Well-meaning adults would tell Anana Johari Harris Parris when she was a young girl that she needed to take better care of herself.

"I was like, 'How?' I felt everybody else had it figured out and I didn't," Parris said. But years later, she would be forced to take a big step toward her own self-care.

After the birth of her son turned from a blissful journey to a traumatic C-section that left her feeling cautious and fearful, Parris knew she needed to care for herself emotionally and physically.

On a whim, she signed up for a triathlon with only two weeks to train. It was not the most informed action, but Parris knew she needed to do something to believe in herself and her body again.

The event was a struggle. Her training swims in the pool had not prepared her for swimming in the lake. She didn't even own a bicycle before she signed up, and during the 3.1-mile run, she barely outpaced several older women.

Parris cried when she crossed the finish line and then embarked on a journey to help other people around her who were in need of healing. In 2011, she founded the Self Care Agency, and has since offered a blueprint for creating customized self-care plans to corporations, individuals and nonprofits.

"I wanted to find a way to further politicize the idea that as a community, we have to be able to acknowledge what our crucial needs are. Our environment and society should support that," Parris said.

The term "self-care" has been used for decades to describe pursuits undertaken to preserve one's sense of wellness, but during the pandemic, focus on the self-care and wellness industry has reached unprecedented levels.

Google searches for "self-care" reached an all-time high during the height of the pandemic, according to some reports. Companies have hired wellness executives. Headspace, the popular meditation app, saw individual and corporate subscriptions doubling in number from 2018 to 2020, according to various sources.

But what gets lost in the highly commercialized and mainstreamed iteration of self-care — one that readily pushes television binges and scented candles as the key to coping with mental, emotional and physical stress — are the principles popularized by the Black Panther Party in the 1960s and 1970s.

During the height of the civil rights movement, the Black Panther Party began using self-care to describe the holistic well-being of the Black community. Self-care was not solely an individual pursuit. Supporters of the political organization that was founded in 1966 believed self-care was a way to preserve the health and well-being of all Black people living within a system that was intent on denying their communities access to most any form of quality medical and wellness care.

The pandemic caused a layering of trauma, Parris said, and if you did not have a strategy in place to take care of yourself by March 2020, you were likely left grasping for anything presented to you.

"There is a constant external conflict with the billions pumped into marketing and advertising to confuse people around addressing and learning what their crucial needs are," Parris said. Self-care, she said, is not accomplished by blindly investing in the over-commodified world of wellness apps and products but rather in the simple act of regularly asking: What do I need?

"The definition of self-care is the act of addressing a critical or normal need," Parris said, "but to be strategic about self-care means you are not only addressing what you critically or normally need but you do it in multiple categories of your life until you are not operating critically in any aspect of your life. Most of us are practicing random acts of self-care."

Robert Haddocks knows that all too well.

A former reporter for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, he has spent the last 15 years working as a professional fitness trainer, getting bodies — and minds — right.

His self-care journey began when a doctor told him that he would need a steroid injection and surgery to correct his back pain.

Instead, he worked out, and at 56, he has zero pain.

"(Fitness) is probably more important now than it ever was because of the coronavirus. It is important to stay healthy and fit and keep that immune system cranking. Exercise is going to maintain that," Haddocks said. "You are going to be at a better place mentally when you are moving. It has been said that exercise is better than all of those prescription drugs that you would get to alter your mood. And that is true."

Just days after the new year, Haddocks worked with Kimberly Chiodo, who has been meeting with him about twice a week for 10 years. He runs her through a series of drills, while they laugh and talk about the Dallas Cowboys and Tom Brady. And they talk about setting small and measurable goals.

"You want your goals to be attainable," Haddocks said. "You can't start the year, if you haven't been exercising, and say you are going to lose 20 pounds in two months. Say, I am going to the gym three times a week. I'm going to eat better. Stick with the process. Consistency is the biggest thing."

For Black people in particular, who have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 over the past two years, uncovering and addressing health and wellness needs and setting those kinds of goals are even more important.

But Haddocks said he can count on one hand the number of Black clients he has trained.

"I don't have the reason, but we don't seem to want to invest in our health," Haddocks said. "We care about looking good, but we are a little hesitant when it comes to investing in our own health. We need to invest in our bodies like we do in our cars."

Several new books by Black writers are specifically designed to address those disparities.

"Self-Care for Black Women" is by Oludara Adeeyo, a California-based psychotherapist. "The Little Book of Self-Healing" is written by Atlanta-based writer Nneka M. Okona. Both books offer 150 self-care practices to help heal and prioritize the mind, body and soul.

The suggestions include acts as simple as taking a nap or hugging someone to more complex practices, such as learning to view your complaints as an opportunity to set boundaries. Okona gives the example of a friend who calls early in the morning and throws off your entire day. Set a boundary by telling them not to call and suggest another time of day. If they call anyway, reinforce that boundary by not answering, even if you are able to answer.

As Parris notes in her self-care program, the categories of care — spiritual/emotional, economic, artistic, physical, educational and social — all require attention but do not require significant outlays of cash to take action.

You don't even have to call it self-care, she said.

You simply have to be brave enough, vulnerable enough, to ask yourself what you need and take a step, even just a small one, toward getting it.


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