What Most "Wellness" Spaces Do To Women of Color
I recently posted a couple of comments to an IG post by an inspirational woman I follow on the social media app (@yogaracheal), and then really got to thinking about the provocative question she was asking. Her post was just these two simple words: "I'm tired..." and the caption started off with an exasperated "over the years I've talked about the anxiety of being in most wellness spaces." And I was like, "Hell, yeah, girl. I know what you mean."
In January 2014, I weighed almost 300 lbs. I wore a size 22/24 pant, and I was out of breath before I got to the street from my apartment building. I decided then that I was going to get better, and (most importantly) feel better. Long story short, I lost about 80 lbs in 11 months by changing my habits and developing a love for physical movement. I joined a virtual community and gained an empathetic fitness coach and online support system, which was great...but it was very, very, very white. Like, very white.
People were posting to our group's private Facebook page about being unsure how to maintain focus while on an exotic family vacation, and how to persuade husbands and children to eat their newfangled healthy meals, while I was trying to figure out how to pay the program's $100 monthly tab, my new gym membership, and my rent while keeping cortisol levels low and refrain from having a stroke while working my ass off in a demanding job, finishing grad school, and being broke after giving everyone but Jesus my money. I really couldn't relate to these ladies who had become my support system. But I'm fucking competitive as shit, and I had a chance to win all of my money back if I had an undeniable physical transformation.
I credit my fitness success to being broke and desperate. And a goddamn perfectionist. It turns out, I was able to manipulate the insecurities that probably contributed to the development of my excess fat cocoon in the first place. I needed external validation (albeit from a group of women with whom I could barely relate), and in order to get it, I had to lose weight. How's that for some mental gymnastics?? Regardless, I spent an entire year in a wellness space that did very little for my emotional and social well being. Most of the time, I connected with certain women about basic things (I liked their style, I thought they were funny, or they were nearby geographically), but I didn't think that anyone was helping me address the fact that the only stores in my neighborhood sold mostly frozen produce, or that some weeks, I had about $30 to spend on food.
I think that the most important thing a community can provide is a safe space to share experiences. In a group of women seeking wellness and healing, it can mean the difference between remaining engaged and committed to the process and falling far off track if you do not see yourself in any of the other community members. If you think that your rant about your boyfriend telling you not to get so skinny that you lose your ass is going to fall on deaf ears or that no one will understand your frustration over being ignored yet again in a meeting and inhaling three donuts to keep from strangling Becky (who won't shut the fuck up), you will see no value in said community.
I have been blessed to have figured out the magic of code switching very early on in life. I have also been blessed with a career in the labor movement and social justice, putting me in a number of circles and spaces that allow me to ALWAYS find SOMETHING to connect with another person over. It makes me no less sensitive to the often intrinsic insensitivity that exists in many of the spaces of privilege that are branded as being all about wellness. Do not get me wrong, I found that online community helpful to my fitness journey three years ago. I was mostly successful because I'm a competitive perfectionist, but I cannot gloss over those accountability phone calls with my coach, and being willing to open up to a group of strangers about my struggles. Maybe it was not the bulk of my struggles, but the little ones, that helped me free up my mind to make small, incremental changes that helped me lose nearly 100 lbs.
That said, I've found more wellness in my small (three person) workout group comprised of me, my sister, and our friend Selena. I also, these days, prefer to do my own workouts, in the comfort of my home. With my dog, Lulu. This has only been reinforced as my preference when I venture back out into the wide world of wellness, only to be smacked back to reality by some ignorant comment or wildly racist experience. I mean, who stops a woman mid-workout, while she's sweaty, listening to her "in the zone" music, and clearly minding her own business to ask her the group class schedule?? Only someone that thinks any black/brown person at Equinox must work there. I mean, I gave that woman absolutely NO reason to think that I worked there, yet she was so adamant that she was going to get my attention and ask my question, she waited with annoyance as I put my weight down and took my earbuds out of my ear to hear what I assumed must have been a life or death emergency. It was like the "Twilight Zone," but wait...it wasn't, because I really should have expected it. That was only one of the stories that I shared on Instagram. I have many others. More than what I posted to @yogaracheal's IG feed.
Not too long ago, my sister had the idea of creating a wellness community for women of color. Actually, it was more specifically for Black women. A Black women's group about mental, physical, and spiritual health and well being. The reality is, as a Black woman, I often feel like the bottom of the heap when it comes to wellness. In many settings, I have observed Black female staff as working hardest, getting paid the least, and getting very little (if any) recognition. There are exceptions, of course, there are even others who experience the same or worse on a daily basis, but this is one of those "the exceptions prove the rule" situations. I often look at an employer and see multiple Black women receiving recognition or just due for their work and think "What kind of Willy Wonka factory shit is this??" I feel like I've landed on the moon when I see multiple Black women thriving and excelling in a space. I like the spin studio I now go to because it is mostly Black women instructors and the owner is a Black woman, and they have classes like "Rihanna vs. Beyonce" and "Old School Groove." That puts me in the zone during a 45 minute, gut busting spin class! Where the hell was this class two years ago?? More Loud Black Girls would get into spin if it looked like that everywhere...or, at the very least, in more places. If wellness looked (and felt and smelled and tasted and sounded) like me, I would feel more at home amongst it.
The truth is, spaces for health and wellness are as inclusive of any other space of privilege. Barely or not at all. Because they are primarily inaccessible to members of society's fringes, the voices that speak the loudest and the most prevalent narratives are usually blatantly suffering from experience myopia.
The crazy thing is, I tried to become a program mentor for the fitness program that I mostly credit with helping me achieve my weight loss goals in 2014, and they turned me away. I came in second place (world wide) for having the most significant physical transformation, and they wouldn't bring me on as a group mentor. It wasn't a paid thing. There were extensive requirements or anything. It was just one of those "Hey, volunteer here, if you want to help support women in the next cohort." And they rejected my ass. What the fuck?
My voice...it simply didn't speak to their masses. They were looking to hike up the prices (to nearly double), and I didn't look more expensive. I wasn't that clientele.
They still show my transformation pictures on all of their marketing material. Right there...dead center.
Check out @yogaracheal's Safe Space database of wellness communities, teachers, and businesses that are inclusive, welcoming, and represent a wide array of cultures and needs by visiting www.yogaracheal.com/safespace/.