Tiff McFierce Says Wellness’s Race Problem Is Just As Bad As It’s Always Been

Photo: Courtesy of Aerie / Andrew Buda
Tiff McFierce loves vision boards. She keeps one in her bedroom by her bed, one in the back of her journal, and a digital version on her phone, she tells me via Zoom. It’s one way the DJ and #AerieREAL ambassador works to manifest a world she’d like to live in.
The other way is through tireless action. McFierce was the first female in-house DJ at Madison Square Garden, and is a self-proclaimed “disruptor.” She has her own wellness brand Look IN vs. Lookin’, which hosts nationwide events focused on self-care, music, movement, and connection with others. One of her goals is to emphasize that wellness is for everyone, not just white, skinny, wealthy women. On Instagram, she uses the hashtag #TiffTalk to further drive thoughtful conversations about culture, wellness, and inclusivity. All of her work shares the goal of creating a space of acceptance, where people of all races, sexualities, and genders can feel like they belong.
McFierce is a change-maker in the wellness industry, which has a long history of being exclusive. We had a candid conversation about health, race, and her vision for making the world a kinder place.
Refinery29: You call yourself a disruptor. What does that mean to you?
Tiff McFierce: “Yes, I’ve been disrupting stuff since 1996. I’ve always been someone to speak up when I see something that’s not right. That’s what I’m good at. And disruptors all over the world, like Representative John Lewis who just passed, have shown us that it's not a bad thing. It literally can save people’s lives.”
What’s one of your earliest memories of disrupting for good?
“Probably middle school and high school. I dealt with depression as a child, but I still was popular. I danced and was on the cheerleading team. But I could see kids who I knew were going through it because I knew that same struggle internally. People would make fun of them, and I was just one of those girls who wouldn’t stand for it. I had to say, ‘That’s not cool.’
“Another thing that comes to mind: When I was growing up in the Bronx, for a long time there was no garbage can on my block near the bus stop, even though there were garbage cans everywhere elsewhere in the city. I made a thing of it. I was like, ‘This is insane.’ I called my local council. I was 14. And I got it done, I got more garbage cans put up. It didn’t feel like disrupting at the time, but looking back on it now, I’ve really always been like this.”
You’ve had your own brand in the wellness space for years now. As a Black woman in an industry that notoriously lacks diversity, have you seen things become any more inclusive over the years? Or less?
“In my experience — I can’t speak for every single person — everything is pretty much the same. The only difference has been other Black people making this space [their own]. People like myself. For example, with what I do with my wellness brand Look IN Vs. Lookin’. That’s a project where I intentionally made space because there is no space.
“But for the most part, things are still marketed the way they’re marketed. Nothing has changed. No one has taken the time. Hopefully, as the world is changing, people are seeing that wellness is not just for one kind of person. To exclude people from spaces — when they breathe just like you — it’s mind-boggling. “
Photo: Courtesy of Aerie / Andrew Buda
What about the wellness industry do you wish would be disrupted?
“I wish there wasn’t a status of, ‘You need to look like this to be well.’ You shouldn't need to be a certain size, or have a certain skin colour, or be a certain gender to fit in here. We’re all souls having a human experience, so I think that people should just be welcomed as they are.
“I also wish wellness were more accessible to young Black kids, and young people of colour. I’d like them to see themselves in the industry, so that they can feel like they belong. People need to make things accessible. What I've seen in this industry is that there’s really a ‘mean girls table.’ How did being well become that? How did we get there? I hope that changes and people can see that this is for everyone and no one should be excluded.
“The other thing that needs to change: You cannot colonize things that aren’t yours. People need to stop making it seem like you need to have the best leggings to come to yoga. Or the best mat. Yoga is from India, and Egypt. It’s for everyone, not just people who can afford it.
“In general, I want to change the notion that you need things to be 'well.' Everything I do in my work is to show you that you are ‘the tool.’ Utilize yourself. Support is great, and community is too, but you don’t need some matching outfit or a particular product. You need the will to want to ascend. You need to want to be present.
“That’s why at Look IN vs. Lookin’, I’m not even giving you any thing; you’re giving you everything. I’m just setting a space with music, movement, and meditation that makes you feel supported.
“I also think about intersectionality in my work. You have to think about it because people are dealing with a lot. Not being accepted, not accepting themselves. People need space and need to feel empowerment. Then, they can start to take care of themselves and be well and that helps everyone as a collective.”
You bring up a big frustration I have with the industry: that we’re always being marketed some product that will allegedly make us happier or more well. Do you think that the industry puts pressure on people to always be feeling their best?
“You’re not going to be happy all the time. That’s just not how life works. You’ve seen that lately. Everybody is dealing with a pandemic. None of us have done this before. We were not here when the Great Depression or the Black Plague was happening. So it’s important to give people space, and allow them to show up as they are.
“People can give themselves more grace if they see that they don’t have to be positive to participate [in wellness]. That’s the point in trying out breathwork or going to a virtual yoga class. Because you know you need to feel better. I don’t always feel great when I step on my mat, but that’s why I do it.
“And when I do it, I think, ‘Thank God I did that.’ And people need to know that. The thing is: If you’re able to move your body, move it. Because it’s such a medicine.”
I like how much you emphasize the importance of giving people space to be accepted for who they are. Was there a moment when you felt you really accepted yourself? How did you get there? 
“I think you’ll experience self-acceptance rebirths multiple times over your life. I was having a conversation with a close friend the other night, and thought, ‘Wow, I really am acceptant of myself.’ All of it. The different layers and colors and sides.
‘I also had a moment of self-love when I started speaking out more about issues that matter to me through my work with Look IN and with Aerie. Especially as a Black woman, if you speak up about things, there are all these societal constructs and systems that try to stop you from doing so. But once I started to not care if someone thought that I was bossy because I was asking them to spell my name right in a press release, that made a difference. Those were moments of accepting my path in life.
“It’s very freeing to love [yourself]. Then there’s no, ‘Well, maybe I shouldn’t.’ You’re just moving with purpose. You’re doing things that help marginalized people. That help yourself. And that help the world.”
After the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, many brands — within and outside of the wellness industry — talked a lot about what they’d do to confront racism within their own companies. Now, months later, how can we continue to hold people and brands accountable to the promises they made in early June?
“I think it’s important to call people out and make them uncomfortable. We need to ask where this allotted money all these people said they were donating is going. We need to be following up, sending emails. Still calling, petitioning, protesting.
“And sometimes, the best thing for us to do is to look around in our own lives. We want to dismantle the systems, which we need to, but we also have to dismantle [racism] in ourselves. In your work life, in your personal life, you need to have those conversations that are deemed ‘uncomfortable.’ Or seen as ‘not appropriate for the dinner table.’ People need to continue to have those talks because real change takes a long time.
“[It’s also essential to] watch what you do in everyday life. Are you engaging in microaggressions? Because that contributes to systemic racism. Are you thinking or saying things about people and feeding that fire of racism and white supremacy? Do not shy away from the fact that Black people are murdered for sport, and nothing is done about it. Everyone needs to show up for that. If you know that you are not really engaged in this, just know what side of humanity you stand on.
“Racism isn’t also something where we need to just say, ‘Oh, I’m sorry.’ We’ve got to fight. Everybody has to stop it, including people in power, people who benefit from not having to worry about microaggressions and the way our systems are set up.
“Education is key, and that is one way people can keep doing the work. There are books you can read, educators you can follow or listen to. Racism is deep-rooted into things like global warming and food insecurity. Think about where people live, how you make them live, and how you set things up. Racism is everywhere.”
Photo: Courtesy of Aerie / Andrew Buda
You talk a lot about gratitude, and that's one facet of wellness I sometimes struggle with. I know there are so many research-backed benefits to feeling grateful, but it’s difficult during the pandemic — and also when disheartening news comes out detailing racist acts and deaths like Breonna Taylor’s. Do you have any advice? How do you manage to stay grateful on awful days?
“The first thing I do is allow myself to feel the feeling, because I can’t push it down. I allow myself to feel the sadness, and the constant trauma of watching people like me die in my body. I allow myself to say, ‘This is making me angry. I’m upset.’ I allow myself to cry if I need to, and to speak up.
“And then, I remember that Breonna Taylor is me. She was working two jobs. An essential worker, somebody who was really trying to live her life. I just try to remind myself that if I’m still breathing in here [puts hand on heart], I have to be grateful for that. Because I can carry on what these people couldn’t.
“And it’s hard. It bothers me every day. It’s not a nice thing to see people suffer. But I stay grateful because I’m still here. I have people who love me. I have a purpose. I feel it and release it. I say things out loud, like, ‘I’m grateful to have a glass of water.’ It sounds weird, but it works. Because there are days when I don’t feel grateful. There are days when I’m like ‘this world is really shitty.’ But you have to say it, and remember why you're here.”
This interview has been clarified and condensed for length.

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