Comment: Defining queer wellness

Chloe Freeman explains why the health and wellness industry urgently needs to start addressing the particular needs of the LGBTQ+ community.

Chloe Freeman is the founder of queer wellness company For Them.

‘Wellness’ has become an untrustworthy word. And for good reason. Besides the fact that it now feels synonymous with privilege, excessive wealth and unattainable goals, there doesn't seem to be an inclusive, vibrant, gender-expansive space within it for folks like me to feel seen, heard and celebrated. How is it possible that a $4.5 trillion industry is so narrowly defined, seemingly catering to only one type of person, with only one type of need? 

Despite my feelings about the word ‘wellness’, I wasn't ready to throw it away. I felt that it needed to be redefined with my own community in mind. How has wellness become what it is today? I had to unpack it. 

When you Google ‘wellness’, online dictionary Lexico defines it as ‘the state of being in good health, especially as an actively pursued goal’. When the wellness industry tells you to buy this, eat that, don't eat that, feel like this, look like that, it's relying on your active pursuit of this goal. 

But what is this singular goal? Can it possibly be true that we all share one common health goal, or do these goals differ for each human? And how can we fully reflect the diversity of the human experience within wellness if the vast majority of investors are focused on funding one type of wellness journey?

Perhaps this is why the current wellness space has a new untested, unprompted product for you to buy every couple of days (unisex sweatsuits, adaptogenic toothpaste, ‘raw’ water). Because it's not really listening to what you need; it's looking at this singular vision of health, dangling it in front of you, manipulating you into thinking that you lack something that only it can offer. This is the first trap of the wellness space as it stands, and no human – despite their race, gender or sexuality – is free from it. 

However, there's something to be said about wellness as it relates to queerness. The queer community is often neglected or on the receiving end of the worst parts of this health-minded goal manipulation. Queer, gender-expansive, gender-fluid, trans and non-binary folks are unfortunately consistently an afterthought when it comes to health and wellness products and services. 

Because for queer folks to feel well (and properly well, not just like ‘Oh you're offering me gender-neutral makeup? Cool’), we're going to need a bit more than what's currently on offer – like a seat at the table to communicate our health and wellness needs. 

This is the structure I sought to create with my own business. I offer all queer folks a voice in deciding what wellness means to them. The strategy is simple: we listen to the community and we build products and services that are actually needed – whether that's something you can wear, something you can apply or something else.

The biggest misconception that I heard from my community was the idea that they rejected wellness because they didn't want to invest in their health, or because they weren't willing to buy high-quality products. Rather, they were trying to communicate that gender-expansiveness isn't merely another trend for the wellness space to occupy. They demanded to know why there's only one type of chest binder on the market – one that irritates their skin and makes it hard to breathe – while cis women have access to multiple brands, colors, materials and types of intimate apparel. It's not that there isn't a demand for queer wellness; it's that traditional wellness brands weren't listening or weren't interested in the problems that exist outside of the binary. 

Now when I use the word ‘wellness’, it encompasses mind, body and community. When I say ‘body’, it's not just the physical body, but the expression of that body – the identity, agency and autonomy. To allow these inner and outer dimensions to work together to create ultimate wellness, we need to listen and hold space for one another. We need to listen to folks when they tell us who they are and what they need, which means ultimately doing away with a one-size-fits-all solution and becoming curious, open and invested in examining other solutions. I see a few brands across industries doing this well, such as cosmetics brand Fluide, hormone therapy company Plume and the Lex social app.

I'm not naive to the fact that, although I'm talking about wellness, I could easily switch it out for ‘society’, or ‘capitalism’, or perhaps even ‘the world as we currently know it to be’. I can only apologize if that sounds bleak or pessimistic, but as a black, queer, non-binary founder attempting to innovate in the wellness space, I've had to unpack the word ‘wellness’ from the perspective of three marginalized subgroups, and what I can say is that nothing exists within a vacuum. The wellness industry is a mere leaf on a whole tree that, at its core, is rotten and capitalistic in all of the same ways. I can't solve all of the world's problems, but I can start with just one leaf.

This article was first published in Courier issue 45, February/March 2022. To purchase the issue or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.

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