Unpacking the Wellness Industry's Whitewashing Problem

Three black women in athletic attire

Klaus Vedfelt / Getty Images 

Whitewashing in wellness is nothing new to anyone that has been monitoring this trillion dollar industry. For years, countless brands have reconstructed the narrative around health to being synonymous with wealth. Access is exclusively granted to those that are fortunate enough to afford treatments, classes, services, and the uniforms that match. Gwyneth Paltrow continues to get heat for pioneering the Goop version of wellness (which isn't exactly attainable for most), but she’s not the only person responsible for allowing elite whiteness to thrive in the most sacred of spaces that were once designated for holistic healing. 

In May 2020, fashion brand Sporty & Rich's founder Emily Oberg found herself in a messy situation over a now-deleted explainer on how to eat healthy on a budget following a grocery shopping guide. The backlash was heavy as followers accused the influencer of being tone-deaf for suggesting that people “stop making excuses” because “being healthy isn’t just for the privileged”—meanwhile showing a glaring lack of awareness about food deserts (areas where there is a lack of access to fresh food) and the realities of living in poverty. After promptly removing the controversial post, Oberg issued a public apology that has also since disappeared from the grid, but that didn’t stop opponents from digging into her past and finding old interviews where she made unsavory comments about things like feeling “empty in a good way” from frequent colonics. Controversy aside, wellness was not originally a part of the lifestyle/fashion brand's core identity when it launched in 2016. 

While Oberg has a record of being a health and fitness enthusiast, she didn’t introduce the Sporty & Rich Wellness Club until 2020. Based on the recurring use of "racially ambiguous" models in campaigns, the optics of Sporty & Rich have always seemed more aligned with perpetuating thin privilege from the white male gaze as well. Not only does this send a message that there’s only one type of way that people in this space are expected to look, but the name in itself sets a high level of privilege to achieve for acceptance. While she claims to be passionate about “all things related to feeling good and living well,” it mostly comes from her personal point of view. 

After the controversy, the Wellness Club took a hiatus and then relaunched over on the blog with a promise to “let the experts do the talking"—specifically women of color in the space. Oberg asserts that these contributors will be “licensed professionals with certifications in the fields of mental health, naturopathy, skincare, fitness, nutrition and beyond.” But now that the brand is pivoting hard toward being a pillar of “good health,” what does that really mean in the current sociopolitical climate, as the planet has reckoned with a global pandemic and a racial uprising?

For many advocates of wellness, their foray into the field began with a personal transformation that expanded into a multi-dimensional journey toward healing. For Peace & Quiet co-founder Ashley Lennon, this path began to pave itself after she graduated from high school and sought better solutions for managing stress, poor eating habits, fatigue, and burnout. “I immediately made the connection between what I ate and how I felt,” she says. “I came across homeopathy to manage health concerns and have been drawn since.” 

Working for a wellness publication in 2017 provided direct exposure to a variety of experts in the space and further cemented Lennon’s education. In 2019, she and her partner launched Peace & Quiet, a minimalist brand rooted in practicality and authenticity that is embodied through neutral-toned pieces of clothing and accessories. This grounding ethos is in sync with Lennon’s approach toward “slow, thoughtful living.” She adds, “The mood is always optimistic, soft, and simple.” 

Lennon continues to learn through leaders in the space in addition to other mediums such as articles, journals, books, and podcasts. She warns that it’s extremely important to look into the source of the research because “often when you look at various websites for information, it’s sponsored by someone trying to sell something.” She adds, “The information is out there. And most of it is free.” Lennon also encourages people to “become active participants in their own life and check in to ask themselves, ‘What do I need for me to meet myself in this moment?’” 

Sinikiwe Dhliwayo, the founder of Naaya, recalls becoming conscious of wellness after a physical therapist suggested trying yoga as part of her rehabilitation from an injury. To further her education, she became a registered yoga instructor and meditation teacher—practices that also happen to be rooted in African and Asian cultures. Dhliwayo defines wellness as agency in a world where Black women are constantly up against medical racism, pay inequity, standards of professionalism, and so many other forms of injustice.

“Existing as a Black woman means that so much of my being is dictated by standards that aren’t set up for me to thrive in,” she says. “The ability to decide what I need when I need it is huge, given everything else around me that I can not control.”

As someone committed to cultivating an inclusive space where “BIPOC folks can luxuriate in the beauty that is intrinsic to our being,” Dhliwayo points to her frustrations with how wellness is portrayed in the media industry as the driving force for starting her own business. With such a strong visual background, she wanted to “deeply reimagine what well-being looks like” in rejection of the affluent and able-bodied. 

Jessamyn Stanley also shares this mission with her progressive yoga practice, The Under Belly, which is marketed specifically for every body from the comfort of their home. By removing the fee to cover studio space, she enables more people to access this medium as well. “I wanted to connect to a community outside of my house, but when I started doing that, I realized that there's so little representation of different bodies in the wellness space,” she says. “There's a reason that I thought yoga was only for thin white women—because that's the only person that you ever really see engaging with it.”

Lennon admits that wellness is a “highly visual topic” despite the fact that most of the conversations around it are driven by women. “When you think about wellness, chances are you probably envision mainstream fit, white models doing yoga with a green juice in hand,” she adds. “Is there a diverse representation on your social media feed? The nectar is to really look past the preconceived image of a leader in the wellness space.”

Dhliwayo argues that up until recently, the wellness industry has thrived because of its heavy reliance on influencers to sell a lifestyle that is “cute and carefree,” stemming from an idea of wellness that is impossible to maintain and a construct of white supremacy. But the insincerity of brands trying to cover their anti-racist tracks by filling their feeds with melanated faces does not go unnoticed anymore. 

“People don’t hold themselves accountable because it’s easier,” says Lennon. “Redirecting blame allows them to save face and avoid shame, guilt, or admitting the wrong. A certain amount of self-denial allows people to carry on.

All human beings are showing up in this space, but we're just not shown that way.

Stanley challenges the brains behind these companies to delve deeper into introspection and examine their own internalized racism. “What is most interesting to me about the whitewashing is that it's not an accurate representation of what wellness actually looks like,” she explains. “It’s this fake thing that is deeply embedded in white patriarchal values and these ideas about what beauty is and what health is, and it has nothing to do with showing the actual landscape of the wellness industry, which is as diverse as our world. All human beings are showing up in this space, but we're just not shown that way.”

What happened with Sporty & Rich is a teachable moment that everyone can learn from. But first, there needs to be a wider conversation around social media marketing and digital influence. Not only is it irresponsible, but it’s dangerous when someone with a platform of any size makes claims to their audience on topics that they aren't fully educated on. In some cases, this can have serious consequences—where food and nutrition is concerned, false advertising might potentially push impressionable young women into eating disorders.

When Rae’s metabolism drops gained popularity amongst teenagers on TikTok as a shortcut for weight loss in February 2020, the company was adamant about how it was antithetical to their values. Out of genuine concern for the well-being of young girls, they immediately pulled the product off their shelves. Dhliwayo acknowledges that as human beings we all make mistakes, but too often people allow those with real influence to get away with making egregious errors that can lead to serious repercussions. And instead of apologizing and reflecting, often times brands simply put a bandage on the situation through a performative statement full of empty promises. As Dhliwayo explains it, this type of statement is typically issued “in order for it to seem like the brand or the person is not staying quiet. That they are acknowledging on the surface that something they did didn’t necessarily sit right with people.” This approach is also executed with the hopes that people will forget and they likely won’t do the actual work to get to the root of the problem.

“Sporty and Rich reminds me of a lot of brands in wellness who are concerned with what I like to call superficial wellness i.e. the stuff that lies on the surface, like buying a cute sweatsuit or attending the newest, hippest fitness class,” she says. “Not the actual work of well-being, which to me is doing the hard stuff, like looking at racial injustice, being anti-racist, advocating for Black lives. Most of that stuff doesn’t look cute in an IG photo or make for something you can sell in a brand partnership.”

Lemon Water founder and host Michelle Siman is highly selective about brand partnerships and uses utmost caution in catering to an audience that seeks lifestyle advice and recommendations. She feels a responsibility to her organic community and considers how they will benefit from the guests that she brings on her show. “I try to be mindful about how I communicate things that I do for myself and I do understand that some things are not as accessible or attainable to everyone,” she says. “I hope that the conversations that I have resonate with people, because at the end of the day I am no expert...I'm here to learn, so I'm asking people these questions from a place of curiosity.” 

Siman falls into the category of being a student of life. Raised by a mother who believed in holistic medicine, she was introduced to alternative approaches toward healing from a young age, which made her more open to the natural world of health. During the peak of interest in collagen as functional food formulas became normalized in 2017, she quickly realized that supplements didn’t necessarily apply to everyone because “it's not one size fits all.” After seeing how chef and influencer Sophia Roe was using her platform to promote a more attainable path toward wellness, Siman wanted to find a genuine way to do her part too. She opted for a podcast as opposed to a YouTube channel because she didn’t want her intentions to be overlooked by aesthetics. 

It's so simple, but when someone is talking to you from such a holistic, natural place it resonates with you more.

“It's so simple, but when someone is talking to you from such a holistic, natural place it resonates with you more,” she says. “No one is selling you this fake lifestyle. No one is telling you you need a million dollars. No one is saying you need access to this type of education… We should all have access to this.”

Siman sees self-medicating as another part of the problem with modern wellness, which comes especially easy given the endless information at our fingertips. "Fast forward a few months and you actually gave yourself leaky gut and all these issues that you didn't have before because you're listening to other people who aren't really qualified to speak," she says. She finds the promotion of supplements and vitamins specifically to be “incredibly dangerous” and a poor way to communicate information to susceptible consumers, since supplements are not one-size-fits-all. 

“I think we, as people in the wellness space, [need to take responsibility and] stop promoting the supplements we take,” she says. “What I find most problematic is how people glamorize like ‘Here's my plate of vitamins.’”

Tara Thomas, executive chef, treats food like medicine. She believes in the importance of intuitive eating, which is essentially “learning how you feel when you eat something to try to feel it.” While she doesn’t fault anyone for their lifestyle choices, she thinks that it’s misguided for leaders in the wellness space to position themselves as the ultimate standard when “we all have different experiences in different bodies and there's no right way to live.” Insider has listed all of the problematic pseudoscience claims that health guru Darin Olien, a white cis man, promoted while filming Down to Earth, the Netflix show that he co-hosts with Zac Efron, another white cis man.

“That's your practice and you can inspire others, but you shouldn't feel responsible to create someone just like you or try to get people to be just like you because that's not going to work for them,” Thomas explains. “They're living a completely different life and that's why there's a loss of credibility, because people want to download into one person instead of accepting their experience. It's like, ‘Oh, that aligns with me I want to try it,’ but not feel like, ‘Oh, something's wrong with me, it's not working.’ I think it's all about how can you love yourself more every day with every choice rather than trying to fix the problem."

Even though Thomas is vegan, she doesn’t try to convert anyone into committing to a plant-based diet. “What I practice myself and what I could share is that every single thing you want to put into your body and that you might be looking into, think about it,” she adds. “Think about how it tastes, where it came from, who touched it, who created it, how long it took to evolve into that. In general, how did it come about to you? If it stops somewhere, go look it up and continue to research because we really do need to monitor consumption.” 

Thomas thinks that engaging in this active form of decolonization leads people to options that are better suited for them and “creates an opportunity for you to support something that you actually believe in.” Decolonization is the foundation of Maryam Ajayi’s company Dive In Well, which operates as an educational platform bringing diverse voices to the frontlines in wellness. She and her collaborators are destigmatizing the industry while ”creating the language in real-time with the people that have a stake in it.” They’re taking back the power and authority stolen from their ancestors and indigenous people, and eradicating the structures built on false sentiments and information. For therein lies the crux and irony of the wellness industry's whitewashing problem—that the practices that are commonly preached and taken on by white wellness advocates as their own actually have their roots in BIPOC cultures, whether it's jade-rolling and acupuncture from Traditional Chinese Medicine to breathwork and turmeric masks from Ayurveda.

“Your divine sovereignty is being able to be whole,” she explains. “People haven't had to hold themselves accountable because [wellness is] such a new industry. It's in its infancy and there are no ground rules. So I think that people, because they are not whole and they are wounded, have found ways to co-opt it and to capitalize off of it. Because people are unwell, they follow the map.”

Prinita Thevarajah and Fariha Róisín launched Studio Ãnanda to address the “collective anxiety that was wrapt up in both miseducation and a culture of wellness that is steeped in capitalism.” Thevarajah suggests that “the lack of space made for healers of color rests on both the tokenization and exotification of our cultures and traditions for the purposes of capital.”

“Whiteness is the entry point, the starting point for the modern world and all its institutions,” she explains. “Elite whites with intergenerational wealth have more access to (OUR) resources and (OUR) knowledge. While we commit to undoing generations of trauma, pursuing skills that we believe will allow us a better place in society financially, emotionally, mentally, politically, spiritually, and physically, the process of imperialist conditioning made us believe that our cultural knowledge and traditions had no value. The colonizer continues to exploit what is considered Other for capital. The irony is, the commodification of wellness automatically detaches it from the goal of holistic spiritual health, as there is no ethical consumption or production through capitalism. Self-care and wellness is nothing if not ethical.”

The sole purpose of Studio Ãnanda is to provide tools for folks who are looking for holistic, sustainable healing. “We seek to interrogate the question of what it means to be well and who has access to being well," Thevarajah says. "We also seek to disrupt the wellness industrial complex as descendants of practices that have been commodified and appropriated through white supremacy.”

While there are eight dimensions of wellness, according to Northwestern, we tend to be advertised surface level versions of physical, social, and emotional wellness. Thevarajah defines wellness as “making a conscious, daily choice to establish an awareness of and maintain alignment with the Divine truth.” She also believes that “committing to a decolonial path is one of the most radical expressions of love for oneself, the community, and the Earth.”

As a survivor of child abuse, Thevarajah was directed toward guided meditation, yoga, and breathwork as methods for healing from the internalized trauma. The road to recovery is a painful process that can take a lifetime, but is well worth the journey. “This is uncomfortable work— it’s not glamorous, it’s painful,” she says. “As a cog in the capitalist wheel, the commodification of wellness attempts to skip past the pain and revealing of deeper truth to ultimately maintain the status quo and a distorted perception of reality.” 

Thevarajah also surrounds herself with spiritual elders for guidance when she seeks it. There’s an understanding that your practice doesn’t have to mirror anyone else’s, but should reflect what works best for you without judgment. She adds, “This centers the notion that I am always a learner and always expanding when it comes to my practice of wellness.”

Stanley argues that the wellness industry is corrupt because “if you cared about people doing well, then we would be well” instead of pedaling products for the sake of a quick sale. However, she does believe that change is coming. Community spaces are a reminder that consumers have the collective power in the pursuit of gaining optimum health. 

Xia Yi established a self-exploration platform to inspire others to make more conscious decisions for the well-being of the "emotional, physical, spiritual, creative intellectual.” She feels that “the emotional aspect to well-being gets lost when our insecurities are being cashed on by brands, platforms, and corporations.” The page initially started as a creative outlet but has now expanded into a destination that showcases Yi’s ever-evolving interests in art, design, philosophy, sustainability, global affairs, wellness, and health. 

“The disparity in accessibility to healthcare remains rampant across the globe while income gaps continue to widen,” she says. “The level of ignorance in this wellness content makes me angry. There needs to be some sort of accountability in what these ‘aesthetic’ wellness accounts put online, as it only feeds into the wellness is a luxury narrative.” 

Lennon acknowledges how wellness can have a connotation for striving for perfection when it should really be treated as a “flexible and multi-dimensional” term for maintaining balance. “These days I’m often focused on eliminating anything I don’t need,” she says. “I’m always looking to learn and discover, I experiment and find ways that make sense for me… My practice has made me happier, healthier, and holier in every area of my life.”

To be truly ‘well,’ there is a need to face both individual and collective trauma—we need to be able to face our hurt and need for healing while simultaneously seeing how we are complicit and benefit from systems of oppression.

Thevarajah views the commodification of self-care as “an issue of racial capitalism, colonization, and cultural appropriation.” She adds, “In the process of packaging wellness into a cute little parcel that tastes like overpriced turmeric lattes and smells like unethically sourced palo santo, spirituality gets lost. It becomes less about challenging the structures of evil that make unhealthy societies and more about ‘How can I learn how to put up with things that make me feel bad?’ Wellness becomes a dissociative space that doesn’t allow for evolution of energy yet for optics and capital purposes, provides an alternate image. It becomes less about community care and more about individual benefits. To be truly ‘well,’ there is a need to face both individual and collective trauma—we need to be able to face our hurt and need for healing while simultaneously seeing how we are complicit and benefit from systems of oppression.” 

There are too many people infiltrating the wellness space with the wrong intentions and causing more harm than good by spreading misinformation. We’re often told to separate the art from the artist, but can you really separate a brand from the person behind it when they are molding it into their own image? The public needs to be more skeptical, proceed with caution, and pay closer attention to the lack of authenticity and transparency that taints this scene. Instead of getting defensive, those that are rightfully called out should view constructive criticism as an opportunity for improvement and address valid concerns with humility.

“We are all here to learn to become the best versions of ourselves and how does that happen? It's through understanding that life isn't the same through everyone's lens,” Siman says. “My objective is to make it as welcoming, inclusive, warm, and nurturing as possible. If my message is not getting across that way and if some people are offended by my thoughts, ideologies, or think I am too happy it’s like ‘Let me know. Tell me so I can work on it. How can I be better?’ We all should want to strive to be better and not think that we are the best… That's what we can fix.”

Even with all of her credentials as an energy healer and entrepreneur, Ajayi doesn’t consider herself to be the most certified expert in her field and doesn’t think anyone else should for that matter. “I honestly don't feel like I've mastered anything,” she says. “We are lifelong students so I'm really uncomfortable with people saying that they're the best at something, which I see a lot of. I don't want to claim that in any way. I think anyone that's claiming to be the best at something needs to take several seats down.”

When Ajayi experienced a spiritual awakening while treating her chronic pain, she was able to recognize it as a moment of reckoning with herself. She chose to make a commitment to grow on a deeper level, and trusted her intuition to guide her to her higher purpose. For those that aren’t exactly sure where to start with the process of decolonization, Ajayi recommends taking a long, hard look at the spaces that you occupy on social media. You are the community you keep and if you’re only following white, cis, heterosexual, able-bodied people, then that’s a major red flag. 

“Do the work and diversify your feed, start learning from people, and then pay those people,” she says. “Sign up for their courses, support their work—don't steal their work. A lot of people will just screenshot, take the words of other people, and not credit them. That's colonialism.”

Thomas also suggests that BIPOC work with more healers of color because it can radically shift the dynamic of an experience as well. “When you step into a really intimate space with a white person, it could feel like there's insecurities and traumas and responses and guards that just come up,” she says. “When you're with someone that you trust and you identify with, I feel that you can actually truly surrender to everything.”

Genuine individuals who care about the mind, body, and spirit connection that is the core of wellness do exist. They are out here doing this powerful work on the regular, but continue to be overshadowed by the glitz and glamour of aspirational projections. The wellness space could benefit from celebrating these individuals who deeply explore inner beauty with mindful approaches for enhancing one’s quality of life. Self-care isn’t an aesthetic and there's so much more to being healthy than being hot. Spending absurd amounts of money isn’t necessary in order to transition into a healthier lifestyle either. Instead of waiting in the wings for a seat at the table, more of us need to take the initiative to shake it down and build our own.

“Choosing to practice wellness in a way that is anti-colonial and pro-liberation is about ethics and morality,” says Thevarajah. “Divesting from wellness spaces that are dominated by whiteness is the first step. Seeking out healers of color who are committed to ancestral healing, who uplift marginal voices, who use healing as a tool to excavate both shadow and light is the next. Doing research on how the objects involved in your practice are made, supporting the economies of local healers and artisans is one step. Unsubscribing from wellness and self-care as marketed to us by the celebrity is another. Decolonizing wellness is about decolonizing the mind—it’s a movement and a lifelong commitment.”

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  1. Northwestern University. Eight dimensions of wellness overview.

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