– By Julie Maier
Julie Maier is a Ph.D. student in the Physical Cultural Studies program at the University of Maryland, College Park.
Every Friday at 6:30 a.m., a group of Australian outdoor enthusiasts take over Bondi Beach decked out in brightly colored surfing and yoga apparel, with equally fluorescent gear in tow. The weekly outings, organized by a nonprofit organization called One Wave, are appropriately called Fluro Friday. The intention is not to bring back ‘80s fashion trends, but raise awareness of mental illness through increased visibility. Participants are able to strike up educative conversations with fellow beach-goers, with the goal of clearing up misconceptions related to mental illness. At the same time, surfers and yogis benefit from the physical and psychological benefits of the physical activities, as well as the supportive surfing/yoga community. Such activism as it relates to mental illness is sorely needed. But are beach-based initiatives truly working to create change, or are they simply reproducing inequalities as they relate to race, class, and ability?
Some of the benefits of Fluro Friday become quite evident when viewing the BBC’s footage of the weekly meetups, along with the videos on One Wave’s website. Individuals who had silently struggled with mental illness are now given an opportunity not only to meet others with similar experiences, but work to combat the stigma attached to mental illness in a fun, creative way. In addition to the social support and activism, surfing, or simply being in the ocean, is therapeutic for many. As one Fluro Friday participant interviewed by the BBC explained, “For me, getting in the ocean every day is what has saved my life.”
While the importance of Fluro Friday on the micro level is not to be dismissed, it is necessary to acknowledge the limitations of this initiative. While numerous critiques can be leveled, the most glaring seems to be the social and environmental justice issues that are at play: Access to blue spaces, such as the ocean, are more readily available to those with more economic resources. When the expense of surf gear is added to the equation, along with the ‘white washing’ of surf and yoga culture, and the sexism and heterosexism prevalent in such spaces, actively participating in this form of activism or therapy is limited to those with certain types of privilege. In this way, while the stigma related to mental health may be (slowly) chipped away through Fluro Fridays, only a small percentage of people with mental illness are able to receive the direct benefits of being part of this initiative: For some of the most marginalized members of society in terms of the intersection of race, class, gender, sexuality and ability (physical and mental), Fluro Fridays may be yet another space in which they are excluded.
This critique is not to undermine the importance of One Wave. Undoubtedly, a diversity of activities that work to raise awareness of mental illness are needed. The challenge is to understand the intersection of oppressions (e.g., the ways in which social and environmental justice is intertwined with the oppression of those with mental illness), and work to fight various injustices simultaneously.