Stories from Healthy Body

How a ‘Pay What You Can’ Model Can Make Wellness More Accessible

Zoe Weiner

Zoe WeinerJuly 16, 2020

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Traditionally, “affordable boutique wellness” has been an oxymoron. At $30-plus a pop for a fitness class, high prices have created a major barrier to entry for all but those in the highest income brackets. A few important statistics: The current pay gap in the U.S. puts Black workers’ annual salary at 13.5 percent less than that of white workers, Hispanic women make 46 percent less than white men, and as of 2015, the U.S. transgender poverty rate was double the national average. Taken in total, it’s clear that it isn’t exactly easy for those in marginalized communities to shell out hundreds of dollars for a luxury meditation session or a fancy gym membership. But if established wellness brands took a cue from more equitable models that exist (albeit sparsely) within the wellness industry, and adopted a pay-what-you-can pricing, more people would be able to access these services.

Studios across the country have adopted a “sliding scale” for their prices, which encourages people to donate whatever amount they’re able. The model puts the responsibility on those who can afford a full-priced class to help subsidize the experience for those who can’t. “What if instead of having a singular wellness experience where we’re thinking just of ourselves—paying for us and taking care of our own health first—we prioritized the communal and the collective?” says Holisticism founder Michelle Pellizon. “What if we realized that we can’t be well until everyone in our community is well?”

This rings especially true in many traditionally Black neighborhoods, where wellness spaces can represent more than simply places to work up a sweat. “Especially in the Black community, our mental health is largely impacted not only by the regular stressors of life, but also the micro and macroaggressions that we face on a daily basis,” says Black Girls Breathing founder Jasmine Marie. 

With that in mind, there are a few different ways that these sliding scales come into practice. Dive In Well, an organization with the mission of making wellness inclusive for all, for example, asks white-passing allies to pay a higher rate to take the “Decolonizing Digital Therapy and Wellness” workshop than BIPOC students. Black Girls Breathing, an organization dedicated to creating safe spaces for black womxn to practice breathwork and meditation, offers breathwork classes ranging from $0 to $25, and asks people to “pay what they can and take what they need,” says Marie. Instead of having a set price, Holisticism has a self-selecting sliding scale that ranges from $9 to $29 that allows everyone to select the amount they’re comfortable donating. “When we think of wellness equity, we need to look at more than just those singular factors [gender, race, or salary],” says Pellizon. “We need to take into consideration, holistically, where someone’s at, and put the power back into the hands of those human beings to make the selection for themselves.”

In addition to ensuring that wellness can be accessible and available to all, using a sliding scale is important for ensuring that practitioners—who themselves are frequently members of marginalized communities—are being fairly compensated for their time and efforts. “A lot of practitioners are women, or queer, or gender non-binary, so we don’t want to devalue their services and ask them to lower their prices and push them into a place that’s not supportive when it comes to their work,” says Pellizon. Many wealthy and established companies could afford to make classes available for free on Instagram and other platforms while studios are closed during the pandemic, but doing so puts a costly burden on instructors and small business owners who rely on class fees to keep afloat. Sliding scales, in comparison, allow for both the practitioner and student to economically benefit.

And when both parties are working towards creating wellness for all, communities benefit as well. “It’s always important to have something [on the schedule] that’s ‘give what you have,’ where people can actually just step in and try something,” HealHaus founder Elisa Shankle said at the “There’s a Diversity Problem in Wellness” Well+Good TALK in June. “It gives people the opportunity to come in and try a class, [and they may] have never done anything like it before. That’s the accessibility component that I find to be so important.”

As the white-dominated wellness industry becomes more aware of the need to make its offerings available and accessible for all (to which we say, “it’s about time”), there’s hopefully a place for the sliding scale model to become the rule instead of the exception.

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