Getting real about what is making us white people unwell, and integrating social justice into our wellness routines.
There are limitations to the Wellness Industry.
I lead workshops about how young women* have been socialized to be starting from young age. I draw a box on a big sheet of paper and ask: what have you been taught a girl or woman has to be? People are shy at first as they try to remember…. Be polite, nice. Be nurturing, caring. Wear dresses. Look pretty for others. Then I notice the room getting a bit heated as our memories begin to roll like film on a reel and people start to notice how unjust it all feels. Smart but not smarter than boys. Subservient to men. Caregiver. Must have children. Needs to “have it all.” A successful career and children. When I ask them about looks, long sighs, a few huffs and the room gets louder and more sure of ourselves — we all know the script now. Thin, young, blonde, straight hair, white or light skin. And then the contradictions begin to come out. Strong but not too muscular. Young-looking but emotionally mature. Thin but big breasts and a big butt. Wear makeup and care about your looks but roll out of bed and be ready to go. Have spunky, high energy, cheerleader vibes….but don’t take up too much attention in the room. The number of contradictions we’re asked to live become overwhelming to all of us in the room when they all fit into one box, my writing getting smaller as the gender expectations fill up the page.
How can we expect to be well when we are fed so many expectations about how we are supposed to look and act? And while this activity is usually for women and people who were socialized female, men and male-socialized people have similar unreal beauty standards (incredibly muscular, fit, tan but still light skin, square jawline, hairy but not too hairy, etc.) and personality standards (Don’t express feelings! Don’t connect with deep emotional intimacy as friends. Be the main or only financial provider of the household.) We are all deeply hurt by gender socialization and unrealistic beauty standards.
Why am I bringing this up around wellness?
In a society where we’re taught we need to meet unattainable beauty and personality standards, how can we expect to feel well?
In a society where we’re told that we have to be working for 40 or more hours a week — in reality for many of us, 50, 60 or 70 — how can we expect to feel well? Especially since we’ve all been tricked into thinking that taking time off, not being productive, means we are unworthy of wellness — have you ever felt guilt for taking a sick day?
In a society where parents, especially mothers, are expected to be the perfect parents, provide for their families and maintain a career, not on occasion mess up and “do the wrong thing” as a parent — how can we expect to feel well?
Let’s face it — in a society where trauma is happening around us every day — children getting put in cages on the border and in youth prisons around the country, people being sexually assaulted, indigenous people disappearing, Black people being assaulted by cops, trans people being beaten and committing suicide — and many of us hearing about it in a matter of fact tone over the news each day — how can we expect to feel well?
A massage, any other self-care routine, even the nutritious food we put in our bodies cannot truly heal all that…if we want to feel well, and really, if we want to feel whole, we need to also be working on the root of the problem — what’s making us unwell in the first place.
Many of us white folks use wellness as a bandaid — we feel exhausted or sad or depressed or anxious, and we do our wellness routine, whatever it is. However, we don’t often look at what’s causing the wound in the first place — oppression.
Oppression is making white people unwell too. Even for cisgender, able-bodied white people, both capitalism and toxic gender socialization (for all genders) is deeply present and oppressive in our lives every day. If we don’t work to shift what is creating our wounds, we will always be continuing to put bandaids over a festering wound.
Wellness can actually be (needs to be) one strategy in a much larger picture — how do we use wellness to fuel our energy so that we are building the world we want to live in? What is the world you want to live in, and how can you integrate working towards that world as part of your longer-term wellness routine?
If white people truly want to be well, we need to include racial justice in our wellness regimes.
For me, at a younger age, I was really overwhelmed by the climate crisis and really into how good I felt spending time in nature. I started to realize that I felt so much more whole when I integrated working on environmental justice into my wellness regime — I wasn’t just running and getting massages to put a bandaid over my distress about my own life and the world around me, I was working on creating a life that I didn’t have to constantly feel distress from.
As my first love, well, my first queer love which in many ways WAS my first love, said to me — “Baby, I know you care about the environment. That’s good, but….you have to care less about how long people’s showers are and more about people. If you care about the environment, care about people having clean water. Food. The heat in Arizona killing immigrants and incarcerated people. People are dying from climate change, being poisoned from toxic waste sites put in low income neighborhoods. And you have to talk about race. It’s all connected to race. Regain your connection to all of humanity. It’s so important.”
Honestly, I listened more because I loved them. Not because I believed or understood them at the time, but that was my whiteness showing up. I’m so glad I listened and dove deeper, because I didn’t know how whole I could feel once I started integrating conversation, learning, and action around racism and other parts of social justice into my daily life.
I didn’t realize how sick whiteness was making me — and by whiteness, I mean the norms I was taught as a kid that, without my knowing, hold racism in its place — for example, the fact that I as a white person fear talking about racism more than the existence of racism itself, or that I was so afraid of “messing up” or being called racist by a Black or Brown person, I wasn’t connecting with them, period. Or that when I think about wellness, I mostly think about my own body’s wellness, and my family’s, but not the wellness of my community as a whole, or all of humanity. Can I actually feel well while racism and other oppressions exist?
Whiteness is making all of us ill — it’s killing and traumatizing Black folks and all People of Color — and it’s creating deep mental unwellness in us white folks as well, to be taught to see other people as “less than” ourselves. Without taking a deep hard look at how I had been taught to see and treat POC (and all other people more marginalized than ourselves — i.e. women, trans people, disabled people, older people, younger people, etc.) as less worthy of surviving and thriving than myself, I could not feel well. Until I started taking actions out in the world to undo that teaching and try to reduce some of the pain that injustice is causing in the world, I could not feel whole.
Once I began to undo the ways I’ve been taught to feel superior over other people, and taking action for social justice in the world, I noticed a wholeness that I did not know was possible. I wasn’t just trying to feel good in that moment, or relief from a hard day, but I was living out my values every day, and living in my integrity. It wasn’t easier, but I felt so much better. I felt whole.
Beyond wellness….let’s go for wholeness, resilience and human connection.
Don’t get me wrong…I love wellness. I think everyone should have access to the wellness routines that help them thrive every day (because of capitalism and unsafe spaces for marginalized people, wellness is definitely not accessible to all people right now). I go to the gym or do physical activity almost daily. I seek out time in nature. I love getting massages. I do yoga. I dance. I take vitamins and eat organic foods (that are from co-ops that pay a fair wage to workers — thanks Aaron Johnson and Porsha Beed of Holistic Resistance for teaching me what living and resisting all aspects of oppression can look like, down to where we source our food).
Why do I focus on wellness for my body? The statistic right now is that trans people die at around the age of 33 — I am almost 31, and more determined than ever to stay alive to do this work of creating a better world for the children who come after me.
I have to prioritize my wellness regime because the trauma of existing as a trans person, disabled person, and abuse survivor, and also as an anti-oppression educator, is so intense. I choose to focus on my wellness in order to stay alive and also to refuel myself for more social justice. Just staying alive is an act of resistance for me, so I do what I can to stay alive for as long as possible. I lean on wellness to build my resilience for surviving in this world and also for pushing myself to do more of this work. I use it as a stop for refueling, for resting, so I can go back to the task of surviving and helping my community survive and thrive.
More importantly, I’ve deeply expanded my definition of “wellness regime.” It can’t just include beauty products, massages, yoga practices or exercise routines. It has to also include human connection. Hand holding, snuggling (platonic touch works just fine) to calm my nervous system down. Being deeply vulnerable with people I love who can hold my hardest shares. Supporting each other in both what’s going on in our daily lives and the work that we’re doing to create the world we want to live in. Holding each other, nurturing each other. Healing the deep wounds that gender socialization and racial socialization have taught us.
Most importantly, wellness must go deeper than my own body. I have to care for my community’s wellness to truly feel well. I have to be in my integrity — living out my values — trying to create the world I want to live in. I want to live in a world where people don’t have to fight to be well each day, and where there isn’t massive inequity about what “wellness” means to each of us — survival for some, happiness and luxurious pampering for others. When I’m taking action to create a more equitable world, and looking out for my community’s health rather than just my own, I feel a deep wholeness I didn’t know was possible.
For the longest time, I didn’t see the connection between my own wellness and social justice. Once I dared to look deeper into what was making me unwell, I couldn’t look away. Wellness is no longer a bandaid for me — it is a deep clean using body care, human connection, and emotional work. It is disposing of the unnecessary and harmful beauty and personality standards I’ve been taught as a child. It is living in my values and integrity. It is caring for my body so that I can create the world that I want to live in, one that is healing all of our wounds faster than we are creating new ones. It includes all of humanity, and the Earth. It is holistic, and I feel whole. I cannot look away.
*These workshops are for women and people socialized female, as in raised from a young age as if they were female, so this includes transgender women, cisgender women, trans men, and nonbinary people assigned female at birth. The word “women” always includes both trans women and cisgender women.