Balanced Black Girl's Founder On Amplifying Diversity & Michelle Obama's Advice
When Lestraundra "Les" Alfred was a senior in college, her first corporate internship quickly began taking a toll on her body and spirit. And thus began her well-being journey, which opened her eyes to the world of fitness, nutrition, and mental health. But Les soon became acutely aware of something she noticed—or rather, didn't notice—the more time she spent in the wellness sphere: "I'm the only black woman here."
This realization led her to think critically about why that was, and what she could do about it. And thus, Balanced Black Girl was born, created by Les as a safe space for women of color to have candid conversations about wellness, self-care, and self-love.
You've sort of become your own wellness brand. Can you talk about how you started?
About six years ago, I decided to become a personal trainer on top of my finance job because I thought maybe I could help other people. On the one hand it was really wonderful, but on the other, I started getting really burnt out. I decided, maybe if I start a blog and talk about fitness and share recipes, that'll be more balanced. So I started The Balance Berry, my old fitness blog. I spent about four years dedicated to it and eventually dove into it full time, taking on a bunch of personal training clients.
But there was something missing—I wasn't fulfilled just doing fitness. The first time a woman said she appreciated how visible I was in the wellness space of women of color, I was like, "You're right, wellness doesn't feel that diverse. Somebody should do something about that." Finally, by the fall of 2018, I was like, "Oh—that someone is me," and I started Balanced Black Girl.
So, why did you start dedicating more of your time and expertise to this topic of black women in wellness?
I went to several wellness events last year. I'd look around and I was like, I'm the only black woman here. I was learning so much, so it made me think, why aren't more of us here?
When I really started to think critically about that, I realized it's because wellness isn't marketed toward us. I only know about it because it's my work, but for other black women, these messages aren't reaching them because they're not intended to include them. Wellness has become an industry that's profitable in ways it wasn't before. Businesses need to make money, but it's created this exclusivity where wellness and access to this information is seen as a luxury for a lot of people.
What topics are on your mind that aren't given enough attention in the mainstream?
I think a lot of the wellness content we're used to seeing is very much surrounded around personal choice. It's almost like if you're "healthy" or your body looks a certain way and you make certain food choices, all of those things are purely a choice. And if you're "good," then you make good choices. But I'm realizing it's not one way or the other; wellness is a lot more nuanced than that. We're affected by everything happening around us. We know that the political climate we're in, the social climate we're in, is really stressful, especially for people of color. So, the idea that we can choose to just exercise that away is really shortsighted. I think it's important to focus on wellness as creating safe spaces for ourselves and focusing on our emotional safety as well as our physical safety.
As far as the community aspect of Balanced Black Girl, have you seen a growth in that direction?
Absolutely. The biggest resounding piece of feedback has been that my audience wants to connect in real life. They want to connect with each other and work out together.
I have a Balanced Black Girl book club, and we had a meetup here in Seattle where a group of 15 of us came together to talk about the book—and we ended up just talking about life. It was the most beautiful thing because by the end of it, everyone was connecting and hanging out and swapping info. I got home and had people shooting me emails saying, "Les, that was so much fun. When's the next one?" So, that connection in real life is something my audience really wants, and I'm excited to do more of that.
And you had the amazing experience of Michelle Obama attending a Balanced Black Girl Book Club meeting. How did that come about?
In December 2018, I posted on social media inviting my community to read Becoming with me, and we had the meetup to discuss the book. About a week after the meeting, I heard from Michelle's publishing team, saying they were looking for a Seattle-area book club to have a private discussion with Michelle ahead of her tour stop. They asked if we were interested, and obviously we said yes! She's the epitome of what Balanced Black Girl stands for. Not only is she a champion for health, education, and well-being, but she is an incredible example of what it means to practice self-care and prioritize yourself, even with the weight of the world on your shoulders.
Was there something Michelle shared at the book club that stayed with you?
So many things. Getting to sit down and speak with her was like talking to a big sister who gives the most incredible life advice. One thing she said that really stuck with me was about the importance of using our voice and owning our own stories. She said, when we don't tell our stories and talk about our experiences, that gives others free rein to create stories for us to fill in the dots—and they're usually wrong. She empowered us all to take control of our own narrative.
What's next for Balanced Black Girl?
I definitely want to create more real-life connections and experiences. So, right now I'm focused on growing my team to help with some of the more administrative things, so I can work on the community aspect and bring Balanced Black Girl to more people and communities. I'm just really excited to connect with more people in real life, get more Balanced Black Girls and allies together, work out and enjoy wellness together, and really focus on the experience.
And lastly, is there anything else you want to touch on?
The podcast has really opened my eyes to how many black women entrepreneurs are in this space, creating products and services because they felt like they had needs that weren't being met. Once I started looking for them, I found them everywhere. I think that may be helpful for people if they feel like the representation isn't there. It is! Just make sure your eyes are open to it. Once your eyes are open, you'll see it everywhere. It's actually super diverse. We're just only seeing the same voices amplified over and over. Let's open it up.
Interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
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Adaeze Elechi is the post production supervisor at mindbodygreen. She is also a filmmaker, a Logan Nonfiction Fellow, and the author of Harmattan (a collection of poems and short stories that explore loss, healing, and infinite love). She will try that crazy HIIT class with you as long as kombucha and avocado toast come after.