By Salma Haidrani
Women of color like me aren’t just invisible in health and wellness. We’re not welcome.
After months of emails from the local yoga studio, I finally signed up for my first class on a whim. I envisioned myself clad in cute matching spandex outfits, getting centered and serene, maybe even mastering the downward dog.
But within 20 minutes after arriving, I found I couldn’t quite relax. It wasn’t the music or the mats, sweaty as they were from the session before. It finally dawned on me: There wasn’t a single other non-white person in the room. I felt conspicuous, even exposed.
Much has been made of yoga’s lack of inclusivity in recent years. The practice might have hailed from India, but it’s long been associated with white, lithe, and affluent women; a 2008 NIH study showed that 85% of U.S. yoga practitioners were white and 79% were women. Even so, London is one of the most multicultural cities in the world, and Camden — the location of my studio — was home to some of the most vibrant multicultural communities in the capital. I expected to see at least a few brown faces.
But there wasn’t a single one, besides me. And it just kept happening.
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At the launch of a cold-pressed juice bar, I was still the most “visible” person in the room. When I looked at a health magazine, I saw not one woman of color featured in the pages — and just one on the editorial team.
It finally dawned on me: The class, the juice bar, and the magazine weren’t one-off events. On the contrary, they were reflecting a troubling reality — and sending a troubling message. Women of color like me aren’t just invisible in health and wellness. We’re not welcome.
Women’s health, it appears, is assumed to be the sole preserve of white women. Even a cursory glance at newsstand health magazines shows that they are undeniably marketed to a white audience. Of the past 27 issues of Women’s Health UK, just two have women of color on their covers — and those women, Zoe Saldana and Chrissy Teigen, are light-skinned, especially close to a beauty ideal that is based on white women. Of the most popular books published in 2015 by Yellow Kite Books, a leading publisher specializing in well-being and health, not one featured a non-white author.
Women’s health, it appears, is assumed to be the sole preserve of white women.
But it’s the clean eating movement that is the most pertinent example of the invisibility of women of color. At present, there isn’t a single WOC who’s hit the mainstream. That’s not to say WOC #eatclean proponents don’t exist: Dairy and gluten-free blogger Charla runs the food blog That Girl Cooks Healthy, for instance, featuring recipes inspired by her African-Caribbean heritage, while trainee nutritionist Latoya Ford set up health blog Pure Nourish in 2015. But not only are they in the minority, they have yet to achieve a fraction of the influence that their white counterparts enjoy.
Just take (white) gluten-free blogger Deliciously Ella, arguably the poster-girl of the #eatclean movement in the U.K., who first made plant based eating fashionable back in 2015. Others soon followed suit: the Hemsley sisters popularized spiralized zucchini and bone broth, while nutritionist Madeleine Shaw encouraged us to copy her radiant perfection and #GetTheGlow.
As I’m writing this, Deliciously Ella has amassed 885,000 Instagram followers, with Hemsley & Hemsley trailing behind at 252,000 and Shaw at 245,000. Beyond their artfully placed shots of energy balls, all have built thriving empires that show little sign of slowing down. Deliciously Ella’s cookbook became the fastest-selling debut cookbook of all time, her app shot straight to number one on the iTunes chart on both sides of the Atlantic after just a week, and she’s recently opened her first deli in an exclusive London postcode. The Hemsley sisters, meanwhile, have their own TV show and a café in Selfridges Oxford Street.
Their success doesn’t come from credentials. Deliciously Ella isn’t a licensed nutritionist (at least not yet) and the Hemsley sisters have no traditional qualifications. But they all possess the qualities that seem to matter most in the digital age: All are attractive, lithe, and — crucially — white. Essentially they’re sending the message “cook like me, look like me” — which works, as long as they’re speaking to an audience that already does (or at least can) look like them. This possibility, so within their reach, keeps them coming back for more.
It certainly seems to be working: The wellness movement has significantly affected eating (and spending) habits in the U.K. The number of vegans has risen by over 350% in 10 years, with the Vegan Society lauding it as the “fastest growing lifestyle movement.” Meanwhile, the gluten-free market is estimated at £365 million and forecast to increase by 50% in the next three years, while the exercise industry is now worth £4.3 billion. But women of color are seeing only a fraction of that growth.
One health blogger who wished to stay anonymous revealed that WOCs are rarely afforded the opportunities to elevate their status that their white counterparts enjoy. She mentioned one Caucasian blogger who, despite having less hits and online engagement than her own site, was offered “a plethora of sponsorships” and even turned down a book deal. Muslim nutritionist Kawther Hathem agrees: “I may not have been interviewed on TV on some occasions because I didn’t fit the expected profile of a nutritionist.”
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There are, as yoga instructor Veleisa Burrell says, “limited opportunities for women of color to be at the forefront of fitness and health.” It’s somewhat surprising, then, that very few WOC have publicly addressed this (taboo) issue. One health blogger reveals that when she did broach the topic, she was met with a barrage of accusations, including “improve your photography and refine your niche.” When the blogger’s strategy is blamed, rather than racial bias, clearly the conversation isn’t going far enough.
Ironically, even as people of color are noticeably absent from the clean eating movement, the movement’s success depends on appropriating from non-white ethnicities. It’s not just yoga. Ethnic foods — the same foods that POC were once shamed for eating — have now been repackaged and commodified to the masses as part of the wellness trend.
Za’atar, tahini, Medjool dates, and zucchini — staples of my Lebanese diet from my Beirut-born mother — seemed “foreign” or strange to my school friends who ate ham sandwiches and Salt ’n’ Vinegar crisps, but all now feature in Hemsley & Hemsley recipes. Greek food, too, has been absorbed into the movement; a Greek friend who had scorned her culture’s food is starting to embrace it now that it’s “fashionable.” It’s frustrating that health bloggers pick and choose from cultures like mine when it suits them, but the real injustice is that their advice is only deemed worth heeding because it comes from a white face.
Even as people of color are noticeably absent from the clean eating movement, the movement’s success depends on appropriating from non-white ethnicities.
The lack of diversity in wellness certainly seems to be a global issue. While much has been done to promote black visibility in the U.S. vegan movement — actress Taraji P. Henson and hip-hop artist Waka Flocka Flame are among the most high-profile, while black vegan feminist Aph Koh, founder of Black Vegans Rock, launched a “Top 100 Black Vegans” list in April 2016 — black veganism arguably remains a separate movement entirely. The mainstream veganism movement has come under fire for racism, from its routine comparison of animal farming to slavery to its suggestion that black human lives are worth less than animals’ lives. When this remains largely unchallenged — even acceptable — it’s little wonder forums are rife with WOC reporting their sense of isolation from the movement.
Even critics of the “cult of wellness” tend to focus on the idea that leading wellness figures are peddling misinformation or promoting disordered eating, rather than questioning the movement’s lack of racial diversity. Take parody Instagram account @DeliciouslyStella. The comedian who runs it satirizes the clean eating craze — typical posts include statements like “I’ve been trying to get some colour into my diet so today I’m starting my day with some skittles and a rainbow bagel” — but not the sea of white faces that dominate it.
I’m optimistic, however, that the future of wellness doesn’t have to look so pale. In the U.S., at least, a number of women of color are increasingly reclaiming wellness, challenging the narrative that it’s a “white only” space. Jessamyn Stanley, an African-American award-winning yoga instructor, is just one notable figure spearheading this revolution.
In the U.S., a number of women of color are increasingly reclaiming wellness.
Mainstream media coverage of Jessamyn tends to focus on how she’s challenging the “skinny yoga girl” stereotype. When Instagram images of #yogaeverydamnday are awash with toned torsos, this is indeed worthy of celebration. But Stanley’s real achievement has been increasing black visibility in a white-centric movement, building a much-needed space for women of color to engage with health and wellness.
“We allow ourselves to be marginalized. We have to stop waiting for someone to open the door for us — no one is ever going to,” Stanley tells me. “We have to manually force it open and carve out space for diverse representation. I am grateful to have a front row seat for the revolution.”
Burrell agrees: “I’ve had to create my own tribe. I am a fan of creating what you seek, rather than waiting for someone to do it for you. On rare occasions, a student may raise an eyebrow or do a slight double-take when I introduce myself as the teacher. I take this in my stride because I know by being in the studio and leading the class, I’m changing their perceptions.”
Legions of others have also followed suit, including Black Girl In Om, the first yoga space for communities of color in the United States.
Could a similar revolution hit U.K. shores? The anonymous health blogger I spoke to isn’t convinced: “I think the U.K. has a long way to go before any notable changes can be made. Why spend time challenging something that would take a lengthy period of time to change?”
Even so, I couldn’t stay away from my vinyasa yoga class for too long — not just because I still dreamed of matching spandex outfits, but because I wanted to stake my claim as a woman of color who belonged there. As Burrell says: “I am here and I will be seen, valued, and listened to.”