Inclusivity - Not Just Celebrating but Catering
I have been working in the health and fitness industry for over ten years and in that time I have seen some really positive shifts towards marginalised groups being recognised, however, the message is all too easily lost as campaigns designed to welcome those who felt previously excluded from the wellness world get taken over by big brands or those who are financially motivated or looking for a unique selling point.
It’s wonderful to see well known companies and fitness leaders starting to use models who represent greater diversity, but they are always serving us extremes, taking us further from being comfortable with the broad differences we all display along wide spectrums and making it harder to normalise anything or anyone. The holy grail of those on a journey towards physical, spiritual and mental wellness is the concept of balance, but balance doesn’t sell… excess does.
On the day that I can pick up a health themed magazine and see bodies that are medium sized instead of only small or large, faces that are plain instead of only beautifully symmetrical or with unusual features, eating and exercise regimes that are sustainable and seasonable instead of time limited and reductionist I will know that the true message of inclusivity has arrived.
Inclusivity is about embracing distinctiveness, not simply showing it. I see plus size models on Instagram promoting yoga leggings and I’m thrilled their voices are being represented, but why are we still calling someone who’s body is the average dress size “plus” and why at a UK size 12-14 can I still not find a decent pair of leggings that are slim enough on the legs but loose enough on the waist?
To fully be inclusive, it’s not enough to show different sizes, races, sexualities, sexes and genders, we have to actually cater for the diversity all around us by diversifying our offering. It’s not easy, imagine going to the theatre and having different prices tickets based on earnings, a variety of different seat sizes and heights, free binoculars and in the interval being able to use any bathroom all of which having baby changing facilities. You can see why it’s hard for businesses to be truly inclusive, it’s simply not cost effective. It’s much more efficient to cater for the majority, but it’s also apathetic and discriminatory, as is the fact that we all walk around every day, accepting that large swathes of the population aren’t getting their needs met.
It’s no longer enough to acknowledge differences, it’s not even enough to say we celebrate them, that’s an attitude of tolerance. We now need to fully cater for our differences, to embrace and normalise the idea of there being no “normal”. If you lined up every human on the planet, you would see a full spectrum of skin tones, not just black, brown and white, you would see a full spectrum of gender expression, not just feminine and masculine, you would see bodies of every shape and size. We are all gloriously, uniquely perfect and everyone deserves to feel represented. This doesn’t even start to look at the differences we all have that can’t be seen from the outside, those I’ll save for another article!
We are all responsible for taking the next few steps towards creating a community that has equality and visibility at its core, where we are honest about the deep set subconscious prejudices we like to believe we have overcome and rise to the daily task of self acceptance. Whilst we still search for products and practices to change our appearance, to make us happier, more energetic, richer, darker, paler, to help us bulk or slim, big brands will still sell us the message that we need to change. You don’t need anything other that what’s already inside of you, the true work is learning to unlock your own potential instead of seeking a guru or potion to do it for you.
I’m not saying I’ve managed to transcend all my insecurities, I grew up in the same media pressured world you did, I find myself worrying about how I look, how healthy I am and what other people think of me, but these thoughts are ones I recognise as unproductive. I no longer let them rule my choices and I know I’m on the path to being less attached, to making my wellness activities centred around actually being well, with any aesthetic outcomes simply being the side effects. Learn to work with your natural state, not against it. Once you’ve mastered that, it’ll be infinitely easier to work with everyone else's natural state too.
8 Ways to Embrace Inclusivity
Lose the Labels
As soon as we give ourselves or someone else a label we are putting them in a box. Labels are limiting, they hold us back and act as self fulfilling prophecies. At school I was labelled “naughty and disruptive” so I left school at 16 to pursue a vocation believing I wasn’t academic. At 34 I decided to embark upon a 5 year integrated bachelors and masters degree, it took me almost 20 years to break free of those childhood labels. As a teenager, everyone asked whether I had a boyfriend, when I started dating women it took me years to get the courage to tell people I wasn’t “straight”. My first girlfriend then told me because I had dated men I wasn’t “gay”. Now people do call me “gay” because I’ve only been in love with women for as long as they’ve know me, personally I don’t feel gay, straight, bisexual or pansexual, I just feel the love for my partner. I’m not offended by any of the labels, but in the past they have made me feel boxed in. If you are called fat, thin, depressed, scatty, butch, pretty over and over again, it becomes hardwired as a reality in your mind, these labels become identities we cling to, for better or worse. The routine handing out and taking away of labels is a method of control and no person has the right to control another. Set yourself free, let go of labels from the past and open up the endless possibilities of evolution and choice, everything in nature is in a constant state of flux.
Think Beyond your Own Experiences
Fearing the unknown is an age old feature of human nature, it’s easy to allow what you don’t understand or can’t relate with to turn into something that feel suspicious, doubtful or uncomfortable. The solution to this is to broaden your horizons, try some activities you wouldn’t normally do, travel somewhere where people live differently, read as many books as possible. Recently I was discussing how the local news had been getting me down, so I had switched to watching Al Jazeera to get a more global perspective, I was met with the response “Be careful, you might get persuaded into something dangerous watching that, are you becoming religious?”. This opinion was born out of fear, fueled by ignorance, on this person having never watched Al Jazeera but assuming a Middle Eastern news channel would be promoting terrorism or religious extremism. Are British news channels so flexible in their viewpoints, so impartial and groundbreaking as to be above judgement? Without opening yourself to a broad range of experiences, you will be blind to the prejudices many face and it’s pretty much impossible to be inclusive of those who suffer plights you haven’t give yourself the chance to see.
Respond Rather than React
This point ties in very closely with the one above, when we are stuck in thought patterns that revolve purely around our own beliefs and experiences it’s easy to become defensive when those ideas are challenged. Feeling defensive leads us to react rather than respond, it causes a knee jerk backlash and this survival mechanism shuts down our ability to truly listen. Listening is pivotal to being able to effectively respond, it gives you the time to be present, mindful and consider what you’re faced with. Studies have shown that if we reply too quickly our unconscious minds take over, which could result in opinions and prejudices that we were conditioned to think when younger come forwards. As we get older, become more educated and discover different walks of life, our viewpoints have the chance to expand, if you take a little longer to reply, just a few milliseconds longer, your conscious mind can override your unconscious, therefore leading you to respond thoughtfully, instead of reacting defensively. The old trick of taking a deep breath before replying really does work!
Make no Assumptions
You might have the very best intentions to be welcoming and accepting of everyone, but you can’t assume to know exactly what they need. When we put ourselves in a position of leadership, it can quickly create a culture of giving instead of asking, as we feel the pressure to look after others. To effectively look after the needs of others, we need them to tell us what those needs are, otherwise we might be inadvertently holding them back. When I first graduated as a yoga teacher, I learnt a very valuable lesson when I had a student book me for some private sessions because she was too embarrassed to attend group classes. She was a larger lady on a waiting list for a gastric bypass, I hadn’t experienced being that size before, I tried too hard to cater for what I thought her needs were and in that process I ended up giving her a class that was far too easy, which I found out at the end of the session, when I asked how it had felt and and she said it had been quite basic. The following week when she came I ramped up the session and she was giggling with glee all class at the joy of movement and I was so grateful to have learnt to stop making assumptions, but that student didn’t deserve to teach me that at the expense of their experience, I was supposed to be the teacher. I vowed to never again micromanage my students experiences or give them imaginary boundaries.
Notice Your Subliminal Surroundings
Spend some time looking around your life, are you surrounded by diversity? Do you watch programmes and read books that represent people from different walks of life? Do you have friends, colleagues and teachers from a range of backgrounds? Do you listen to music from a variety of genres and really pay attention to the lyrics? We are receiving subliminal messages all the time from our surroundings, what we submerge ourselves in we get influenced by. If you walk down the street and see only faces that look like yours, you get your news from social media which is moulded to reinforce your current opinions by clever algorithms and then meet up with friends with whom you share common interests, what or who is challenging your polarised views? You might think of yourself as being open minded, but to legitimately open your mind you have to open up your surroundings.
Commit to Expanding your Network
To take some steps towards overcoming the effects of your subliminal surroundings outlined above, make a commitment to expanding your network. If you normally attend certain classes at the gym or your yoga studio, try going to some at different times, at different levels, with different teachers. Watch a different news channel for a week, attend workshops in topics you wouldn’t normally study. Recently I decided to go to a beatbox workshop, it was so far out of my comfort zone! I traveled to the other side of my city which was an unusual experience in itself, I met a group of people I wouldn’t normally hang out with in my working week and I had a great time. I left feeling inspired and wanting to step outside of my bubble more frequently, Yes, it was scary and awkward, but it reminded me how often people might feel scared and awkward when they first come to my classes.
Acknowledge Even When you Don’t Understand
You don’t have to understand someone to welcome them! We can be on opposite sides of a debate and still have compassion and acceptance for each other, which will only serve to better enable us to actively listen to each others viewpoints. Let people know you have heard what they have to say, that you are processing it and giving it time to settle and this will encourage them to do the same with your ideas. Acknowledge that everyone has a valid perspective, because all that matters is perception. Perception creates an individual's reality, you might not understand it, but for them it’s part of their truth. Life isn’t about convincing everyone to think just like you, it’s about enjoying the diversity all around us, learning and sharing and being part of that diversity instead of smoothing it out.
Empower Others Whenever Possible
The idea of empowerment has become something of a buzzword lately, it’s great to have this notion in your mind, but how do we really put it into practice? Empowerment is more than just giving praise and acceptance, it’s also helping people to unlock their innate skills, to forge their own path, to know when to share our own knowledge and when to get out of the way. If we manage, offer or enable too much we’re no longer empowering, we’re spoon feeding. If we don’t give enough we aren’t nurturing, it’s all about finding the balance between giving encouragement and freedom. Let people be in charge of their own journey, be mindful of back seat driving and never stop questioning your own methods. If teaching has taught me anything, it’s that students can be the greatest source of knowledge if you step down from your pedestal. Let’s lift each other up and stop worrying about whether we’re at the top of the pile, that person you just let stand on your shoulders is now in the perfect position to pull you up.