Industry consultant and self-claimed ‘wellness passionista’, Rianna Riego, believes the Black Lives Matter movement has reawakened society to the reality of a system that still discriminates on the basis of colour, gender, age and religion – and the spa industry is no exception.
“Being a darker-skinned female and immigrant from a third world country, my career path in the US has been ‘coloured’ with many stories of bias and discrimination,” Riego told Spa Business.
“These experiences, unfortunately, at times included my beloved spa industry, which prides itself on being a diverse tribe of professionals. My personal experience of bias has tended to be subtle and part of the power dynamics within a company, but other incidents were very obvious.”
For example, after 20 years of experience opening, operating, designing and rebranding spas and wellness facilities Riego had the opportunity to be the face and voice of a brand that she helped envision and develop. “I was surprised to hear that some of the ownership weren’t comfortable with the idea of me representing the brand,” she explains, “I knew this wasn’t related to my levels of qualification but instead was due to the fact I was older and not white.”
At another facility, Riego says she was astonished when a co-owner scolded her for hiring a black male director for fear of ‘scaring’ the predominantly Jewish guests who may find his presence intimidating. She also went on to say that she has extensive firsthand experience of guests indicating a preference to not have black, Hispanic, gay or older therapists, either verbally or by changing or cancelling their appointments.
“The spa experience is very personal and there are levels of comfort we should respect, but is the discomfort from a white woman being touched by a male, African American therapist a cultural issue or privacy right? What should the ideals of our industry be and where do we draw the line?”
Riego feels that problems are made even worse by blatant sexism in the industry. “Even in a female-dominated workforce, women aren’t fully represented in the corporate decision-making process or hierarchy in the industry in general,” she says.
Looking ahead towards solutions, Riego feels the demand for wellness services is growing but the experienced workforce is shrinking. “Our industry has not been able to attract a proper representation of the millennial workforce which is now closer to 50 per cent non-white.”
Therein order to attract them in future. “As an industry that started out wanting to heal the world, we need to rediscover and articulate its commitment to humanity – this is our strength and we should champion it.
“Our industry was borne out of a passion to care for others and now has an opportunity to help heal the world while redefining how the world views wellness – as a lifestyle choice that embraces diversity as its norm.
“Setting the example, stretching the boundaries and holding our space, is the only way, and if anyone can do it, we – the spa and wellness industry – can.”