Optimal Health: The Platform to Empowerment
When considering the empowerment of women in western culture, its inherent connection with optimal health is often overlooked. In reports on the status of women in developing nations, invariably such issues as immunizations and water-borne disease arise. Here in the United States however, where we’ve long conquered many of the health concerns that continue to devastate communities around the globe, the dialogue on health has devolved to a debate almost exclusively around obesity. Holistic wellness is relegated as “special interest” and derided as “new age” rhetoric. Overall, such a de-emphasis on wellness reflects our culture’s priorities. Yet, women who have access to the resources they need to be healthy, and who consciously choose to cultivate a balanced lifestyle, are uniquely equipped to translate their values into action on behalf of their communities.
A juggernaut of excess, American society promotes external performance and consumption to the exclusion of internal well-being. In our society, wealth equals status, prompting individuals to work rigorously beyond the 40-hour work-week that has become standard. Employer-provided vacation time is severely limited and paid family leave virtually unheard of. We rely on technology to keep track of our hectic lives, banishing connection with our loved ones to a segment on our calendars and ignoring opportunities for mental and physical stillness.
We eat on the go, sitting in front of our laptops, and hunched over our kitchen counters late at night. A meal squeezed between work and a child’s soccer practice consists of a visit to a fast-food drive-through. When attempting to eat “healthy,” we pop calorie and nutrient deficient frozen meals into the microwave and pretend to be satiated. Our shelves are stocked with foods in boxes and cans, all of which contain the artificial chemical residues unique to food manufacturing. Because sleep has become an afterthought, we chug gallons of coffee, soda, and so-called “energy drinks” to keep us going, going, going…
Cultural messages about our self-worth as women assault us relentlessly, from every angle. We learn through television, radio, the internet, magazines and myriad other sources that our value lies in the goods and services available for purchase. Confusing our worth with the things we own, we proceed through life debilitated by a toxic sense of self. Convinced that innate beauty is a fairytale, we collectively spend billions on makeup, hair dye, tanning salons, manicures and numerous other means of altering our appearances. Obsessed with fashion, we accumulate credit cards to ensure name-brand acquisitions, worrying little about the mountains of debt from which we will never escape. And more women than ever before struggle with anorexia, bulimia, and disordered eating, buoyed by images in fashion magazines and lingerie catalogs. Ours is a culture of incredible excess, heavily reliant on preventing individuals from thinking too critically or too much about the society in which they find themselves.
Living as we do, our bodies, minds, and spirits sustain unyielding abuse. From the foods we mindlessly scarf, to the quality of our relationships and our unconscious beliefs about ourselves, we submit to every stress imaginable. We are living in a state of perpetual emergency, our fight-or-flight responses on overdrive. Every moment of every day we are altered at the cellular level by the way we live. Such constant stressors result in exhaustion, depression, anxiety, bodily disease and innumerable other ailments. In her book Absolute Beauty: Radiant Skin and Inner Harmony Through the Ancient Secrets of Ayurveda, Dr. Pratima Raichur writes of the toll the constant stress of our daily lives exert. “Prolonged arousal affects every gland,” she states. “The outer part of the adrenals start to release cortisol, which is toxic to the body in large doses. The pituitary releases antidiuretic hormone, ADH; adreno-corticotrophic hormone, ACTH; and thyroid stimulating hormone, THS, which together affect water balance, sex gland function, metabolism and bone growth. Continued release of catecholamines into the bloodstream increases production of oxidant molecules and leads to cellular breakdown, which is the first step in the aging process. At the same time, prolonged activation of the parasympathetic nervous system depletes the body’s energy reserves. With its resources constantly rerouted to the emergency, other parasympathetic functions that are essential to life and health do not operate properly.”
The typical American lifestyle creates and maintains illness. Our minds and bodies have become severely depleted and we continue to behave in ways which harm us both in the short and long-term. Acting to better ourselves, our communities and our world requires vision, initiative, creativity, and endurance – none of which are possible while we remain mired in toxic minds and bodies. A balanced lifestyle is critical for positive social change.
A life that is nourishing to the mind, body and spirit is one that is consciously cultivated every day. We must shift our priorities from wealth, work and the superficial accoutrements of worldly success, to balance and inner harmony. It will require less work and more substantive human connection. It will require the ability to say no to demands on our time and self, and yes to prayerful moments of quiet. It will include less time indoors, and more time under the sky, enjoying the rhythms of nature. It will include savoring whole foods lovingly prepared, and exercise in whatever form brings us the most joy.
A woman who puts herself first, and lives according to what nourishes and nurtures her body and soul, will enjoy a more solid sense of self. She will grow wise in the ways of balance, and prove adept at prioritizing. She will practice self-renewal and experience a lower risk of burn-out than her counterparts caught in the destructive cycle of American excess. She will possess increased stamina and endurance, both physically and mentally. In this way, she is uniquely equipped to identify her values, abilities, and dreams for the future, and put her vision into action.
Women are Earth’s greatest untapped resource. American women, like women in every corner of the globe, possess tremendous talent, passion and hope for a better tomorrow. We have the ability to change our communities, our nation and our world for the better, but we cannot begin to heal our world before we heal ourselves.