wrote.

Self-care became the famous takeaway, I realized, but it wasn’t the only lesson she had to teach — or the most important one. In fact, Evans, who is an expert on Black feminists’ writing on wellness, believes Lorde never intended to create a harsh separation between self and community care. “She was talking about self-care in terms of how she relates to those around her,” Evans said. “It is not either individual or collective. It’s both.”

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“In the absence of community care, self-care is insufficient,” said Cheryl Grills, a professor of clinical psychology at Loyola University Marymount, whose research has shown the importance of community care in dealing with mental distress, especially for those who endure trauma due to racism and sexism.

After hearing about the self-care routines of Americans across the country, I eventually saw the folly of trying to describe some self-care practices as worthy and others as shallow attempts at buying wellness. That’s a short step away from suggesting that we should all get through something like a pandemic in the same manner, which would be ridiculous.

But what I did learn is how far self-care has strayed from the intentions of those who brought it into the cultural spotlight. Lorde believed that being sustained not just through the self, but through others, was critical to her wellness — and experts would agree. That’s something we self-reliant Americans could benefit from thinking about next time we need a bit of care.