Interview by Kennedy Williams
Photos by Micah Pegues
Defining wellness is a challenging task. Wellness can be kombucha, hot yoga, matcha, hemp seeds, CBD oil, gratitude journals, mindfulness, self-care, crystals, reiki, kale, antioxidants, organic produce, affirmations or rose quartz facial rollers. The list goes on. In a time when everything can be considered wellness, it’s increasingly difficult to determine what wellness really is.
Annya Santana, founder of clean beauty brand Menos Mas, wants to make one thing clear, wellness is for the people. Operated out of Paris and New York, Menos Mas is “a wellness lifestyle for the culture” that centers black and brown communities that may get lost in the noise.
I spoke with Annya just before she met Rosie Perez, one of her heroes. We discussed her wellness journey, the trouble with diversity quotas in the wellness industry and the infectious magic of her hometown, the Bronx.
When did the idea of Menos Mas first cross your mind?
Menos Mas started out of my need for fixing my own skin. I had really terrible acne. I was 22 and just got fed up. I got myself educated on what products are, what they have in them and took it back to my roots. I went back to the kitchen and started using more natural ingredients. Out of that, this body butter was made. So many people loved it. I ended up thinking that I should turn it into something. But I didn’t at the time because life happens and you want to be so perfect at things that you don’t end up doing them as you should. The combination of that experience and wanting to be better at myself pushed me to making this something.
What’s your career background?
I got my degree in marketing. During that time I was in fashion public relations and streetwear when it was just a baby. People were still making T-shirts and graphics. I just dropped all of that. I’m really in touch with my feelings, and I always say that I feel too much. When I graduated I really wasn’t happy. I decided that I was tired of creating for other people. I decided to take the reins and figure out what it was like to create for myself. I went to drama school, and I was an actor at the neighborhood playhouse. When you’re an actor it’s really a struggle to get your footing. I found myself running to get through my depression, and I got more into wellness. Now I’m here at Menos Mas combining my whole life. I’m combining my fashion, my culture, art, everything that I’m around and bringing it to wellness. It’s really exciting. It’s coming full circle slowly.
That’s when wellness works. If it isn’t holistic it doesn’t work.
Exactly. You have to figure out what holistic wellness means to you. Outside of being well you have to have a social life. For me, it’s about tying it all together, being creative and enjoying the richness of life. Getting people to that point is what I strive to do.
I know running is a key part of your wellness routine. As someone who isn’t a runner, how do you get into it versus other activities?
It’s simple. You just tie your laces and get up to run.
If you say so! I just can’t do it.
Running is the most difficult sport just because it’s you. It’s really your mind because your body is there and it’s getting through it. Your mind is pushing you forward.
I had the same mentality as you, I would tell myself that I wasn’t a runner, it was too cold, I hate this, no one needs to do it... But then I did it. I did it as a promise to my dad. He always wanted to run a marathon and so I told him I’d do it for him. That started my running journey. The beginning was just like everyone starting something they don’t want to do. I got some trainers, tied my shoelaces and I didn’t know what I was doing. I still don’t know what I’m doing. But the point is that you get up off your couch and do something. The process is hard.
Okay, so if I become a runner it’s going to be because of this conversation.
(laughs) Honestly, the running community is a huge part of it! Whether you’re a slow runner or the fastest, we all have the same feeling of wanting to quit and not wanting to be there. We keep each other going. Until you’re a runner and you’re surrounded by it you don’t realize the community that comes along with it. The best thing about running is that it’s attainable for all. The only thing you need is your body.
I’d love to hear more about French beauty and your experiences in Paris. I know that city is a key part of the Menos Mas journey.
There’s an effortlessness to French women and girls and this mystery to them. The mystery is just that they don’t care. I think their confidence is something that they own, whereas American women go through a journey of realizing that we have to own who we are. I feel like there are so many obstacles that French women don’t go through because they just own their femininity and their sexuality. Everything is for them, not to please someone else or a man’s standard of beauty. That, in combination with a simple beauty routine, makes them so beautiful. In America I think we have to ask ourselves whether we are doing things for ourselves or for someone else’s standard.
What was your inspiration to move to Paris?
Paris was always just a dream of mine. I was in a dark place and just started running. The limitless feeling I got from running spilled over to my personal life. I took a leap of faith, packed my bags and moved to Paris. I knew I could start my business there and fulfill my dreams. I followed my heart. I didn’t really feel fear. My body and mind and spirit were screaming at me to take the risk in life of living the way I’d always seen my life.
That’s when you know it’s real.
Right. There was no escaping the feeling of needing to change. I followed my heart and it led me to Paris. I didn’t have a plan or an idea, I just packed my bags and left.
I think that’s what you’re trying to do with Menos Mas. It’s all about stripping away the excess and getting back to what’s real.
I think so! It’s about getting back to skin. Everything starts with your skin, it’s your base. If you feel good in your body, then everything else becomes a plus. With Menos Mas, I include talking about your mind and your body, because what’s more beautiful than a person who knows themselves and is comfortable in their skin? It’s not just about the physical. When you’re taking care of yourself and when you’re present in yourself, that makes a beautiful person. Menos Mas is beauty from the inside out. I’m really passionate about the whole aspect of being beautiful, and that means taking care of yourself on every level.
What’s your beauty or wellness routine?
I am a really low maintenance person. I really use any soap to wash my face. I moisturize like my life depends on it. Drinking water and moisturizing are they keys to staying young. Part of my beauty routine is working out because it gets your blood flowing and circulating. It’s a balance of what I put in and on my body. It’s about being holistic. When I have bad days, I mask. I typically scrub and exfoliate once or twice a month. The rest is just keeping it simple.
Can you tell me more about your wellness journey and what got you to this current moment with Menos Mas.
My journey into wellness really started in drama school. We had a really rigorous program at drama school. I was dancing five days a week, so I needed to have the energy to take me through 14 or 15 hour days. That started my physical journey. I first started really paying attention to my wellness because my skin was really bad. I was sick and tired of having acne. I went to a dermatologist who told me to only drink water, eat superfoods, read labels and educate myself. I did that. I found out what goes into food production and manufacturing. I ended up going plant based which changed my energy and my mood. My insides felt better and because of that my skin started to get better. It’s all about trying and going through the process. Everything was a stepping stone. The more I simplified my life and wellness routine, the more who I am as a person was magnified. Now, it’s more automatic for me because it’s a lifestyle.
When I look back, that’s really how I came to Menos Mas. It’s about simplicity. ‘Menos Mas’ means less is more. I feel like I’ve stumbled on the key to something that everybody needs to have and I want to spread it in our communities.
It’s like you can’t get enough of the good things.
Right! It’s like ‘look, I found it guys! Exploring your true self is what’s going to make you feel good.’
The products at Menos Mas are really important to me. I can stand behind them and know that they work. But the most important thing for me is the community. We call it the #MenosMasMob. It’s really who we are. I’m a kid from the Bronx and it’s in my vernacular, the way I connect with people, hip hop culture...I don’t want to eliminate that from my life just to be healthy. I want those things to be a part of wellness, so I’m including my community in this journey. We created the #MenosMasMob to be a space where culture and wellness can collide and live. Hopefully we can inspire the youth to know that it’s cool to be healthy. Taking care of yourself is poppin’. It’s the key.
I didn’t ever want to blend into a white world. I want to speak to my people because we’re the ones who actually need it the most. Wellness shouldn’t be a luxury for only white women. Your health and your wellness are the luxuries of your life and they should be afforded to everyone. It’s so important to me to provide black and brown people a platform that speaks to them. I can teach them how to make rice and beans but substitute different things. It’s all about maintaining who you are but just enhancing it.
Can you say more about the whiteness of the wellness industry? Based on other conversations I’ve had with other wellness entrepreneurs, I’ve heard that navigating the industry can be difficult as a person of color. But a lot of people are challenging the current landscape of the industry and doing things that promote wellness for communities of color.
I’m really blessed to be included in a lot of these spaces. But there are not enough of us in those meetings or spaces speaking our truths. A white woman’s wellness journey may not resonate with who I am. Because of Instagram, wellness has become a post-op. It’s about grabbing a green juice and making a beautiful presentation of wellness. There are tons of people monetizing that, which is great, but what’s the purpose? Is wellness about making people who already have access to healthy lifestyles continue their journeys or is it about spreading the knowledge to people who need it? It shouldn’t be something that trickles down. We don’t need saviors, we just need our voices to be heard. I want more of that in wellness instead of excluding people of color. It’s not about filling a quota but making actual change. Wellness should be for everyone.
Wellness has become this privilege and this luxury. Not everyone can go to $30 or $40 classes every week. That’s not the reality for most of America. But there are so many things you can do within your means that can make your life better. Most people aren’t even afforded the opportunity to be self aware and take a moment to realize they aren’t well. Last year, I realized that I needed to be more active in my community and show people that they can do it too. They resonate with that message because I come from where they come from. When you see yourself represented and see people who speak your language, you realize that you can make it happen. There are so many people of color who are now grabbing the bull by the horns and taking charge of our stories and pushing each other forward.
Going off of that, I’ve always found it really funny that a lot of wellness rituals or products profit off of the work that a lot of black and brown people have been doing, but those people aren’t at the forefront.
100 percent! So many things are the root of Mexican culture, Dominican culture or Jamaican culture and use what we’ve been doing for years, from using castor oil to grow your hair or using turmeric for immunity. The wellness world stumbles on those things and it suddenly becomes their discovery instead of acknowledging the root of those things. It’s not a bad thing to be a white person in wellness and find things from other cultures, but it’s about using your space and your privilege to voice the truth in where something starts. That doesn’t mean that you can’t profit from it, but it shows that you’re aware of something that already exists.
Yes, you have to pass the mic.
Right, it’s about being respectful. There’s nothing wrong in getting inspiration from other people, but respect should be at the base of that. We don’t see that enough. I’m Dominican. Hair masking is the most Dominican thing you can do. You wake up, throw on a hair mask with olive oil and avocado that you made in your kitchen and you clean your house the whole day. Now, it’s an Instagrammable thing. There are all of these superfoods that come from where we do and we can’t afford it or can’t profit from it anymore. We have to use our voices and our dimensions to own who we are. No one is going to do that for us so we have to take the reins.
Earlier you mentioned that there can be more people of color in the wellness industry. Who is getting it right?
There are so many women of color getting it right. I feel like it’s the kind of thing that you can relate to. It’s like once you’ve met one woman of color in the industry you stumble upon them all. I’ve loved connecting with women like Hannah (Bronfman), Lauren Ash and Abena Boamah. We all speak the same language. It’s all about creating together and creating this universe that our communities need. It’s really beautiful to experience the growth of women in the industry. We all support each other.
I know you’re from the Bronx, N.Y. The Bronx has always been important to the culture, but it’s really having a moment right now. There’s Cardi B, Desus and Mero, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, so many others. How does the Bronx influence you?
The Bronx is it! It’s what made me. The Bronx has such a spirit and an energy that is raw and authentic. We’re grimy. It’s a hustle coming from the Bronx, because you have to figure it out. That’s true for New York in general. The city breaks you but you’re from here and you have to keep going. New York builds hustlers and that has spilled over into my life. We know how to move and shake. The Bronx has made me have a tenacity and a hunger for the things that I want. I don’t see any barriers. When you’re from a city that moves so quick, you have to be on your A game at all times.
What are you excited about right now?
I’m excited for a few things. On a personal note, I’m launching here in New York and it’s exciting to see what we’re creating here. I hope that it all comes together. Really, I’m just excited for the culture. It feels like it’s happening fast, but there has been a lot of work to get people of color to this moment of realizing that the world needs us more than we need the world. Never has there been a more exciting time to be a person of color. I’m excited to see the people around me unapologetically creating the worlds that we deserve.