Who Is Beauty For?
An interview with Fariha Róisín, author of "Who Is Wellness For?"
Recently, someone left a question in the comment section of one of my articles: “Is the ability to resist standardized, industrialized beauty a form of privilege?” It’s a question I get fairly often, or a version of it, anyway. When adhering to the current cultural beauty ideal sometimes results in better jobs, better pay, and better treatment, who can afford to opt out?
The better question, I think, is, who can afford to opt in?
Western beauty culture demands a constant infusion of money, time, effort, and thought from its participants. Its products, practices, and procedures are largely inaccessible. Of course they are; standardized beauty is a class performance! The barrier to entry is its entire appeal. As such, there are more women globally who do not participate in beauty culture than women who do — women who don't use La Mer, don't wear lipstick, don’t get Juvéderm, don’t have brow lifts; women who don't do these things because they don’t have access to them; women who go about their lives without industrialized beauty. Many of them are Black and Brown women. What do we say about these women when we claim that some of us “don’t have the ability to resist”? That we’re unwilling to live lives that are on par with theirs? And what does that say about the oppression of beauty culture? And what does that say about the choice to buy in instead of opt out?
Who is beauty for?
I don’t have the answer, but this is a question I come back to a lot. I came back to it again while reading Fariha Róisín’s new book, “Who Is Wellness For? An Examination of Wellness Culture and Who It Leaves Behind.”
In it, Róisín examines today’s $1.5 trillion global wellness industry, detailing how it was built on the ancient knowledge of Eastern cultures — knowledge that the West stole and systematically devalued, cultures that the West colonized and strategically dehumanized. Mindfulness and meditation, yoga and yoni steaming, dry brushing and lymphatic drainage, turmeric and herbal teas, gua sha and acupuncture. And, and, and, and.
“Consider all this and turn to Forbes, which declared that in 2017, 365.55 million Indians lived in multidimensional poverty,” she writes. “This is more than the entire population of the United States. When we unpack wellness, it's important to name not only the commodification, repurposing, and repackaging of Indigenous cultural knowledge for a white Western audience, but also to contextualize it, because through these two actions we can actually hold the entire truth. If every colonizing nation were to pay back its reparations, the entire ‘Western world’ would collapse. Think about that. Think about what it means to be stepped on, taken from to keep alive the countries that have to dehumanize you in order to continue to rationalize exploiting you.”
The result of all this exploitation is a whitewashed version of “wellness” that, through its continued application of colonialism and capitalism, compounds our collective un-wellness, effectively creating more demand for the very “solutions” it sells; a version of “wellness” that leaves the communities it came from behind. In other words: The result is the wellness industrial complex (which, in many ways, includes or at least parallels the beauty industrial complex, in that “beauty” — makeup, skincare, fillers — is increasingly messaged as “self-care”).
So, Róisín asks, what do we do with that? How do we reconcile an industry that’s turned “wellness” into a class privilege with the fact that all human beings, simply by virtue of being, are entitled to wellness (much the same way all humans are entitled to beauty — not industrialized beauty, but actual beauty)? How do we restore wellness to the communities it came from? How do we advocate for wellness for all?
Part memoir, part manifesto, and part in-depth investigation, “Who Is Wellness For?” offers some ideas.
First, we need to unpack the “racist and exclusionary” history of Western medicine, Róisín writes, and reconnect to the ancient Eastern, Indigenous, and African sciences of holistic health. We need to reclaim our minds and bodies from the systems that seek to extract our life force, and reject the corporations that seek to sell it back to us. We need to divest from pre-packaged “wellness” and degrow the industry. We need to imagine new possibilities!! (As Róisín puts it, “There are so many ways that white supremacy polices your imagination, and other systems of oppression use similar tactics to keep you small.”) We need to practice radical self-care — the kind of self-care that recognizes the self’s role in, and responsibility to, the collective. Through it all, we need to work toward justice.
So much of Róisín’s wellness philosophy parallels my own beauty philosophy, and I basically read this book while shouting, “This applies to beauty! This applies to beauty!! THIS APPLIES TO BEAUTY!!!” You really have to read it. (Róisín also writes a truly mind-expanding and essential Substack newsletter, How To Cure A Ghost, that I recommend subscribing to.)
Ahead, I spoke to the author about self-care, skincare, and sacred reciprocity.
Jessica DeFino (me): At the start of “Who Is Wellness For?”, you unpack how the colonizer mindset is embedded in Western medicine and Western media. One example you give is Cheryl Wischover’s 2016 essay for The Cut, “Can Wellness Be Scientific?” You point out that “the article's question is … at fault, as it insinuates that wellness and science (again) are incompatible, or are both devoid of the other, without considering the dearth of knowledge that remains rooted in different Indigenous technologies (some might even call them “sciences”) that make up for the majority of modern wellness.” For people who are new to the concept, can you tell us a little bit about why and how the colonizer mindset influences Western medicine and media, and how that's led to a lower quality of care for so many of us?
Fariha Róisín: I think the colonizer mindset is built on a belief in extraction as key. Within that model – which is how European colonizers operated – was a belief in building one’s own economy off of the labor, exploitation, culture and resources off of each land it colonized.
Now we see this in market capitalism, which is predatory by nature, and thus assumes everything can be owned and capitalized off of without the acknowledgment, context or reciprocity of the labor involved. How that’s impacted the way we engage with one another is that the lack of care is the very model we exist upon, where all humans are not equal. If we only priortize gain and capital then by nature our relationships are extractive, and thus lack care.
It’s a cycle.
JD: The colonizer mindset also tends to treat the concept of the mind-body-spirit connection as weird, woo-woo, or pseudo-scientific — but more and more, Western science also shows that the three are, in fact, inextricably linked. Psychological trauma can impact the body, bodily experiences can impact mental health, and spiritual conflicts — like being unsure of your “life purpose” — can lead to the mental and physical effects of burnout. Especially since the start of the pandemic, people in the West are starting to accept the idea that “the body keeps the score,” which you write about in the book. [The Body Keeps The Score by Bessel van der Kolk has been a consistent best seller for the past two years.] I know the concept personally clicked for me in terms of skincare when I learned about the Gut-Brain-Skin Axis, an internal network of nerves and neurons and microbes that connects all three organs — there are so many studies that show the state of your mind influences the state of your skin! I'm curious if you had a similar “aha” moment. Is there a certain fact or observation or even personal story that solidified this idea that the mind influences the body for you?
FR: As a child sexual abuse survivor it was pretty aha when I realized that one’s own livelihood, mental and physical health, were impacted by trauma. It was pretty confronting to realize that through the severing of knowledge about the gut, via the emphasis on the “Western sciences” we’ve completely lost that integral connection between the mind and gut, which I mention in this book is another form of colonial design. The less you are spiritually connected to yourself, thus the land, and thus each other – the more pliable you are to marketing. It’s pretty insidious and remarkable how deep they thought on how to dehumanize people… by severing them from their own human instinct. It’s sociopathic.
“The less you are spiritually connected to yourself, thus the land, and thus each other – the more pliable you are to marketing.”
JD: You write a lot about meditation, which is obviously very popular in the United States now — there’s the Calm app and the Headspace app and even a $200+ electronic meditation system. It’s probably fair to say that most modern/Western meditators do it for the stress relief, for nervous system balance, or even to enhance productivity — things that Western studies of meditation tend to focus on — rather than for spiritual growth, self discovery, or honoring an ancient practice. In the book, you say that anyone who is meditating should familiarize themselves with the roots and history of meditation. Why? What are we, individually and collectively, risking when we fail to incorporate the ancient, spiritual roots of the practice?
FR: Through a distillation of these practices we continue to exist out of integrity. I think there’s a responsibility for all of us to know where things come from. In an economic sense, as McMindfullness itself is a multi-billion dollar industry, I’m also asking us to question why is it that these tech bros get to profit off of meditation… like why does anyone profit off meditation? It should be free. For all.
JD: A portion of the book focuses on self-care — which used to be this really radical concept, but has since been commodified into a vision of bubble baths and sheet masks and Botox appointments and buying stuff. Why do you think it's important to re-radicalize our understanding of self-care? Do you have any tips for people re-evaluating their self-care routine; any “guiding lights” to keep in mind when determining whether something is true “self-care” vs. capitalist “ego-care”?
FR: I think all of it comes back to consumption. Why are you consuming something? And, is what you’re buying about something inherently good for you, or is it about attainting something someone else told you to get. So much of self care has been co-opted by the language of the market when true “self care” transcends $$... so the act of self care should emphasize true care for oneself and community, and sure – splurge from time to time, buy yourself a nice glass of wine, take a bubble bath… but also truly go to the core of your being and self investigate so you can love yourself fully, not just slap a band aid on the issue.
I think these are dark times because so many of us are choosing disassociation over true connection with oneself and others, and that’s why we’re here —in the exact place, facing Anthropocene— as a species.
JD: On that same note, I think many of us see “self-care” as relaxing, fluffy, fun, peaceful. But you paint a very different picture of self-care in this book — one that's painful, and hard work, but ultimately worth it. Have you ever come to a particularly painful place in your own self-care practice, and how did you overcome that? How do you hold onto your hope and motivation to heal when self-care hurts?
FR: I mean I’m a survivor of violent abuse and much of my home life was bad. So yeah, the work I’ve had to do was to rectify a crumbling foundation, and heal some very deep wounds. I think the most significant part of my self care practice has been to really learn how to love myself. Like, really. I’ve learned to love myself fully. How could I love a body that had been transgressed this much? I felt so far from myself for the first 29 years of my life… That was painful and hard but absolutely worth it to heal. My motivation was that I wanted to live. I was so close to dying for so much of my life but self care made me realize I could find a way to love myself and therefore survive and live.
JD: How do you see the relationship between self-care and community care? Do you think practices that don't support the collective can still be considered self-care? I think about this often in regards to beauty, because so many of us like to think of our beauty routines as “self-care” — but in “caring” for ourselves this way, we often harm the collective by reinforcing harmful beauty standards, or contributing to the immense waste in the industry, or supporting brands that exploit their workers.
FR: I think self care is like freedom – if your freedom impedes on somebody else's, it’s not freedom.
Self care should be tied into community care.
JD: The book ends by focusing on justice in wellness. What would a just wellness culture look like to you? How can we, as individuals, contribute to that vision?
FR: What I emphasize in the book is sacred reciprocity. It’s not about not practicing yoga – for example – it’s about giving back, making sure that Indians are also being fed. This idea of a “developing nation” is such a farce because pre-colonial times India wasn’t DEVELOPING it was an esteemed and profound nation. Every colonized year the UK was said to take 40 billion pounds out of India (alone) and it colonized India for over 200 years… let’s just do the math here. I mean… that’s trillions of dollars that the UK used to build its empire and become a “developed nation” … it’s wild. So as the wellness industry continues to further the arm of colonization it’s important that we finally stop, look at the facts and try and completely shift how we engage with countries we deem lesser than.
I think reparations are key here. Financial reparations from primarily rich white folks. If you own a yoga studio or own Lululemon lol there’s a DEEP responsibility to give back. That should be the bare minimum. There should be a reparative tax – like giving away a quarter of your revenue to India. Not just lining your own pockets so you can buy a holiday home in Hudson. To give back to the cultures you take from is the best way forward. To live within sacred reciprocity with the land and every species on this Earth.
“I think self care is like freedom – if your freedom impedes on somebody else's, it’s not freedom.”
JD: I wonder if some readers might deal with feelings of guilt or defensiveness after reading the book — from realizing the level of corruption and colonization in the wellness industry, and then grappling with how they have personally participated in that corruption and colonization. I see this come up all the time when people read my newsletter: People either feel guilty for past participation in beauty culture, or go in the exact opposite direction and deny that their individual participation could have any impact on a $400 billion industry at all. I don't necessarily think either of those feelings is healthy or productive, and I'm curious to hear your thoughts here. What do you want readers to take away from “Who Is Wellness For?”
FR: One major thing I want folks to walk away here is that we are all responsible for living in a world that is fair too all of us. We know we don’t live in a fair society so it should be on us – especially the elites – to change, to give back, to contend with themselves. To face their mortality which capitalism convinces you out of
We need to degrow as a civilization. Mass consumerism inevitably needs to shift on a planet that can no longer house our greed. Climate catastrophe is real, so how do we face it? We change. Small daily shifts are important but this is a collective effort. I think something that is encouraging to me is that feeling of responsibility I feel for my community, for this world. It’s what keeps me going everyday. My gratitude for this Earth, and for my time here. I want to do whatever I can to protect her.