When Wellness Misses the Mark
Co-written by Kylie Steinhilber and Lynne-Marie Shea
Any time we send a message, it is received by some kind of an audience. Who is that audience? What are their identities - what comprises their values, their experiences? And, who, as the message purveyor are you to them? A friend, a past-mentor, a stranger? What are your identities, what comprises your values, your experiences?
Do your values align with those of your audience? Do these values influence the way your message is delivered or how it might be received?
Do any of these examples feel familiar to you? (Please note: these examples are fictional, yet informed by our experiences as training clinicians)....
A few years ago Sylvia was diagnosed with breast cancer. She underwent chemotherapy and radiation, and takes an on-going medication to reduce her risk of recurrence. Along the way she's had anxiety around the fact that while she's managing her health in the ways recommended by her doctor, no one can guarantee that her cancer won't recur. Along the way, she's managed to change jobs, and has recently begun establishing connections with her new colleagues. She recently told one of these new colleagues about having had cancer and her worries that if it were to recur she'd lose her job. That colleague responded by saying "don't worry, everything will be fine." Yet, Sylvia knows, there's a chance it won't. Her colleague missed the mark.
In a similar way, Tyler is managing the sudden loss of his partner. He is incredibly grateful for his support network, who went out of their way to bring him food and help with funeral arrangements. He's noticed, though, that they keep encouraging him to think about the happy memories with his partner and always try to point out the the bright side ("there was no suffering," "you had so many beautiful years together.") Everyone keeps telling Tyler how strong he is, and what a great job he's doing getting through this hard time. Now that the services are over and the reality of life without his partner is sinking in, Tyler is finding it harder to get out of bed and make it through his day. He wants to reach out to the people he trusts most but can't bare the thought of being asked to be positive or being called strong when he feels so low.
What Sylvia's colleague and Tyler's loved ones failed to consider is how their message will land with the person, or audience, they are speaking to and what their own reality is. Their messages, while likely well-intentioned, have a harmful impact. Will everything be fine? Sylvia's reality is that she does not know. Tyler's loved ones desire to ease his pain overlooks how complex his grief is. This keeps him isolated in his experience of the many emotions this grief brings--particularly the emotions that leave him feeling that he cannot meet the expectations of strength and positivity his loved ones have set in their efforts to be supportive.
As two individuals with a passion for womxn's health and wellness, we follow similar accounts, we share similar content, and we produce it ourselves. In this work, we have become painfully aware of the large array of messages that are touted along platforms such as Instagram and the values these messages express, whether implicitly or openly. As we scroll through our discover page, we notice various messages:
- It's okay to not be okay.
- We are stronger together.
- Learn to rest not to quit.
- There is power in kindness.
Motivational posts are there, of course, to motivate. But in which ways do they minimize, marginalize, and gaslight the people reading them?
As we continue to integrate anti-racism into our health and wellness advocacy, we are aware that many of these well-intentioned motivational messages are helpful for some while harmful to others.
Let's take a look...
"Decide what kind of life you want, then say no to everything that isn't that."
"Do it for you and not for them."
Our guess is that these statements are intended for an audience that struggles to attend to their own needs, while prioritizing the needs of others. Implicit in this motivational advice is the assumption of value and safety that is always afforded and ready for the taking, whenever you are ready to accept it. But how does this message resonate through the lens of anti-racism in wellness culture?
As White womxn, we may have privileges that afford us the safety of never having to think about our race as a factor upon which someone may discriminate, threaten our safety, or take away our rights. For BIPOC, and BIWOC in particular, this is not the case. Safety is the nonnegotiable cornerstone to wellness. When we are not afforded safety, attending to this need is always our first priority. For those with White privilege, who already have the kind of safety that is guaranteed by having their inherent worth valued by all, thought does not have to go into securing this foundational need and fighting for this right. With this assumption, we have as much space as we want to take to invest in saying "no" to other things that threaten our safety, such as gender-oppression, or religious freedom etc. rather than saying "no" to the things, such as police brutality, that threaten other people's (particularly BIPOC safety. This makes our feminist actions exclusionary and sends the message that what we value is not equality and justice but rather an ability to capitalize on our privilege in order to catch up to those with more of it. In what ways does this message promote white silence and individualism under the guise of self-discovery and direction?
May we provide a re-frame:
"Decide what kind of community you want to live in, then say no to everything that isn't that."
"Do it for us." " I can live up to my fullest potential only when you are able to do the same."
"If you never bleed you're never going to grow."
This statement is likely intended to provide some silver lining to someone who is emotionally struggling (however this might look for them). Research certainly indicates that resilience and even growth can occur after devastating traumas. Implicit in this message, though, is the assumption that because suffering is a universal human experience, each of us has the same experience of challenge and the same opportunity to use these challenges to build ourselves up. But how does this message resonate through the lens of anti-racism in wellness culture?
There is nothing glorious or growth promoting about racial trauma. Let me be clear: there is no silver lining. This may be hard for some fellow White people to understand, but your Black girlfriend's strength does not justify the fact that you call her hair unprofessional. Your Black teacher's "ability to rise up out of the hood" does not justify the fact that the government intentionally keeps resources from Black neighborhoods. By believing these narratives that glorify racial trauma and Black people's resiliency, it allows us, as White people to distance ourselves from our own contributions to systems that create and maintain this trauma in the first place. And have you noticed, society do not glorify White people's trauma in the same way? Because in this dominant narrative, White people are not intended to suffer, yet Black folx are.
How do we change this narrative? We celebrate Black excellence unconditionally. We can validate racial trauma without trying to provide a silver lining.
May we provide a re-frame:
"When you bleed, you may grow. But it may also leave a scar." "Persevering in a society that is set up to benefit from your pain is its own radical act."
As womxn who are passionate about health and wellness and about racial justice, we have to continue to do our own work to consider and challenge the way that the former often intentionally distorts and undermines the latter. When wellness is couched in values of individualism and capitalism, we are told that the best way to build a better society is to ensure that we focus on our own needs and become our best selves. We are asked to think of ourselves as our own individual puzzle piece that, when finally living up to an ever-changing standard of goodness, can contribute to the puzzle. This focus on ourselves, though, keeps us from seeing the fact that until all of the pieces fit together, no puzzle picture can be created--no matter how strong or beautiful certain pieces are. We can, and should, prioritize our own wellness. This can only happen, though, when we realize that our wellness is inextricably tied to that of those around us.