This article is the compilation of our learnings from 13 global dinners held in 2020.
Last month, we hosted dinners on the topic of “health” in 13 cities around the world. From Mumbai to Tokyo, Norman, Oklahoma to Perth, Australia, women gathered to discuss what health means to them. This topic couldn’t be more pertinent — little did we know that just one month after hosting these dinners we would be in the midst of a global health pandemic. We offer these insights from our dinners around the world in the hopes of inspiring a more healthy and resilient society.
And now our key takeaways…
Our health is all-encompassing
Health goes far beyond the physical — it also includes our mental, spiritual, and emotional wellbeing — with all parts intrinsically interconnected and dependent on one another. When we’re feeling good, health is often the last thing we want to think about. So when something health-related goes really wrong, we immediately transition from being completely oblivious to our health to being utterly consumed by it.
However, many women around our table are experiencing a shift in how they relate to their health — instead of only operating at the extremes of either a) ignoring their health or b) total burnout, we’re trying to pay attention to the early warning signs. For instance, a bit of fatigue may mean we should stay in for the night, or a slight headache may mean we’re not drinking enough water. As such, many of us are asking how we can care for ourselves before anything goes wrong, and placing greater emphasis on preventative practices (e.g. therapy, meditation, rest, exercise). It’s important to note, however, that access to preventative wellness is often a function of privilege having the time and resources to offer oneself this level of care is simply not available to us all.
Many women shared painful stories of infertility challenges, IVF and miscarriages. As women, our bodies are supposedly designed to have babies. So what happens when a woman wants a child but can’t get pregnant or keep a healthy pregnancy? When it comes to pregnancy and childbirth, if we don’t feel our bodies are operating the way that they should, we find ourselves mired in immense fear, anger, and shame.
Culture tells women what a “healthy” body should look like
Women around the world have received the message that their worth comes from their physical appearance, leaving many of us feeling that if we don’t look a certain way, then we’re simply not good enough. The objectification of women’s bodies in the media creates tremendous pressure to fit within a normative standard of beauty. Many of us grew up seeing images of what a woman should look like — and that is an image that fails to include most women’s shapes, colors, and sizes. When we feel we don’t “measure up” to the impossible standard, we feel guilt, shame, and self-loathing. This internal pressure can translate into addictive behavior and sickness, including eating disorders and drug and alcohol abuse. We noticed that weight issues were a particular pain point, with some women taking drastic measures to achieve the perfect body.
Mental health is still a taboo
While many of us feel comfortable talking about our physical health experiences and challenges with others, mental health struggles are so often left unspoken. That’s because many of our cultures and communities do not offer permission to talk about mental health in honest and vulnerable ways, leaving us left to deal with our emotional struggles on our own.
But whether discussed or not, mental and physical health are deeply linked. “Hidden” emotional difficulties are typically the precursor to more “visible” physical challenges. For instance, when we feel stress, unhappiness, or depression, we all have different coping mechanisms that we use to manage, ranging from emotional eating to drug use, or even numbing self-harm tactics. In short. the less we talk about mental health in our communities, the more guilt and shame we feel, and the more physically sick we can become.
Health issues are inevitable — what we can choose is how we respond to them
When it comes to our health, so much is out of our control (e.g. what caused the illness, how it makes our bodies feel, the impact it has on our lives). We do, however, have agency when it comes to how we respond and move forward. When we become sick, the first type of response is to give up — we become victims of the condition we are dealing with and lose our spark for life. The second type of response is to reject — we numb out, avoid, or pretend nothing is happening, interspersed with violent bursts of anger. The final response is to accept — we can surrender to the fact that our bodies are now battling an illness and then take full responsibility to act in a way that is more aligned with our values and how we want to live. Acceptance allows us to return to our personal power, and live more consciously by choosing what we want in our bodies and environments (e.g. the right food, exercise routines, friendships, doctors, etc).
Ultimately, getting sick can be an invitation to ask ourselves — am I truly living the life I want?
Illness is really a wake-up call for so many of us — it puts our whole lives into perspective and forces us to consider what truly matters most. We learn to appreciate our life and our health in ways we never had before. What would it be like to practice this level of gratitude even when we are healthy? Health challenges offer us an incredible opportunity to inquire around how we can appreciate our lives every single day, rather than just those periods where our health is in peril.
In Tokyo, drinking culture is embedded within society, with colleagues drinking heavily after work with their superiors. This alcohol-centric culture lacks a holistic and open approach to health, and is especially lacking when it comes to conversations around mental and emotional health. Perhaps more than other countries, many Japanese women struggle with their health issues and concerns in isolation.
In Caracas, the healthcare system is virtually non-existent. The total lack of medical supplies, systems, and support puts people in extremely vulnerable positions. This vulnerability is acutely felt by older women.
What are the early warning signs your body has been offering you this week? Is it that you need a bit more sleep? That you need to be eating a different way? Moving more? Whatever messages you are hearing, what can you do to listen to them a bit more closely?
Whether currently dealing with health issues or not, take a moment and ask yourselves -Am I living the life I envision for myself? Am I spending my time doing what I truly want? What is one thing you can do today that feels more in line with your values and vision for your life?
Written by Sybil Ottenstein and Veronica Marquez in collaboration with our hosts Rebecca Roebber in Seattle Naoko Okada, Chelsea Hayashi and Rena Tang in Tokyo, Anupama Easwaran and Neeti Salva in Mumbai, Roxanne Bachiri in Edinburg, Laureen HD in Berlin, Lisa Cox in Norman OK, Esther Mateo in Caracas and Dee de Lara in Toronto.