clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

What wellness means for Black women

Capitalism, white supremacy, and yoga pants: An interview with DeJa Love, CEO of the Black Women’s Wellness Agency.

An illustration of a young Black woman doing stretching exercises on a yoga mat, surrounded by plants and in front of a window. Getty Images/iStockphoto

My relationship with wellness is more complicated than running into a guy I ghosted at an office party. I began my journey in 2017 as a lot of people do: dressed in Lululemon and sipping green juice on my way to a yoga class. (I had chosen trap classes because I was much more comfortable hearing “Mouth Full of Golds” during child’s pose than risking stepping on a white woman’s yoga mat.) Soon, wellness became a capitalistic pursuit I held near. I loved grabbing a blue spirulina smoothie while out on a run — but only dressed in head-to-toe Nike gear. Lulu was for the gym and yoga. I became obsessed with rings, namely, closing the ones on my Apple Watch.

By 2020, after spending thousands of dollars on this journey without seeing any measurable improvement in my mental health — which people do experience from wellness efforts — I began to interrogate why I expected this effort to cure my anxiety and depression. I was sidelined by the coronavirus pandemic and, like many others, began to question what actually mattered to me. Still, I did yoga, strength trained, cycled, and meditated at home to keep myself mentally afloat during the pandemic and during the antiracism protests over the murder of George Floyd, an immensely triggering moment for Black folks. Having a routine was helpful until it wasn’t.

By 2022, I was experiencing weekly panic attacks that slowly increased to I-don’t-know-how-many-days a week. I wasn’t sleeping or moving much farther than from my bed to the couch. When I was eating, I wasn’t choosing nutritious foods. I’d run out of motivation to care for myself — and all of it felt like it shouldn’t be happening to me because I should be tougher.

Mainstream wellness was, to lean further into cliches, a Band-Aid on a bullet wound. I was actively pursuing better mental and physical health, a key piece of a wellness journey, but I wasn’t taking the time to establish what felt good to me. I was trying to fit into the trendiness of wellness, and I desperately wanted the freedom it proclaimed I could have if I bought enough stuff. Nowadays, I define wellness as, “Doing what feels good and aligns with what I believe I need in this moment.”

My burnout story is a quintessential narrative among Black women. Many of us have been raised to be “strong” despite the systemic factors that make such an ideal impossible to uphold. The Strong Black Woman trope demands that we swallow our pain for the greater good of others, and it comes with grave psychological consequences. It can make us more susceptible to depression, anxiety, and feelings of isolation. For some Black women, we rarely forgive ourselves for our mistakes and relentlessly seek to meet others’ expectations. This is more harrowing when we consider that stress compounds. Besides causing headaches, chest pain, fatigue, and stomach issues, heightened stress levels can make sleeping impossible. Your breathing can quicken. You could develop high blood pressure, a weakened immune system, anxiety, depression, Type 2 diabetes, or memory loss — adverse health outcomes that Black people are more likely to experience.

The systemic conditions that prevent Black women from being able to take proper care of ourselves is one of our nation’s most significant health injustices. And to add insult to our spiritual injury, wellness practices, which can be a useful tool to fight poor mental health, are presented to us through a Eurocentric, capitalist lens, encouraging us to spend money many of us don’t have on products we don’t need to care for ourselves.

I discussed these conditions and the role wellness plays in navigating them with DeJa Love, the CEO of the Black Women’s Wellness Agency. Love’s agency supports Black women who are stressed, burnt out, and overwhelmed by connecting them to Black women wellness providers. This could be a yoga teacher, meditation or life coach, personal trainer, or any non-clinical wellness service that helps manage stress.

“We have to go deeper because the world in which we’re living in, it’s not sustainable for us to keep at this pace,” Love says. “I really view this as a fierce urgency, as life or death. When Black birthing persons are dying at three times the rates of white folks, that’s a crisis. We are dying, across the board, at higher rates. This is why it’s so important.”

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Explain your personal approach to wellness. Is it more spiritual? Or is it more political?

For Black women, our wellness is infinite. That it is not a $200 yoga mat or yoga pants. Since, especially in the mainstream context of the United States — which is incredibly racist with white supremacist undertones — wellness is generally capitalistic. It’s about the doing, and the purchasing.

Infinite wellness is knowing that maybe wellness for me in one moment is sitting in silence, sensory deprivation, not on social, not logged in, but sitting, connecting to breath, connecting to the divine spirit that guides us, whatever folks identify with. In the context of America, wellness is rest. It’s challenging a toxic grind culture that tells us we need to constantly produce, that we’re not enough, that we’re not doing enough. I’m guided by Tricia Hersey and her work. She leads The Nap Ministry, and her book Rest Is Resistance has really shifted my paradigm and informs a lot of what I view as wellness.

What are some of those white supremacist undertones to wellness?

It’s really this notion of, “I have to do something. I have to purchase something. I have to buy something. I have to keep performing.” And that can look like, “I need to buy the expensive mask. I need to buy expensive face serums. I need to go to the gym classes.” It’s still a perpetuation of grind culture and hyper-productivity. Whereas the Black Woman’s Wellness Agency and I challenge that and say, “Black women, you are enough by just being!” It seems so simple, but the brilliance is in the simplicity of being — not doing. Wellness is shifting our minds away from what we have been indoctrinated with, such as: “I have to be a certain weight, I have to look a certain way, I have to have this.” No. We have to be on the path of unlearning.

Those are some of the undertones. It’s about this aesthetic, and that’s what we get. But wellness is not an aesthetic. Wellness is being connected to our breath, our bodies, and calming the mental fluctuations that happen constantly.

This multibillion-dollar wellness industry that says you have to drink this or take this supplement or be in this intricate yoga posture just creates more work.

Why isn’t wellness binary for Black women? I was looking on your website, and I saw that. I think I know what that means, but I’m very, very intrigued.

It’s not binary because we, as Black women, are so robust. We have had to be. We’ve had to be the heads of households, to be cooks and cleaners, to raise children and make sure the finances are handled — we’re constantly wearing so many hats. Our healing and our wellness are not going to be boxed in. It can’t be, because we have to do so much.

Black women are the largest demographic of advanced degree holders and business owners post-2020. We’re doing so much, and that’s why we’re proponents of wellness being whatever it is you need.

If wellness is saying, “I’m just really tired, and I don’t need to push through,” then that’s wellness. If wellness is saying, “My family is expecting me to do something, and I say I can’t do that because I need to uphold my boundaries, and I can’t keep pouring from this empty cup,” then that’s wellness. That’s the journey that I’m still on. We’re all still on it.

It has to be full-spectrum and incredibly inclusive. It has to counter the mainstream approach to wellness — the skinny white woman in Lululemon doing an intricate yoga posture. That is not true wellness; that is a capitalistic approach that we have been fed, and we have to keep pushing back because that image may not serve us. Now, we are not a monolith, so maybe that image serves some Black women. I know for many, though, that it does not.

One thing that I think most Black women can all relate to is the pressure to fit into these spaces, whether it’s work or a yoga studio, where you’re the only Black person there, and people are looking at you crazy. So when we reclaim and reframe wellness — meaning we stop looking at it through this billion-dollar lens — how do we reconnect with our power?

It’s multifaceted. It will take many different approaches. One of them is going for a walk and doing a walking meditation, not having your AirPods in, just listening to the sounds of nature so you can get out of your head and connect with the many thoughts that are going to come into your mind. I don’t want to demonize social media. It’s an amazing tool that connects us, but part of reclaiming is having healthy sabbaticals from social [media].

I’m also a proponent of therapy. Therapy helps us be introspective.

Another thing that has helped me is being able to be free. Business ownership has allowed me to feel free. I’ve had an 18-year career in many business sectors, and within all of those sectors, you become indoctrinated, and your truth gets stifled by the dominant group. And even those who look like me can fall into assimilation and respectability. I speak unapologetically, and many people do not connect, and that’s fine. I’ve had to make peace with the fact that I may not get all the business contracts, or I may not gross the revenue that I want. But I can sleep at night knowing that I am speaking for Black women, that I am challenging inequities, the status quo, and a society that perpetuates it.

You pointed out that when Black women really start taking care of ourselves, prioritizing our needs, and start centering our well-being, we lose people. It’s always been very interesting to me that when a Black woman starts thinking about her well-being versus how she can be in service to everyone else, people start dropping off.

Earlier today, when I was on my walk, I was thinking about when we’re on journeys of evolution. I don’t want to be the same DeJa I was three years ago, a year ago. I want to be evolving, and learning, and there are folks that will not be there on that journey … it’s hard sometimes. It’s always the folks you don’t expect, the people who were always there. And that just hurts harder. Part of that evolution is releasing that attachment. And the folks that connect to me will find me. I will build a new community.

It’s like my granny used to say, “Everybody can’t come.” Speaking of her — a Black woman who absolutely prioritized her well-being after raising three generations of her family — how does wellness help Black women thrive?

It helps us because we are able to get reconnected with self. When I’m putting on my public health hat, our life expectancy is reduced in this white supremacist, very racist society. From medical racism in health care, housing, education, transportation — every facet that we intersect with has a huge impact on our outcome. Every facet of being in this country challenges us. Wellness helps us get back to our center when all of these forces that create the inequities we live in challenge us.

Sometimes we will question ourselves. We forget the confidence, the power, the self-esteem, the self-efficacy because we have been metaphorically beaten down by all of these systems.

We even have to combat the complicity of folks in our own communities and other white-adjacent folks of color. I know that’s a provocative notion. Black people and other folks of color can uphold white supremacy because we’re all stewed in the same society. So people get surprised, for instance, that a Black physician can perpetuate harm to their Black patients. They have been trained in racist medical schools, so they can perpetuate what they have been taught. That’s why wellness is so important. Wellness is whatever a Black woman needs. We know what we need for our healing, to feel grounded, to feel at peace, to feel centered. That is crucial as we navigate this society that we operate in.

How does taking care of ourselves challenge hustle culture? Sometimes this strikes me as a conundrum. We’re trying to get out of this capitalistic dynamic of wellness, but we live in a capitalistic society, and we have to survive. And sometimes, for certain wellness practices, you have to buy something. It feels very sticky sometimes to see taking care of yourself as a challenge to capitalism when we live in a society where it’s so deeply entrenched.

It’s so important because grind culture is insidious. We are not even aware of the hold that grind culture has on us. That’s why stepping back transforms.

Again, I’m not immune from it. That’s why I’m so intentional with my unlearning, even as a business owner, challenging myself to not just push through. I’ll say: “DeJa, you’ve been up for how many hours? You’ve been in how many back-to-back meetings? Go out, take a walk, do a guided meditation, go do some yoga, just do something!”

I want to see a world where all Black women, and I use that term inclusively, are well. Where we’re not burnt out, where we’re not overwhelmed, where we’re not stressed, where employers don’t undervalue our contribution — they’re not even paying us the full dollar! We’re getting what? Sixty-seven cents on the dollar? And working twice as hard to prove ourselves. That is the encapsulation of grind culture and being unwell.

Julia Craven is a writer covering anything she thinks is cool. She’s the brain behind Make It Make Sense, a wellness newsletter.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.