You already know what things make you feel well.
The work is overcoming what gets in the way.
When I walked into GOOP, Gwyneth Paltrow’s wellness pop-up shop, on Nantucket Island, I noticed something: While the African mudcloth pillows, dried sage, and rose quartz were plucked directly from my African American and Native American heritage, the exorbitant price tags and the absence of a single brown face made it clear I was not the target audience for “wellness.”
This brand of wellness is heralded by predominantly white, affluent, wellness evangelists who promote plant-based tinctures in minimalist glass bottles and other products to help women cope with the stressors of everyday life. Wellness is a commodity, and if you can’t afford it, you’re outta luck. If you can afford it, congratulations! Not only can your wellness serve as a status symbol, you’re relieved of having to confront the conditions that contributed to your feeling unwell in the first place—a tool of self-discipline disguised as self-help. Where does that leave you? Quiet, compliant, and glowy.
Being inside the GOOP store reinforced a deeply held belief that I was unworthy of wellness. It’s a belief I later recognized that I’d adopted from my society, engrained in me by white and black folks alike. Black women have been tasked with picking cotton, cooking, cleaning, caring for the children of our abusers, and holding the sexual fantasies of men for generations. Our bodies have borne the brunt of both emotional and physical labor. Therefore, what does wellness look like when you’ve been told you don’t deserve it? What is a culturally responsive approach to wellness?
What is a culturally responsive approach to wellness?
This is the very question I ask when coaching parents and professionals who work with girls, many of whom are people of color. Sure, we understand intellectually that compassion fatigue can limit our ability to show up for our youth. But wellness, as it’s situated in the center of Nantucket Island, feels oh so far away. In fact, to prioritize our self-care feels like an act of defiance, a political act, a rewriting of history. When Audre Lorde wrote about self-care as “an act of political warfare” in the 1980s, she was talking about managing her cancer in the face of a system that was hostile toward her as a black lesbian. Just as a culturally responsive approach to teaching asks us to interrogate how the scripts of dominant systems show up in our classrooms, a culturally responsive approach to wellness does the same:
It is explicitly political.
Caring for our bodies, and modeling that for our youth, is activism.
It is holistic.
Analyzing the practices and policies that contributed to our feeling unwell sets us free.
It is collective.
Everyone, not only those with power, has the right to comfort.
It is emotional.
The root of compassion fatigue is the resistance to feeling. Allowing our bodies to feel fully, without judgment, releases trauma.
This may not meet the usual expectation of a wellness blog post, in that it doesn’t list the things you could do or buy to make yourself feel well. I could list things like “go out dancing,” “spend the morning oiling your hair,” or “commune with your ancestors,” which are wellness practices consistent with my own cultural frame of reference, but there are so many cultures and so many bodies—who am I to provide such a list? You already know what things make you feel well. The work is overcoming what gets in the way of doing those things—and it’s not the absence of an $80 eye cream.
In the midst of a global pandemic, wellness is top of mind. We care deeply for others at this time, yet we must remember to care for ourselves. When I coach adults, I speak of being on an airplane and putting the mask on yourself before helping others. Now the metaphor of a mask feels particularly apt.
For yourself and your girls, be well.