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Health & Fit: Creating a More Inclusive Wellness Industry

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This past year has significantly reinforced the trauma and racism that the Black community has and continues to face. Pair that with the everyday stress of balancing work, childcare, and life — plus the unknowns that come with living in a pandemic — and Black women are burned out.

Katara McCarty talks to Shondaland about her app designed specifically for women of color. © Leah N Hoskins Katara McCarty talks to Shondaland about her app designed specifically for women of color.

And oftentimes, they aren’t taking care of themselves the way that Katara McCarty, a coach, public speaker, and anti-racism advocate for Black, Indigenous, and women of color, would like them to. This, she says, is largely due to the lack of inclusion in the mainstream wellness industry. So McCarty set out to challenge this. She created Exhale, an app she deems the first emotional well-being tool designed specifically by and for women of color.

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The goal, per McCarty, is to inspire Black, Indigenous, and women of color (BIWOC) to connect with tools to prioritize self-care, mindfulness, and rest — and in a space where they feel both represented and safe. Exhale contains everything from guided meditations, visualizations, and breath-work sessions to podcast-like talks where McCarty pulls from her professional coaching background to inspire women to live the life they desire.

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“We also have daily notifications that pop up on a user’s phone that are encouraging, uplifting, or that remind them,‘Hey, take a pause. Take a breath. Remember who you are,’” McCarty says.

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McCarty and her team have carefully curated Exhale to speak directly to women of color.“We talk about microaggressions, anti-Blackness, weaving through life in brown and Black bodies as women, oppression, and all of that,” she explains.“We speak directly to Black, Indigenous women of color and directly to the stuff they go through and our stressors because of systemic racism,” she adds. Her hope is that her community finds a place where it can experience some much-needed reprieve and that the wellness industry will also take note.

Shondaland spoke to McCarty to discuss what this past year has taught her about the importance of self-care. She also touches on what it’s like navigating the wellness space as a Black woman and how to balance prioritizing yourself with activism.

NICOLE PAJER: What inspired you to create Exhale?

KATARA McCARTY: I got the idea in April, when everything was hitting the fan with Covid. I’m a coach and public speaker and lost half of my clientele. I was managing my own stress, and then it started coming out in the news how Covid was impacting the Black community disproportionately. They were saying it was because Black and brown communities have pre-existing conditions. They weren’t telling the full narrative, that the reason why we have pre-existing conditions is because of systems of oppression, systemic racism. And then the killing of Ahmaud Arbery happened and Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. I started realizing the anxiety and stress that I was experiencing as a Black woman, how Covid and quarantine were impacting me personally, and then I also [began] feeling the collective stress, anxiety, and trauma that the Black community was experiencing due to Covid and what was happening in our community.

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It was a lot. I found myself reaching for apps I normally reach for and realizing they weren’t helping me. They’re recording these meditations months, maybe even years, in advance, and it felt like it was so out of step with the level of stress that I was experiencing as a Black woman.

I was reaching for resources that were like,“just think happy thoughts,” and I’m like,“Oh my god, do you not know that my community is under so much stress right now?” And so I was like,“Wait, what are other brown women doing? We need something that speaks directly to us.” And so I decided to show up for them in this way. We launched in August, and the app is free to use because we want people to truly have a resource that’s accessible to all of us.

NP: What has this past year taught you about the importance of self-care for Black women?

KM: I think what we saw this summer was Black women leading the charge of the movement for Black lives, leading the charge of getting more voters to vote, getting people registered. We are constantly showing up to liberate ourselves and to liberate people in our community. And then we’ve got to get up and go to work, pay bills, take care of babies. We have to focus on how to continue doing this work but also take care of ourselves.

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On our app, we have breath-work techniques that are like five minutes. So you could be in the middle of leading a team, then go have lunch, and do five-minute breathwork. Or you just had an experience with a coworker that was an obvious microaggression that was hurtful and harmful. Well, instead of just stuffing that down, you can actually go and do a meditation that helps you unpack that hurt. So I think it’s important for us as Black women to keep working, keep doing whatever you’re passionate about, wherever you feel called to. But also that includes making yourself a priority and understanding that, as we weed through life in brown and Black bodies, we’re experiencing a level of stress, anxiety, and trauma that our white counterparts are not. Systemic racism makes us sick because of the trauma that we carry, because of the stress and anxiety. And we have to get that out of our bodies.

Ashanti posing for the camera: Exhale founder, Katara McCarty © Courtesy of Katara McCarty Exhale founder, Katara McCarty

And I think that it’s important that we understand it’s not just“Oh, I’ve got to pause for self-care. Let me take a bath or go get my nails done.” I love those things, but it’s also about pausing to focus on my breath, to meditate, to ask,“How am I infusing myself with resources that I need to get this energy out of my body that isn’t serving me? And, as I get that out, I’m going to get up the next day and face it again. There’s going to be more, and then I’m able to get that out.” Systemic racism is not going to be dismantled in my lifetime, and we have to figure out how to manage the stress and trauma that comes from it.

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NP: What are some ways in which Black women can prioritize self-care?

KM: It’s really just carving out that time, and not in a way that feels like drudgery or like another thing to check off the list. It’s about loving yourself enough to say,“I deserve care. I deserve to pay attention to myself, to listen to my body.” Our bodies are intelligent. They’re speaking to us all the time.“My heart deserves me tuning into it. My soul deserves me tuning into it and listening to its pain and listening to its joy.” Indulging in things that bring you joy, indulging in things that really help you to deal with trauma. This could be 10 minutes in the morning, afternoon, or evening. It doesn’t have to be an hour to sit with yourself. It could be journaling. It could be taking a hot bath or going on a walk or just taking time to tune in and check in on yourself. We have been so conditioned in this hustle culture that we’ve got to go, go, go that we’re ignoring ourselves. It’s time for us to pause and really be attentive to what we’re saying to ourselves that we need to give ourselves what we deserve to be healthy — mentally, emotionally, and physically.

NP: What has your personal experience of navigating the wellness industry been like as a Black woman?

KM: The wellness industry is predominantly white. It’s created and narrated by white people — even wellness and meditation apps are predominantly white spaces. If I show up to a yoga studio or on an app as a Black woman, those spaces are not always safe for me. They don’t include me. There’s not this lens of my oppression and what I go through. It’s like navigating any other industry in our world, so we’re facing systemic racism wherever we go. And when we show up in these wellness spaces, it’s the same thing. There’s this level of oppression and systemic racism. The people that are leading these spaces aren’t consciously making decisions to exclude or to keep people out or to not be inclusive; they have just not done the work necessary to truly be an equitable, diverse, and inclusive space. And so, in those spaces you don’t feel seen as a Black woman; you don’t feel heard. And that can be hurtful and harmful.

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It’s like,“I’m trying to do something that’s going to better me. And here I just experienced a microaggression in this space that I’m trying to be well.” And so it’s really challenging. You are like,“Ah. I really would love to just show up somewhere where I’m being seen, I’m being heard, my whole experience as a Black person is being taken into consideration.” And a lot of the wellness spaces just aren’t there yet. It’s really important for us to have havens and places where we don’t have to hang up part of our blackness at the door. And so I think the wellness industry has a lot of work to do.

NP: How would you like to see the industry step up?

KM: I think that with what happened this summer there has been a lot of enlightenment, a lot of organizations stepping up and saying,“We don’t have enough Black and brown people in our industry, in our organization, working for us in leadership positions.” They’re making pivots, which is good, but I think we have a long way to go.

Representation is important, but I think the step before that for a company is really cultivating an antiracism practice within their organization. So it’s really creating a culture where everybody’s practicing antiracism. In my opinion, that needs to come first. Because it’s not always effective to say,“I have an all-white staff; let me hire some Black and brown people.” If you do that and you haven’t done the necessary work to unpack your own biases, to dismantle systemic racism, and play a role in that, then those people that are showing up to work for you could be coming to an environment that isn’t really inclusive. Microaggressions could occur. Things could be said that are harmful.

NP: Are there any other wellness resources you’d direct Black women to?

KM: There are other apps out there that are for Black and brown people. There’s Liberate, a Black meditation app. The self-care app Shine is Black- and brown-owned. It’s for everybody, but there are some specific resources on there for people of color. So there are a few of us out there providing resources for people of color. Regardless of what you turn to for wellness, it’s definitely important for us to prioritize ourselves as we are trying to navigate this busy life in this busy world that we live in.

Nicole is a freelance writer published in The New York Times, AARP, Woman’s Day, Parade, Men’s Journal, Wired, Emmy Magazine, and more. Keep up with her adventures on Twitter at @nicolepajer.

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