Many Shades of Pale: The Shameful Lack of Representation within the Wellness Industry
By Caitlin Parr
The recent surge in support for the Black Lives Matter movement thanks to the dedication of those raising awareness on global social media platforms and in headline-making protests around the world has led to many realising that systemic racism is a lot more prominent than we had previously noticed (or, failed to notice and ignore).
How we pursue our own wellness and wellbeing is a completely unique path for each individual. Whether you focus on yoga, daily affirmations, skin care or fitness, the wellness industry is sure to support your day-to-day wellbeing in one way or another. How we consume these products and have our purchases influenced is all down to marketing and the chosen models, and the systemic discrimination that is behind these decisions.
Before this year, I didn’t have an established skincare routine or list of nighttime essentials like I do now. My recent adoption of a skincare regime and investment in various products has been a direct result of watching “My Evening Routine” and “Boots Skincare Haul” videos, all of these the output of white influencers who dominate the scene.
The Online Wellness Industry
With contestants on reality TV shows such as Love Island instantly becoming influencers and the faces of many areas of the wellness industry in recent years, wellbeing and lifestyle products are destined to be modeled and promoted by predominantly white public figures. The wellness industry relies on the promotion techniques of these young people, as well as other YouTubers, Bloggers and Instagram personalities that are popular around the world. Due to online faces such as Zoella, Tanya Burr, Louise Pentland and Niomi Smart leading the initial wave of YouTube craze back in the early 2010s, we are still experiencing predominantly white content as the mainstream. Of course, it is logical from a marketing perspective for wellness, cosmetic or lifestyle companies to reach out to those influencers that will generate the largest amount of profit and awareness of their brand and product. Yet, the taciturn acknowledgement of this and enduring reluctance to break the pattern is shameful, and prevents smaller more diverse channels and platforms from accessing opportunities for publicity.
I logged into a new laptop at work that had never opened YouTube before on a guest account, as I knew that the browser would not have had the opportunity to remember my personal account or search history on the site. As I am subscribed to many of the previously mentioned channels, I did not want my YouTube algorithm to throw their videos to the top of my search. After typing in ‘wellness products’ on the site, I found that only 1 video in the top 15 was made by a person of colour. This channel was BeenieTV, by actor Abena Ansah. Abena Ansah has also founded an ethically sourced wellness shea butter brand in Ghana so is heavily invested in the industry themselves. This channel only had 9 thousand subscribers, as opposed to the white-American channel The Skinny Confidential whose video was recommended above BeenieTV on the list with a huge 64.3 thousand subscribers. Not only does this experiment show the inequality in videos recommended to an account not already impacted by its own personalised algorithm, but it also shows the varying degree of subscribers between the two types of account.
Representation of different body shapes, sizes and abilities is on the rise online, thanks to influencers such as Lucy Wood, Hannah Witton and Jessica Kellgren-Fozard – but again, all of these women are white British. It is alarming to me that myself and my friends who also engage with YouTube content seem to have an unconscious bias towards creators that we chose to engage with when we joined the platform. Whether this was due to being from predominantly white areas, or if all popular YouTubers at the time were
The systemic discrimination and inequality that contributes to this problem is fuelled by the conscious choice of corporations to pick white models to promote their products, and also the social media algorithms that expose our preference of consuming white content.
Nutritionist Maya Feller wrote that she had “witnesses multiple deficiencies across the wellness industry, specifically a lack of representation of Black, Indegienous and People of Colour (BIPOC)”, and connected this to the underlying prevalence of poor health and wellbeing in these communities. This is also amplified by the daily practices of racism that have been exposed during the rise of BLM and anti-racist content that has rightfully dominated social media. With everyone in lockdown, even the most ignorant of groups were forced to finally consume content that addressed systemic racism and daily inequalities that are promoted by industries such as the wellness industry.
Wellness promotions such as slimming and weight-loss products are also linked to historical racism. Fatphobia has been repeatedly linked to the discrimination of over-weight black women in lower socio-economic backgrounds, which is still perpetuating as a stereotype in society today.
Our world and societies are not the same as at the start of 2020, and not only because of the pandemic. Social justice movements that have come to the fore have brought change to even the biggest of brands and establishments. One campaign sweeping the wellness and lifestyle industry is the #PullUpOrShutUp campaign, which calls out brands that are failing in their attempts (or lack of) at diversity. Brands that have appeared to have ‘pulled up’ since the campaign, according to the campaign’s social media, include clothing brands H&M and Nordstrom.
The lockdown has also led to a surge in support for small business and small creators, especially black-owned businesses. With articles covering the internet entitled ‘Black Women in the Wellness Industry you Need to Follow’ and ‘Black-Women Owned Businesses Dominate the Industry’, it is unfortunately not difficult to see that these pieces are likely to never have been produced if this wave of support had never happened. But is it too little too late? Following these campaigns, wellness brands are starting to consciously choose models who are BIPOC and this can only encourage and inspire younger generations of the same minorities – even if the process that led to this was nothing worth celebrating.
Representation in all industries is so important. It had selfishly never crossed my mind that I never had to worry about not finding my foundation shade in a store; not know what the pigment of a blush would look like on my skin; or, be concerned that a hairdresser would know how to care for or treat my type of hair.
As the support of black-owned businesses in the wellness industry is now on the rise, we can only hope that more and more black entrepreneurs, creators and designers will be encouraged to embrace their skill sets and embark on these career journeys – whilst being confident that they will be supported by a generation who are actively being anti-racist and trying to dismantle the system that has restricted these individuals from succeeding for so long.