Alison Mariella Désir, a mental health coach and founder of Harlem Run and Run 4 All Black Women, found long-distance running to be a salve for her deteriorating mental and physical health during a particularly difficult period in her life. Running While Black (Portfolio, Oct.) chronicles her fitness journey and provides a history of running, a sport built by and for white people, she says.
“It’s a memoir about what it’s like to be Black women in a white supremacist society navigating white spaces, including the long-distance running space,” Désir says. “This book has been inside me my entire life, but seeing Ahmaud Arbery get murdered for doing something as mundane as going for a jog made me realize that this narrative of running being ‘for everyone’ is untrue.”
This exclusion of Black runners is intentional, she argues: Black people have been systematically removed from public recreation. Désir outlines that history, and concludes with two calls to action. “If running wasn’t made ‘for us,’ what can individuals and the industry do to correct that?” she asks. “I also ask other Black and Brown readers to join me in the outdoors.”
Désir is one of several authors whose forthcoming books address often unquestioned narratives about health, wellness, and fitness.
Un-wellness industrial complex
Wellness culture—juice cleanses, SoulCycle classes, self-care—is making us sick, several authors argue. In Who Is Wellness For? (Harper Wave, June), novelist Fariha Róisín examines the appropriation and corruption of Eastern spiritual practices for Western audiences. “The wellness industrial complex operates under the idea that we can be in relationships with one another that are devoid of real human connection between ourselves and the earth,” Roisin said in a q&a with PW. “We’re relying on capitalism, on things, to fill a space for us so we don’t have to confront what it means to be here with one another and share space and be on this planet together. I think it’s a pretty new thing for a lot of people, to confront how disconnected we are.”
The Gospel of Wellness by Rina Raphael (Holt, Sept.) eviscerates the wellness industry and examines its gendered expectations. “Wellness is individualistic, consumerist, optimistic; it’s uniquely American,” says the former Fast Company reporter. “A lot of women turn to wellness for solutions—and control.” (For our q&a with Raphael, see “False Promises”)
In Yoga as Resistance (Watkins, June), Stacie Graham, yogi and DEI consultant, outlines practical steps that yoga practitioners and studios need to take to move toward equity and inclusion. The idea for such a book had been sitting with Graham for years—she is the founder of OYA, a wellness company that hosts curated yoga retreats for Black women—but the racial uprisings of 2020 solidified her intentions of reaching a broader audience. “I talk to practitioners, teachers, teacher trainers, studio owners, brands,” she says. “It gives people models for how to work more inclusively and with transparency. We don’t have to accept things as they are; we can create a future we cannot imagine yet.”
Yoga instructor and wellness activist Kerri Kelly’s American Detox (North South, June) is a clarion call for those participating in wellness culture to take a hard look at their role in upholding oppressive systems. Kelly found solace in the wellness space after the death of her stepfather on 9/11.
“The wellness industry was the end-all be-all: it promised that I could be better, stronger, healthier, more whole, and more confident,” she says. “As I went deeper, what I found was that entrenched within wellness were the very things that wellness was purporting to address: privilege and lack of access, cultural appropriation and theft, a centering of whiteness, the demonization of fatness and fat bodies, and the praise of deprivation—and a whitewashing of politics, of any analysis of privilege and oppression.”
The book is a personal reckoning, one that examines her own complicities in the industry. “With a crusader’s spirit and an activist’s mindset, Kelly joins a bounty of historical, sociological, and medical evidence in an informed understanding of how injustices intersect under the banner of wellness,” PW’s review said. But it’s also an invitation to reimagine wellness as a collective practice, and it offers concrete ways in which to do so.
“I don’t care how many juice fasts and yoga fads and vegan meals and hybrid cars you drive,” Kelly says. “We need to politicize wellness. We can’t just prescribe meditation to solve racism, or do ecotourism to solve global poverty. We actually have to create the shared conditions that are needed for people to get what they need to be well—not just for some of us to be well, but for all of us to be well.”
Other books focus on the shortcomings, bigotry, and cruelties of the American health system.
Beatrice Adler-Bolton and Artie Vierkant are activists and cohosts of the Death Panel podcast, which covers healthcare, economic inequality, and social justice. In Health Communism (Verso, Oct.), the pair make an anti-capitalist case for better public health. They draw from disability justice, women of color feminism, socialism, and queer studies, and argue that the value of a human life should not be dependent on its ability to be productive under extractive capitalism. Instead, they suggest, improvements in affordable public housing, clean water, quality education, safe labor conditions, and nutritious food will all lead to better public health outcomes. They also offer snapshots from movements around the world that have successfully challenged this status quo.
Physician Gabor Maté dissects how chronic illness and general ill health are on the rise in Western countries in The Myth of Normal (Avery, Sept.). He claims that Western medicine often fails to treat the whole person, ignores how consumerist culture stresses the body, burdens the immune system, and undermines emotional balance.
Eating While Black by Psyche A. Williams-Forson (Univ. of North Carolina, Aug.) advances the dialogue around eating and race. In the book, Williams-Forson, professor of American studies at the University of Maryland, shows how mass media, nutrition science, economics, and public policy influence ideas about Blackness and health, and speaks to those in nutrition and medical professions, among others, on the need to celebrate food as the nexus for the cultural transmission, belonging, and survival of Black culture.
New York Times Magazine writer Linda Villarosa has covered the intersections between race and health throughout her career. Her latest book, Under the Skin (Doubleday, June), examines the causes and consequences of the racial health gap in America and “delivers a passionate call for equality in the American medical system,” PW’s starred review said. “The result is an urgent and utterly convincing must-read.”
Villarosa had assumed that a lack of healthcare was the main problem in America; writing the book complicated this notion. “So often, it’s not about the healthcare system itself—it’s about what happens to you in the society that is making you sicker,” she says. “Having a clinic will not necessarily help the people if there’s no other infrastructure, and there’s pollution, and there’s lack of safety and a lack of jobs. A lot of the legislation to remedy some of this is hospital-based or medical-system-based. But that can’t be the only answer, because people are living sicker lives and dying earlier, before they even get to the system.”
Amanda Martinez Beck, a fat activist, says the title of her book More of You (Broadleaf, May) is “an imperative”: “It’s permission to be your full self, no matter the size of your body. We live in a culture that tells women in particular or female presenting people, ‘Be smaller, be quieter, don’t take up space or air in the room.’ But we need more of you in the room. Be the person you were before all the diet culture messages got to you.”
Beck identifies four levels of fat liberation: “The first is personal, where you start with your inward look,” she says. “The second is interpersonal, in the relationships in your life. The third is community-based, whether that be through faith communities or workplaces”—she has worked in Christian spaces and includes this ethos in her approach—“and the fourth is systemic.”
For each level, Beck offers tools to help, including scripts for a weight-neutral doctor’s visit, tips on finding self-love, and direction in advocating for equality and justice for fat women’s medical care. Throughout, PW’s starred review said, her “life-affirming attitude, no-nonsense style, and mantras of self-love (‘I have the right to take up space,’ ‘My body is a trustworthy storyteller’) make this a superlative volume.”
In Health for Everyone (Rowman & Littlefield, June), Zackery Berger—a primary care doctor, internist, epidemiologist, bioethicist and professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine—brings together teachers, clinicians, advocates, and researchers to manifest a more progressive healthcare system for those who need it the most.
“I believe we need systemic change in a revolutionary way; we can’t do things the way we’ve been doing them,” he says. “But as a clinician, I also know people that need health now. The tension between change in the future and the need for change now motivated the need to get expertise from different people.”
The book, Berger says, offers actionable recommendations and is hopeful in tone. “If you find yourself trying to figure out how best to get people care or whom to vote for or which group to ally yourself with when advocating, this book provides a good road map. This moment is frustrating and tragic, but also promising. We need organizations outside of failing government systems to create real change. If all of these books, and the people reading them, can forge that kind of organization, that will be a success.”
Pooja Makhijani is a writer and editor in New Jersey.
Read more from our Health Books feature:
False Promises: PW Talks with Rina Raphael
The author of The Gospel of Wellness (Holt, Sept.) spoke with PW about gender, the commodification of health, and America’s long history of snake oil salespeople.
Ordinary Men: Health Books 2022
New books address restrictive notions of masculinity and promote health in an expansive and inclusive way.