Summary of Contents
Important Terms and Definitions
- Body Liberation
- Diet Culture
- Fat Liberation
- Wellness Culture
Who Defines Wellness, and Why Does It Matter?
- The Commodification of Wellness
- Beyond Western Wellness: Exploring Indigenous Understandings of Wellness
What Does It Mean To “Decolonize” Wellness In The Workplace?
- Recentring the Narrative: Shifting From Individual to Dynamic, Collective Wellness In The Workplace
- Designing Systems-Centred Workplace Wellness Programs
- Educating and Calling “In” With Empathy and Compassion
For those who use the Gregorian calendar, January can be an overwhelming time marked by renewed promises and resolutions to focus on “wellness.”
It can feel like the “new year, new you” narrative is the only thing on people’s minds as conversations and efforts often shift to the latest fitness trends, weight loss and detox diets, and the best new approach to achieving these goals.
With organization-wide weight loss competitions and wearable devices buzzing on the hour, attempting to navigate these dominant (and damaging) workplace wellness narratives can feel like a full-time job in and of itself.
You’re not alone if your organization’s “wellness” initiatives are not making you feel all that well.
Feminuity developed this guide to help workplaces explore the complex history of “self-care” and “wellness,” determine how this history may show up in workplace wellness efforts and offer an alternative approach to workplace wellness that moves towards collective wellness, body liberation, and inclusion.
Important Terms and Definitions
Body liberation is the freedom from social and political systems of oppression that designate certain bodies as more worthy, healthy, and desirable than others. It was born from the work of the fat acceptance movement and the civil rights movement of the 1960s and beyond in the United States. It is essential to highlight how most of the efforts around body liberation have been led by people who experience marginalization, specifically fat, Black, Indigenous, and queer women. Lastly, while some people use “body liberation” and “fat liberation” interchangeably, others consider them different things.
Diet culture refers to a set of ever-changing ideas about food and bodies that promote the idea that a lower body weight automatically equals health and that foods can be simply categorized as “good” or “bad.”
We use “fat” throughout this guide as a descriptor in the same way we might use Black or queer as descriptors. Many in the fat community have reclaimed the word to signal pride and power or a matter-of-fact description. Some reject the medicalized terminology of “obese” and “overweight” because medical professionals often use these terms to deny care and further people’s marginalization. Instead, the fat community uses many terms to represent who they are, such as “small fat” and “super fat,” to name a few. Engaging with individuals and the fat community is vital to determine the most inclusive language possible that fosters dignity and respect in different relationships and contexts.
Fat Liberation is a social movement seeking to change anti-fat bias in social attitudes by raising awareness among the general public about the obstacles faced by fat people experiencing the stigma of obesity. It has similar origins and was led by similar communities as the “body liberation” movement. As noted earlier, while some people use “body liberation” and “fat liberation” interchangeably, others consider them different things.
Specifically, within the workplace, wellness culture refers to a series of policies, ideas, values, and team member support that guide teams toward optimal health (so they can perform optimally). Notably, diet culture greatly influences wellness culture, leading to environments where larger people experience marginalization, stigma, and exclusion.
Who Defines Wellness, and Why Does It Matter?
The Commodification of Wellness
The North American use of the term “self-care” was popularized in the 1950s by Dr. Halbert Dunn. Many refer to him as “the father of the wellness movement,” though he was certainly not the first to engage with and promote wellness.
The idea of wellness and self-care originated in many communities that experience marginalization, specifically Black, queer, and Indigenous. And these self-care and wellness ideals have been commodified and appropriated by the dominant culture (in this case, colonialist, white culture).
Since the 1980s, the wellness industry has transformed into a massive global market estimated at $1.5 trillion. Through commodification, the wellness industry dictates the “desirable” body type and the latest diet, fitness, and general wellness trends. These bodies and trends often exclude people experiencing marginalization. An example is the influence of cultural icons, like the Kardashians and others, who have access to a disproportionate amount of wealth accumulated through their perpetuation of a thin “ideal” or promotion of “thin culture.” In this way, only certain body types have been able to access this wealth, namely those who are white, thin, and non-disabled bodies.
Not only does commodification create inequity in terms of financial gain, but commodifying wellness can also make it less accessible to communities experiencing marginalization and those who can't afford expensive wellness products or services. Commodification has also led to appropriation. A characteristic of appropriation is that the dominant culture monetizes the ideas and practices of the non-dominant culture. In this way, appropriation can also lead to the commercialization of practices and traditions with deep cultural and spiritual significance, diluting their meaning and effectiveness and reducing them to little more than a trend or consumer product. The variety of expensive yoga studios and their predominantly white teachers is perhaps one of the most well-known examples of how colonialism influences Western wellness culture.
With all this in mind, many of these beliefs and myths appear in our organizational wellness programs. Moving towards decolonizing wellness in the workplace means recognizing the troubling origins of Western wellness culture and being intentional in designing these programs.
Beyond Western Wellness: Exploring Indigenous Understandings of Wellness
We can trace the concept of wellness back to the ancient civilizations of Greece, Rome, and Asia. It has meant different things in different cultures and has changed over time.
In the late 1980s, Black feminist Audre Lorde sparked a conversation about self-care when she wrote about it in her essay collection, “A Burst of Light.” She believed self-care was a political act. For people experiencing marginalization, caring for oneself pushes back against a society and culture that does not always care for them.
Before Lorde’s interpretation and practices of wellness, Indigenous understandings of wellness established the deep connection between culture, community, land, body, mind, and self-determination. Moreover, Indigenous understandings of the benefits of wellness differ from Western understandings. For example, many Indigenous Peoples consider the movement a form of community building rather than a tool to reduce body size.
Indigenous Peoples have continuously engaged with wellness by seeking healthcare equity. Many healthcare institutions have put up barriers to treatment, and there have been many reports of doctors and nurses abusing and neglecting Indigenous communities.
Ultimately, in both traditions mentioned above, wellness is connected with collectively fighting against oppression. Unfortunately, these perspectives have seemingly disappeared from modern Western wellness culture and understanding of self-care.
Indeed, when we discuss Indigenous Peoples too often, we focus on community deficits rather than areas of strength that we could learn from. Let this remind us to include positive examples of Indigenous knowledge in our discourses and engage in more nuanced understandings.
What Does It Mean To “Decolonize” Wellness In The Workplace?
Decolonizing wellness means recognizing the complex histories of colonialism on certain wellness practices and reflecting on the communities most impacted by the whitewashing practices of modern wellness culture. It also means recognizing how colonialism has created strict beauty standards, outlining acceptable and desirable bodies and stigmatizing fatness, and working intentionally toward alternative ways to support our people’s wellness.
Moving forward means decentring whiteness in wellness spaces and including everyone in the process of re-establishing “wellness” to reflect their needs, values, and lived experiences and designing intentional, systems-centred wellness programs.
Recentring the Narrative: Shifting From Individual to Dynamic, Collective Wellness In The Workplace
More people are beginning to critique organizations for approaching team wellness with a self-care approach (e.g. offering mindfulness programs) instead of addressing the systemic issues contributing to team member stress and burnout. Indeed, working collectively to identify and address the root cause of psychological or physical distress would be much more helpful.
What does it mean to turn self-care into community care? It means collectively investing in caring for each other, prioritizing the well-being of the collective and the land above the person, and understanding our well-being is essential to move toward decolonizing workplace wellness.
We encourage workplaces to recentre the narrative and demonstrate that wellness is a collective, “everybody” thing, not just for individuals. When doing so, workplaces can prioritize a community care approach to organizational wellness that focuses on systems-centred wellness programs that recognize the role of systemic oppression on individual and collective wellness.
Designing Systems-Centred Workplace Wellness Programs
A great way to shift from an individual to a collective approach and design more systems-centred wellness programs is to survey your team members to better understand their unique needs related to wellness, and their experiences in the workplace.
When designing your survey, consider questions that can help you learn about the following topics:
- Are the current wellness packages supporting the needs of team members? Asking about what additional or expanded benefits would be helpful to people is important.
- How does your company’s dress code meet the needs of your people? Establishing inclusive and community-driven guides for dressing and relating in the workplace often requires workplaces to reevaluate their understandings of what is considered appropriate or professional and how these expectations may reinforce oppressive expectations around professionalism.
- Do team members feel they have full organizational support and protection toward any harassment and/or discrimination they may experience regarding their identities and expression of identities?
- How are you supporting people with various shapes and sizes of bodies, such as those who are fat, over six feet tall, or under four feet tall?
- How are people with various ability levels supported at work? What does your accommodation practice look like? What barriers exist for people who have obtained accommodations?
- Are your physical or digital workplaces accessible to all team members? Example: Is the furniture and space areas accessible for fat team members over six feet tall or under four feet tall? Is furniture accessible for various abilities?
- Are your healthcare providers inclusive? A recent Public Health Agency of Canada report found that after adjusting for sex, income, and other characteristics, fat people were “significantly more likely” to report discrimination in health care.
With survey wellness-related findings that better reflect your team's needs, values, and lived experiences, workplaces can identify and leverage opportunities to build new wellness initiatives toward body liberation and inclusion. Holding the collective (including leaders) accountable for everyone’s wellness is key to decolonizing wellness.
Educating and Calling “In” With Empathy and Compassion
Everyone must take up the work of decolonizing wellness and moving toward body liberation and inclusion. Our teams must care for each other, and this (un)learning process can take many forms!
- Provide educational resources and events that expand perspectives on body liberation. Engage with and support thought leaders who expand on body liberation perspectives and collaborate to share their knowledge throughout your organization.
- Merge wellness and education initiatives that celebrate cultural traditions such as dance, food, meditation, and spirituality that all interlink with the body. Engage in cultural awareness campaigns by collaborating and supporting diverse cultural communities to learn directly from the community.
- Reimagine your organization's wellness communications to acknowledge and focus on systems of oppression that contribute to a lack of well-being rather than reinforcing self-care as the only pathway forward. A great way to start this conversation is by engaging with Feminuity’s Inclusive Language Guide.
At times, we’ll need to call “in” our workplaces, team members, and even ourselves to challenge the harmful practices and frameworks perpetuated by wellness and diet culture. We may need to confront fatphobia and sizeism and engage with the collective, rather than individual, wellness models.
What can we do when others share harmful comments that promote diet culture or fatphobia? We recognize that calling someone into a conversation about diet culture and fatphobia can activate trauma or even extreme discomfort. Make sure you have the emotional capacity and energy to call “in” your team members!
Choose empathy when responding to team members’ “body issues.” Having difficult experiences around our bodies is hard. Sometimes, empathizing by saying, “that sounds so hard,” goes a long way.
Be compassionate in your response, and try not to take what they say personally. Remember that people live in diet culture, and they don’t recognize it for the most part. Do your best to have compassion when choosing your words and pay attention to how the person responds and/or their emotional state.
Normalize the “issue” they are navigating. For example, "Bodies come in all shapes and sizes, and that’s natural,” or “A lot of people feel this way about their bodies.” Try to be neutral when describing their body - don’t react as unfavourable. For example, if someone says they are fat, don’t rush to say how beautiful they are, as they are fat is bad.
Give inclusive compliments that have nothing to do with someone’s body. There are so many compliments and affirmations we can give each other that pay no attention to our bodies, for example:
- You inspire me to be a better person.
- Your ideas matter.
- Your energy brightens up a room.
- You’re so fun to talk to.
- You have such creative energy.
- I hope we can collaborate and work together for a long time.
- You are so good at setting boundaries.
- You make our workspace feel safe.
- Your passion for our work is contagious.
- You inspire me.
- I admire how you advocate for yourself.
- I admire how you advocate for what you believe in.
- I love your sense of humour.
- You uplift our team with your perspectives.
- The way you treat our team is invaluable.
- You always make me feel like my ideas are engaged with and understood.
- Your vulnerability is powerful.
- You always inspire me to learn new things.
Call “in” yourself and be accountable. Sometimes, we are the ones that need to be called “in.” We live in a fatphobic world that has been engulfed by diet culture. If you make a fatphobic comment, you must pause, reflect, and take accountability. At the same time,you find yourself struggling with harmful wellness narratives, do what is best for your self-care. This could mean removing yourself from a situation, reflecting on colonizing wellness concepts, seeking out fat-positive or body liberation communities, going on a social media cleanse, or seeking out body inclusive professional help.
Our approach to decolonizing wellness moves towards dynamic collective wellness, body liberation, and inclusion in the workplace. We encourage organizations to take collective responsibility for wellness, critique oppressive narratives around wellness, shift toward a community care model (rather than focusing on the individual), and reflect this across workplace wellness programs. Organizations that intentionally engage with a nuanced understanding of wellness will have the tools to support their people.
This resource is not meant to be a static guide, but rather a compilation and reflection of our learnings to date. Everything changes - from technologies and innovations to social norms, cultures, languages, and more. We’ll continue to update this resource with your feedback; email us at email@example.com with suggestions.
About the Authors
The Feminuity team with Dr. Yvonne James as lead author.
Give Credit Where Credit's Due
If you wish to reference this work, please use the following citation: Feminuity. James, Y. (2023). "Decolonizing Wellness: A Guide for Workplaces to Successfully Cultivate Well-Being For All Team Members"