Watershed events and conditions of 2020—George Floyd’s death and resulting protests, increased societal awareness of racial inequities, Zoom culture, COVID-19 and its shutdowns—combined to create both the creative space and sense of urgency where Toshiana Baker knew the time had come to create an organization dedicated to supporting multiculturalism in the spa and wellness professions.

“[2020] created an incubator where it really just confirmed over and over and over again, for me, do it now,” Baker told MASSAGE Magazine.

The Network of Multi-Cultural Spa and Wellness Professionals (NMSWP), formed by Baker in early 2021, intends to support multiethnic and multicultural health care professionals with education and other resources. The group is now seeking founding members.

Diversity is Lacking

In her spa-and-wellness career, Baker found that true diversity and inclusion are lacking. Baker has worked in spas as an esthetician and educator for 15-plus years and also founded SpaWorx, a spa-and-wellness business consulting firm.

Toshiana Baker

Multiethnic and multicultural people are underrepresented in the spa and wellness arenas for several reasons, said Baker, reasons that include systemic racism that has resulted in too few accredited schools capable of providing student loans in geographic areas that are home to multiethnic and multicultural peoples. This has created a dearth of professionals from diverse backgrounds capable of reaching back into their communities and serving as mentors, educators and guides, she added.

NMSWP founding member Sherrie Tennessee, principal educator for SPA SOS, program director of the Hospital and Tourism Management Program at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, former director of spa and wellness at Mandarin Oriental Group, and former education manager at Sandals Resorts, pointed out that diversity exists in some capacity in the spa-and-wellness field; however, it becomes diluted the further up the management ladder one looks.

“When you go in at that entry-level position … you do have a lot of diversity when you walk through the door,” Tennessee said. “But as you work your way up through management and in those senior-level positions, the diversity ends.”

Sherrie Tennessee

A report on demographics of salon and spa managers in the U.S., released in January by career-research and job-search company ZIPPIA, indicates that 73% of salon and spa managers are white, 12.7 are Hispanic or Latino, 5.6% are Black and .5% are American Indian and Alaska Native. (2.25 are “unknown.”) These statistics have remained virtually unchanged over the past decade, the report noted.

In the massage therapy profession, 68.3 percent of practitioners are white, 15.4% are Hispanic or Latino, 9.2% are Asian, 4.8 percent are Black, 0.5% are American Indian and Alaska Native. (1.8% are “unknown”), according to ZIPPIA.

Further perpetuating this trend, Baker said, the spa-and-esthetics model in the U.S. is based on a Eurocentric (white) model of beauty. “And so, subliminally or subconsciously, that sends messages to people who are not that that, ‘you don’t belong,’ said Baker. “You know, a ‘we’re not talking to you, this isn’t for you’ kind of thing—and so we’ve had to overcome that subliminal, subconscious messaging, where there’s not representation and the standard of beauty is skewed.”

That skewing of beauty shows up in ads for spas, retreats, yoga classes and skin-care products that rely on images of thin, young, white women to make the sale. A Forbes report in 2019 showed that of more than 1,000 adults surveyed in the U.S., 59% of whites feel represented in advertising. That number dropped to 26% of Black people, 10% of Hispanics and 3% of Asians.

Beyond advertising, lack of diversity shows up in board rooms and other spaces in the spa-and-wellness industry where decisions are made, said Tennessee.

“I’ve seen it firsthand that, when I walk into a room, I am not the one that you imagine as the co-owner of an organic spa. I’m not the one that you imagine as the director of education for Red Lane Spa at Sandals. I am most certainly not the face that you imagine as the director of spa and wellness from Mandarin Oriental,” she said.

“When I would walk into the spa meetings and it would be spa directors from all over the D.C., Maryland, Virginia area, and there’s two of us in the room,” Tennessee added, “we have to have more of a conversation—so that individuals don’t get stuck at that entry level or they don’t get discouraged by the lack of diversity, by the subtle racism that does happen in the spa industry.”

Access is Key

When Baker spoke of NMSWP’s goals, it was access to education, information and opportunities she pointed to as essential for multiethnic and multicultural health care professionals to have in order to succeed. NMSWP will meet this need, initially, with monthly video trainings and interviews with experts and vendor resources.

“We’re going back to help feed the profession talent—but then once we’re feeding the profession talent, [we will get people] through whatever their school programs are, helping them once they finish that benchmark so that they have longevity in their careers, and fulfillment,” Baker said.

Her goal is to have enough members by the end of 2021 to begin working with schools on outreach to increase educational opportunities for people from diverse multiethnic and multicultural backgrounds.

Why should people want to join NMSWP? Founding member Victoria Prince, creative founder of Tori Prince Beauty LLC, and a National Coalition of Estheticians Association-certified esthetician, said it can be discouraging to work in the spa-and-wellness field and not know of opportunities available, and that NMSWP meets that need.

Victoria Prince

“You really have to kind of dig around or, you know, find a coach, or mentor, or someone that could help you,” Prince said. “And it’s not so easy. In school, it is something you’ve not been taught about on that level. So this organization, I think, is important because it does all of those things.”

According to Baker, the group serves as a network providing mentorship, education and expertise from wellness-and-spa professionals, like herself, Tennessee and Prince, to bridge the gap between school and running a business.

Prince said she has pursued opportunities that didn’t always feel comfortable, such as when she was the only person of color on a presentation panel. “My goal is to always, you know, push that envelope, and push that ceiling, and to get in those places, even if it’s just me—and to say, ‘Hey, it’s possible. And it’s not as hard as you think. It’s not impossible.’”

See Differences

A reporter asked Baker about the common refrains among massage and spa professionals of “I love everyone,” “Everyone is just a person no matter what ethnicity they are” and “I don’t see color.”

That sort of statement, she said, is wrapped in white privilege, “because you’ve never had to be something, especially something visually identifiable, that provides people with the ability to prejudge or pre-determine your level of capability, your level of capacity, your level of success, how you speak, how you walk, how you talk.”

Instead, said Baker, she encourages even the most well-meaning person to relate to her authentically and acknowledge differences.

“See my color, because in seeing my color, you see my experience as a Black woman,” she said. “So if you’re colorblind and you’re a well-intentioned, well-meaning person, what serves me in the most loving and supportive way is for you to see my color, because then you see the experience that I had as a result of that particular identity.”

Race is not the sole component of any person’s identity—which is why, Baker said, she uses the terms multicultural and multiethnic rather focusing on the popular phrase, “people of color.” All people from all cultures—racial, LGBTQ, geographic—are welcome in the NMSWP, she said, and all cultural differences are important.

“How do we become culturally sensitive and emotionally intelligent around these differences? We can’t keep saying, ‘I don’t see it,’ do you know what I mean?” said Baker. “‘I don’t see color, I don’t see gender, everyone is the same’—you can’t because that person’s experience never gets seen for what it is—and then, do we truly serve and help them if we’re not seeing them based on what their experience of life is?”

In addition to the basic morality inherent in acknowledging and supporting multiculturalism, the changing demographics in the U.S. support the idea that diversity is good business as well. Between 1980 and 2020, the white demographic declined by 10%, according to the Brookings Institution, even while the overall U.S. population grew by 6.3% between 2010 and 2019. We are a diverse nation of many cultures and ethnicities—and so why wouldn’t a massage, spa or wellness business reflect diversity in both employees and clientele?

“Those in the spa-and-wellness field need to be about the business of better preparing and supporting multicultural and multiethnic healers and practitioners across all disciplines to better serve the multiethnic and multicultural client,” Baker said. “Anything less is incongruent and inauthentic.”

Learn more about the Network of Multi-Cultural Spa and Wellness Professionals here.

About the Author

Karen Menehan is MASSAGE Magazine’s editor in chief-print and digital. She has edited or reported for Imagine Magazine, the Sacramento Bee and Mid-County Post newspapers and more. Her recent articles for MASSAGE Magazine include “Connect with the Benefits of Nature for Self-Care,” “A Timeline of Massage Events that Shaped the Field, 1985–2020” and “A Move to Transcend State Boundaries: Interstate Compact for Massage Therapists Now Underway.”