How to Create an Inclusive Environment In the Wellness Space
And why it's absolutely essential that everyone who works or participates in wellness do so.
We hear the words diversity and inclusion used quite frequently these days in the wellness industry. While they are often paired together and often used interchangeably, they are two very different things.
Diversity—the range of human differences, including but not limited to race, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, social class, national origin, intellectual or physical ability or attributes, economic, religious, or ethical values system, and political beliefs, according to the Ferris State University (FSU) Diversity Office—is only the first step in creating environments that are welcoming to individuals from all backgrounds.
Moving beyond diversity is inclusion, which is defined as involvement and empowerment where the inherent worth and dignity of all people are recognized. An inclusive environment promotes and sustains a sense of belonging; it values and practices respect for the talents, beliefs, backgrounds, and ways of living of its members, according to FSU.
Understanding the difference between these is critical because it's quite possible to create diversity without inclusion. In fact, it's crucial that you understand this if you desire to create inclusive environments designed with everyone in mind—spaces that feel welcoming and safe for all bodies. Verna Myers, diversity expert and founder of The Verna Myers Company, which offers diversity and inclusion training courses, explains this difference in a very poignant (and well-known) quote: "Diversity is being invited to the party. Inclusion is being asked to dance."
Yes, it's important to have representation from individuals of all different backgrounds. That's diversity. But how do those individuals feel in the environment? Do they feel seen, respected, and valued? Do individuals from all backgrounds have a sense of belonging? Do they feel like the environment was created with them in mind? Or do they feel like an afterthought? Was the programming developed with varied perspectives considered?
When you seek only diversity and you treat it like a box you need to check off, you might get diversity, but you will likely miss the mark when it comes to inclusion. In fact, when diversity is approached in that manner, it can lead to environments that are actually harmful for BIPOC, especially when individuals who haven't done anti-racism work in their own lives are leading the charge for creating inclusive environments. If individuals haven't examined their own implicit bias or done the work of dismantling white supremacy in their lives, they can and will engage in racist behavior, often without meaning to, even when they have the best intentions. (Related: How Racism Affects Your Mental health)
Inclusion isn't a buzzword or a business strategy, it takes real work, a commitment to change, and a willingness to cede power. Ceding power, which is absolutely required for inclusion and equity, often feels like oppression to individuals who are used to privilege. However, it's impossible to have an inclusive environment without social justice at the core of your value system. If you aren't actively demanding justice for all bodies, especially the most at risk, while simultaneously inviting individuals from all backgrounds to the leadership table, you aren't doing the work required to create inclusion.
Inclusion is not inviting BIPOC into white-led and white-centered organizations and hoping they feel welcome. Inclusion involves meaningful and engaging collaboration in which BIPOC and LGBTQIA are thought leaders and decision-makers, while actively engaging in anti-racism policies. (See: Why Wellness Pros Need to Be Part of the Conversation About Racism)
Prioritizing diversity and inclusion matters in every facet of life, but even more so in the wellness space, because health and wellness are important for truly everyone. The benefits of wellness, whether it be movement, nutrition, or mindset, extend to every single human being and allow individuals to feel energized, whole, empowered, and nourished in their bodies. Everyone deserves access to wellness in environments that feel welcoming and comfortable, and where they feel seen, respected, affirmed, and celebrated. If these environments aren't inclusive, people will feel unwelcome, and it may have lasting impacts on their personal relationship with wellness—in addition to simply feeling it's inaccessible at that moment.
If you're involved in the wellness industry in any way—as a coach, dietitian, therapist, trainer, studio owner, or smoothie barista, or just someone who frequents these spaces—this pertains to you. We can all do more to make the spaces we inhabit more inclusive, even if we're not at the helm of a corporation. While this is a big topic that goes well beyond the scope of an article, here are some important considerations in your quest to create inclusive wellness environments.
1. Start inclusion at the top.
If you wish to create an inclusive environment, there has to be representation at all levels of an organization. Oftentimes, people want to create an inclusive event or business, but when you look at the leadership or board of directors, everyone looks the same. It's not possible to create an inclusive event or business without representation at all tiers of power.
Just as important: Those individuals need to be compensated equally for their work. If you aim to create inclusion, start by taking a hard look at the makeup of the leadership of your organization. (Related: These Fitness Pros Are Making the Workout World a More Inclusive Place)
2. Foster accountability.
Creating a culture of accountability within your wellness space is critical in ensuring that people from all backgrounds feel welcome and safe. Take a second to think—or better yet, brainstorm with the decision-makers—about these topics:
- What does your organization stand for?
- What are the expectations you are setting for members of your community?
- Do you have community agreements? If those community agreements are broken by a member, how do you handle it?
- What policies do you have in place to ensure members of your community do not experience harm? And if they do, how do you handle it?
- Do you have an anti-racism plan and policy in policy in place?
These are all critical considerations for creating an inclusive environment. It's not enough to just say that you welcome people from all backgrounds. How are you ensuring that people from all backgrounds are safe in your environment? Even more importantly, how are you prepared to handle negative situations that occur? When people aren't used to being held accountable, negative feedback can be a difficult pill to swallow. (For example: Popular yoga studio Y7 was called out and apologized for culturally appropriating Black and hip-hop culture.)
3. Ensure accessibility.
When it comes to inclusion, creating environments that are accessible to people from all backgrounds has to be of the utmost importance. When you are thinking about accessibility there are quite a few things to consider:
- Do you have gender-neutral bathrooms and training facilities?
- Are you intentional about using gender-neutral language and asking everyone's pronouns as a matter of practice?
- Is the facility accessible for individuals who are wheelchair-bound?
- If you are planning a conference, is there a sign language interpreter available or are you using closed captioning for video content being used?
- Are you being mindful of cultural appropriation, particularly as it pertains to language?
- Are you mindful of the use of harmful language such as 'tribe,' 'savage,' and 'spirit animal'?
While all of this is important, you may not be able to immediately make all the necessary changes. However, these are all things that we all need to be working toward, step by step, to foster inclusivity.
4. Avoid microaggressions.
Microaggressions are defined as the everyday, subtle, intentional—though oftentimes unintentional—interactions or behaviors that communicate some sort of bias toward historically marginalized groups, according to Merriam-Webster. You need to be especially mindful of them if you're seeking to create inclusive environments—but also just as a person out in the world. Common microaggressions experienced daily are statements such as "I don't see color," "you don't even sound like a Black person," "you're so articulate," "I'm not racist. I have a Black friend," "all lives matter," "can I touch your hair?" among others. For individuals in larger bodies or differently-abled bodied, comments like, "good for you," "If you can do it, what's everyone else's excuse," or "you're an inspiration," while usually said with good intentions, are other forms of microaggressions. (Related: Why We've Changed the Way We Talk About Women's Bodies)
The reason microaggressions are especially insidious is that oftentimes people don't understand the harmful impact of their statements. Even the most well-intentioned individuals can engage in microaggressions, a form of racism, without recognizing the problematic nature of their statements.
5. Interrupt injustice.
When you see injustice occurring in your wellness space or in your life in general, it's your responsibility to interrupt these occurrences during the moment. It's also your responsibility to use your voice to call out racism and microaggressions. A part of creating inclusive and safe environments requires that individuals in those environments be able and willing to use their voices when situations arise—because trust me, they will arise. Additionally, it's equally important for managers, individuals in upper management positions, and all those who hold any position of power, to create environments in which feedback is openly encouraged and even expected. All feedback should be taken seriously and never dismissed or downplayed. Handling these situations appropriately is a necessary component of creating inclusive environments.
In the words of Desmond Tutu, "If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor." Creating safe environments necessitates that you not remain neutral when it comes to systemic racism, oppression, and social justice.
Chrissy King is a writer, speaker, powerlifter, fitness and strength coach, creator of the #BodyLiberationProject, VP of the Women's Strength Coalition, and an advocate for anti-Racism, diversity, inclusion, and equity in the wellness industry. Check out her course on Anti-Racism for Wellness Professionals to learn more.