The women's self-care industry only "empowers" the wealthy and white—and it's time for a major change
On Shrill Season 2 Episode 6, Aidy Bryant’s character, Annie, attends a women’s empowerment and self-care conference called WAHAM, or “Women Are Having A Moment,” as a journalist. Annie, who has a press pass and doesn’t have to pay an entrance fee, interviews the conference’s founder, Justine, and questions why the tickets cost $300 if the conference’s objective is to lift up all women. The founder, who seconds ago was complimenting Annie on her blouse, gets prickly, explaining brusquely that they do offer sponsorships for low-income women. When Annie asks the founder’s assistant if she can get in touch with one of these low-income women who have been sponsored to attend for an interview, he lightly answers that, “She couldn’t make it because she couldn’t get off work.” This moment gets at the main issue with the women’s self-care industry at large. Many women—especially those of minority racial, ethnic, sexual, and gender identities—are being left out of the women’s self-care and empowerment conversation because they’re busy working multiple jobs just to support themselves. Automatically, they are excluded due to their lack of privilege.
The writer of Shrill: Notes From A Loud Woman and producer of show, Lindy West, describes how the wellness industry has become primarily about white privilege, in her 2019 book The Witches Are Coming.
She says, “You can’t address wellness, the things that people need to be well, without addressing poverty, and systemic racism, disability access, affordable healthcare, paid family leave and food insecurity, contraception and abortion, sex work and the war against drugs, and mass incarceration, unless of course you are only talking about the wellness of people whose lives are untouched by all of these forces; that is, the wellness of people who are disproportionately well already.”
The definition of “wellness,” for many women in this country, is more about basic health necessities than being able to take a luxurious weekend for a yoga retreat or purchasing a jade egg. For example, a 2019 study found that 64% of low-income women in an urban environment (they used St. Louis, Missouri in the survey) could not afford menstrual hygiene supplies the previous year, for any month. It’s worth noting that many of the women like those in the study who are struggling to afford necessary healthcare products (and therefore, not even able to engage with wellness culture) are minority women. Women of color account for 18% of the U.S. population, and out of that 18%, over 28% of Native American women, over 25% of Black women, and 24% of Hispanic women are living in poverty, according to data from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. Part of that is due to an income-based gap which largely discriminates on the basis of race: To put it in perspective, a Black woman will have to work until age 86 to earn as much as a white man does by age 60, the National Women’s Law Center states.
On top of that, gender and sexual identity also play a role in the wage gap. Women in the LGBTQ+ community, many of whom are also people of color, are also saddled with financial hardship. In the 18 to 44 age group, 29% of bisexual women and 23% of lesbian women are living in poverty, according to the American Psychological Association. And that doesn’t account for transgender women—the APA reports that most of them are living with an income that’s $10,000 below the rest of the population. The report also stated that 47% of trans women have revealed that they’ve struggled to be hired and to keep those jobs because of their gender identity. Affording health insurance coverage is a challenge for the queer community as well. A 2018 study found that 13.2% of lesbian, gay, and bisexual people are uninsured due to high insurance costs. It fares worse for transgender people: According to GLAAD statistics, 15% of trans people are living in poverty and 19% do not have any form of healthcare, including Medicaid.
These people who are fighting to get jobs are going to have trouble affording basic health essentials like insurance, let alone spending money on an essential oil diffuser.
But the self-care industry thrives on products far beyond hygiene necessities, and pretty much ignores those who aren’t in a position of privilege to purchase those products. In an interview with Vulture about episode 6 of Season 2, Aidy Bryant makes the point that so much of this industry capitalizes on women’s insecurities with different features or parts of their body, and then they hike up the prices of items to “fix” those insecurities, just because they can. At the WAHAM conference, Bryant’s character Annie tests out ridiculously expensive leg makeup to camouflage the look of her actual leg skin (for what purpose, she can’t quite figure out). She doesn’t see how you can call this “empowerment” if you’re basically just pinpointing women’s exterior flaws and then taking their credit card numbers.
If we’re talking real life examples of equating wellness with economic privilege, Goop is pretty much the biggest culprit of them all. Gwyneth Paltrow launched the brand as an email newsletter back in 2008 to curate her favorite travel, wellness, and beauty recommendations all in one place for her wealthy pals to enjoy, but it’s morphed into a source of questionable medical advice and experimentation with out-there, often very expensive, wellness trends. Its products just scream exclusivity—who, besides someone of celebrity status, would drop close to $3,500 on a 24-karat gold dildo?! At one point, a $244 toothpaste squeezer was available on the site. It even commodifies the basic necessity of drinking water, charging $80 for a quartz-infused crystal water bottle. Even middle-class women would not even come close to affording these types of “self-care” items, yet Goop somehow gets away with this as a brand.
Goop isn’t alone in creating this culture of exclusivity. Women’s co-working and networking spaces are innately a good idea, meant to make work-life balance easier for members, some of them even offering adjacent childcare areas for children. But they’re catering to higher-income women with their monthly fees. First of all: The Wing costs $215 per month or $2,350 annually to be a member, and that’s if you get off the often thousand-names-long waiting list. Not only that, but it only allows members into many of their networking and panel events; therefore, women who do not meet their wage requirements but would love to attend a workshop don’t have access.
The Wing’s site does mention that it offers a scholarship program for women and non-binary individuals who work in non-profits or education, but it doesn’t necessarily mention financial need, and says that the current application window is closed (again, implying that there’s not enough room for women who aren’t able to pay full price for a membership). At the end of the day, if a “women’s space” is only allowing certain women in, and inherently excluding women who have lower incomes, who are is it truly “empowering?”
The wellness and lifestyle influencer world also has chosen to market toward higher-income clientele and ignore those who don’t fit into that category. Social media personality and author of the bestselling books Girl, Wash Your Face and Girl, Stop Apologizing Rachel Hollis, writes in Girl, Wash Your Face, “You, and only you, are ultimately responsible for who you become and how happy you are.” She does make it clear that she did not grow up particularly wealthy, and yes, she probably meant it as a way to inspire autonomy, but a BuzzFeed essay analyzes why this statement is particularly ignorant: It’s seeped in white privilege. Sure, women who are disproportionately well-off can afford to have a balanced, happy lifestyle, but Hollis’ statement is completely ignoring women whose main priority is reuniting with their children at the border, or getting clean water to drink, the author, Laura Turner, points out.
For these women, work-life balance, or something as simple as downloading a meditation app, is not on their radar, because every moment of their day is dedicated to supporting themselves or their families. These are the women who are ultimately being left out of wellness culture.
Unfortunately, there are very few companies making strides in the self-care space for low-income women. Some are making an effort, like New York City’s Bryant Park Corporation offering free fitness classes for the community, even on weekends, which is a solid alternative to a $36 Soul Cycle class. Women’s all-around wellness clinic Tia offers waived membership fees for low-income women. It also has a free app, which includes the ability to chat with a healthcare provider, but those low-income women who use the app would still have to pay high prices out of pocket for in person-care, if they don’t have health insurance.
So there’s room for improvement in order to treat all women—lowering health insurance costs and making it available to all people would be a start. It’s impossible to focus on “self-care” without first addressing basic health. But it’s not just about cutting prices. When it comes to events, women’s conferences and empowerment panels shouldn’t be a $300 ticket, of course, but they also shouldn’t be held just on Monday mornings at 8:00 am, when many low-income women are required to report in to work. The companies would be doing a service to all women by having these events on weekends (that’s if the women only work one job, of course). They should be reaching out to domestic violence shelters and employment centers to get women of all backgrounds engaged. There is also the option to live stream conferences and make them free for all women to access, as Girlboss Rally has done in 2020 (due to a public health crisis, but still a positive).
These spaces set aside for women and products that cater to women’s wellness are currently only targeting those with extra cash to spend, and intersectional feminism can’t coexist with elitism. If you claim to be all about “empowerment,” and promoting true wellness, that first requires acknowledging the issues that women from all economic backgrounds face, like affordable health insurance, and working toward solutions for those problems. For all women to be “having a moment,” the wellness industry at large needs to uplift women of all economic statuses, racial, ethnic, gender, and sexual identities, rather than just those who are already objectively well-off.