Bea Arthur's online platform The Difference offers tools to make therapy accessible to those who are historically denied emotional support: Black women.
As the world reels from the devastation and subsequent isolation of the COVID-19 global pandemic, there is a big, glaring question mark on what intimacy looks like for Black women in the absence of sisterhood or companionship. Loneliness is a big topic for all of us right now, and touch deprivation is a real and agonizing phenomenon that many are experiencing for the first time.
I got a taste of our current socially distanced reality a few years back during an extended—and purposeful—dance with abstinence. As a transplant to New York City with few friends and no family nearby, cutting off physical romance had another drawback; I soon realized that healthy, positive, platonic touch was rare and its absence painful. Denying oneself of sex is one thing, but not having access to any type of nourishing physical contact for long periods of time can be hard on the body and mind.
I found myself holding my breath for something. Anything that would make me feel alive, like the electric energy of a friendly embrace. First, I turned to public spaces, where the communal gathering of humans made me feel less alone. And then, I turned on the computer.
While online platforms will never be a cure-all for all of our in person needs, digital connection does help to soothe the ache for intimacy in the interim. Licensed therapist and entrepreneur Bea Arthur had foresight about the long-term psychological consequences of isolation and set off on a mission 10 years ago to bridge access gaps for mental healthcare resources through technology. Her company, The Difference, which will launch publicly this summer, provides on-demand access to therapy as Amazon's first mental health Alexa skill.
"The main issue for me was just access," the 36-year-old counselor and coach tells me from her home in New York City, where she's bunkered down amid a global (and unprecedented) pandemic.
"I don't want to replace [traditional therapy] with a robot," she says of her digi-wellness business. "If I can't get to everybody doing once a week in-person therapy on a couch, the best replacement to me is instant access for emotional support and stress release in real time," Arthur explains.
During the uncertain days ahead, online therapy resources like The Difference stand on the virtual frontlines to aid Black women who are particularly vulnerable to the COVID-19 crisis and its effects. According to recent data, low-income neighborhoods in New York City are most ravaged by the disease due to lack of access to affordable healthcare. Black women, as caregivers and caretakers in our communities, will bear the brunt of its impact unless strategies are implemented to lessen the blow.
On top of the health consequences, the unnatural—but necessary—practice of social distancing leaves many Black women to wade through these perilous times unsupported. We are raised as tribal folks, so the need for companionship, fellowship, and affection is particularly crucial to our mental health and the wellness of our communities.
It is what we do, it is who we are.
A personal problem
No stranger to being ostracized herself, Arthur opened up about her uniquely Houston-raised/first-generation Ghanaian upbringing that shaped her desire to provide emotional and mental therapy to the masses. Like most innovators, Arthur's life work was fueled by the desire to create a solution to an intimacy problem that shadowed her upbringing. As the daughter of immigrants, emotional range was not commonplace in her household, and the color politics of Houston made desirability out of reach for darker-skinned women like herself.
"Before Black men could date white women, they dated girls like Beyoncé, especially in the south," Arthur says. "I am an 'Oreo' officially. I did all the AP classes—only raisin in the rye for years. I didn't have a big ass. I was dark-skinned. I talked 'white.' Black men were so mean to me, and then I also was African."
In addition to seclusion from the dating world, Arthur was immersed in a particularly emotionally icy environment at home.
"The thing about being an immigrant is African parents, they're not really as affectionate," the TEDx speaker explains.
"My parents got five kids, and I've never seen them kiss. In the same way, there's not a lot of praise. You're expected to get A's. You learn to hold yourself to a high standard. My parents were never like, 'Oh my God, you're so cute. Oh my God, you're so smart. Look at you.' It was just like, 'What's this C plus about? Why would you bring this home to me?'"
With the complexities surrounding her multidimensional identity as African, American, and woman, Arthur began the work of self-acceptance when she left the South for New York City to attend graduate school at Columbia University.
"Everybody has their adjustment story, and I didn't even come into my Black self-love until I got to grad school for psychology. I realized how much I had been running from it. One, because I felt rejected by Black American culture and Black romance, and then also I talked white, and I was just more accepted by white people," she says.
"I don't want to replace [traditional therapy] with a robot. If I can't get to everybody doing once a week in-person therapy on a couch, the best replacement to me is instant access for emotional support and stress release in real time."
It was through her own inner journey that she discovered the richness and benefits of her own complicated existence and decided her purpose was to spread that awareness to others.
"That's why it's my mission to spread the gospel of therapy far and wide as long as I have breath in my body, because I learned to love myself through just looking at myself, learning about myself and understanding myself," Arthur explains.
"My joy, what connects me to God, is helping other people do that too. It is literally when the ball hits the bat for me."
Armed with an Ivy League graduate degree and a goldmine of personal experiences, Arthur set out to develop a way to make therapy accessible to the masses. But her journey didn't come without hiccups. After one business folded, she took her second business to potential investors on the popular TV series "Shark Tank" where her idea was torn to shreds by panelists. Although the young founder was understandably shaken by her initial business failures, she bounced back and launched the private beta of The Difference in 2018.
Getting out of our own way
Even with an assortment of tools available in person and online, some Black women still aren't buying into the emotional and mental help offered through therapy. For Arthur, our hesitation to get necessary support comes from the legacy and burden of self-reliance.
"When I was in Ghana, I went home for The Return, and my family is from there. Whenever you see those Black women carrying those buckets on their head, all the food on there, that's what it feels like. We really do carry the weight of the world." Arthur tells me.
"Black women have been put in the position through different cultures, not just in America, but on the continent as well, as really having to thug it out, just really having to hold down everybody. Our children, our men, God, financially, emotionally. That gets inherited. We have this backbone of steel."
Part of the reason a number of Black women remain siloed in our pain is because we are too afraid to admit we need help or are too convinced our cries for comfort will go unheard. Arthur's hope is that we let our guard down a bit and lean into what makes us uncomfortable during this time in order to heal the root versus using instant gratification as a crutch. We've been holding our breath for centuries, and perhaps platforms like The Difference will at last create a safe space for that collective exhale.
Beyond healing mentally, Arthur—rather radically— also encourages women not to bypass the self-exploration opportunity we have right now just to fill a relationship or lack of physical touch void.
"There are so many women who haven't looked at their vulvas, who don't really know what the clitoris is, haven't had the right vibrators and stuff like that. There's some women who really don't like porn. There's a deficit of good porn … There's just a lot that has been denied to us as women. I would love to see, because, girl, I hope this is a whole new world if we survive this. I want to come out to a whole new system, a whole new earth."
And perhaps, if we're lucky, this new world will finally offer solace and security for Black women.
My mind often goes back to that period of voluntary physical isolation, more so now that we are confined to our homes with only the promise of a FaceTime or Zoom call to satiate our appetite for human connection. But back then, when it was allowed, I attended a yoga class, desperate to softly collide with someone, something. While attempting an amateur pigeon pose, my instructor came over and gently adjusted my hips closer towards the floor. I felt a jolt of electricity run through my blood as I was temporarily relieved of my need for touch. I woke up from that self-imposed physical slumber. But more than hand to flesh, it was the affirmative connection—the non-physical and emotional one—I needed to remind me of my humanness.
Someone cared. And with that support, I exhaled.