If you open Instagram to #wellness, you’ll see a lot of what most of us have come to expect. Girl doing yoga here, smoothie bowl there, someone talking about how their two week ashram trip changed their life, so on and so forth. The picture of wellness is synonymous with the skinny blonde woman doing yoga on a beach or drinking a green juice. And whether consciously or not, we have begun to associate the state of being “well” with fitting a certain beauty standard and having the financial freedom to travel or spend $$$ on the latest superfood. Wellness is really white, really expensive, and at times, even exploitative.
We have made it such that people associate “wellness” with having access to pricey resources and fitting a narrow beauty standard. Wellness looks white, affluent, and carefree. This narrow definition of wellness boxes certain groups out of living well and being healthy and denies them access to “wellness” spaces. When health disparities result in Black infants dying at twice the national average rate and racial/ethnic minorities being 1.5-2.0 times more likely to have a chronic condition than white Americans, making health and wellness accessible to all couldn’t be more important.
Wellness and Whiteness
One of the biggest problems with the wellness industry is how it takes resources from communities that have been marginalized, and puts these resources in the hands of influencers and “wellness gurus” with little context.
The wellness industry has popularized foods that have been commonly used by indigenous peoples. This sometimes helps local economies, but it can simultaneously decimate their food supply. Between 2000 and 2008, the price of quinoa increased 600% as its consumption surged in the US and European countries. In Bolivia, where it is a staple, the rate of consumption decreased. In a country where 80% of people live in poverty, this nutrient-dense staple is a necessity for many.
A similar situation played out in India, where a mushroom essential to an indigenous mountain community was harvested en masse after becoming popular among urbanites. The newcomers to the area didn’t practice foraging in the same way as the local community, in turn destroying the roots of the mushroom and preventing it from regrowth.
This is the case with many so called superfoods. Despite no consensus on what constitutes a superfood and very little evidence to show that they provide us with nutrients not accessible through a generally diverse diet, they become popular through “wellness” channels, and become quickly inaccessible to the communities who depend on them.
Anyone who reads my blog knows that this type of hype around fake science grinds my gears. But after writing about Madagascar’s proposed COVID cure, an herbal tonic that seemed to fall into the same category, a friend of mine gave me a challenging piece of food for thought: how do I differentiate between wellness pseudoscience and traditional remedies used by indigenous cultures?
Is my likening of some traditional medicines to pseudoscience rooted in the fact that I am a white, western person? Is there a way to respect traditional knowledge in my discussion of wellness woo-woo?
I spent a lot of time thinking about this. I have a lot of faith in the scientific method’s ability to find solutions to what ails us. But I also realize that what we consider modern science is founded on systems of patriarchy, racism, and colonialism. And while some traditional medicine lacks scientific basis, some of it has been used to identify compounds in nature that we’ve been able to isolate or mimic for modern medical advances. This isn’t even to mention the cultural significance of traditional medicines, and the health benefits of feeling connected to a relevant culture and its history.
The whitewashed version of wellness we so often see manages to get the worst of both worlds. It disregards the history and significance of traditional medicine while simultaneously forgoing any kind of modern scientific evidence to show why it may be effective. There’s a place where traditional knowledge can be balanced with modern scientific evidence. But to find it, whitewashed wellness has got to go.
And before I attract the viciousness of certain Internet Karens, I’m not saying to stop posting about yoga or quinoa bowls just because you’re white. I am wears-SPF-50-every-day and unironically-loves-mayo white, and I don’t think that enjoying yoga or traditionally indigenous foods is off limits. But as a white person who engages with these things, I think it is important to remain educated on how my actions relate to these power structures.
Steps towards making ‘wellness’ less white
As a general rule, if I’m purchasing something, I look at how the brand engages in creating equitable wellness spaces. I believe that our dollars matter far more than we give them credit, and making more informed choices allows us to show health and wellness oriented companies what is important to us.
It’s no secret that I am always wearing and proclaiming my love for Senita for their affordable workout clothes, their hiring of models of all shapes and sizes, and their choice to not photoshop out very normal things like an insulin pump or stretch marks. My sister, an athleisure aficionado, has been vocal about how she’s ditched Lululemon in favor of Alo Yoga, a company with green practices and a free educational program dedicated to making yoga and meditation accessible to all kids through a partnership with Scholastic.
Other things I find important are fair hiring practices, ethical labor, and engagement with communities impacted by their products. Prana works with the Fair Labor Association and local Civil Society Organizations to ensure fair wages for their employees. I’ve been buying my healthy snacks from Women’s Bean Project, a Colorado company who hires chronically-underemployed women and provides them with the skills and resources they need to be well through education and access to health services.
Some of this can absolutely be performative. But even performative “wokeness” shows a willingness to engage, and opens the door to conversations that otherwise might have not occurred.
Learning from wellness organizations and individuals who are working to open up these spaces
The Indigenous wellness collective Well for Culture incorporates ancient and modern knowledge to make information on health and wellness more accessible to Indigenous communities.
Decolonizing Fitness is an Instagram account and website run by a Black trans person named Ilya Parker. They have content on everything from how to support trans people through affirming training programs to how to modify breathwork for those with disabilities.
Life coach Shirin Eskandani of Wholehearted Coaching wrote in a caption “Wellness is not just about you. Wellness is about the collective.”
I’ve thought about this post many times since I saw it this summer, and it still holds true. Although it may be easy for me to sit back and profit from the fact that I look like the type of person represented in wellness spaces, I want to choose growth over comfort, and make wellness a space for all of us.
Separating wellness and whiteness isn’t as simple as engaging with more content or making better decisions as a consumer, but in being willing to have conversations and make changes to our narrow vision of health and wellness, we make spaces that are well for all of us.We must move away from beauty standards that have a negative impact on Black women’s mental health and refuse to accept shallow excuses for avoiding conversations about race under the guise of being ‘colorblind’.
People of color have been deliberately kept out of wellness spaces, just as they have been deliberately kept out of scientific and medical research. Both of these intentional exclusions have negatively impacted the health of marginalized communities, and to make spaces for all of us to be well, we have to reckon with the inequities across the board.