"Strong Women," Curve Magazine, April/May 2017
By Jessica Halem
Since 2001, I have been an LGBT health advocate. I learned the most about this type of advocacy from my five years as the executive director of the Lesbian Community Cancer Project in Chicago. It was there that I met lesbians like Peggy, who died of ovarian cancer. She was without her partner at the end because her homophobic parents flew in and seized control of her care. And then there was Shannon, who died of breast cancer. She was an artist, didn’t have health insurance, and had never had a mammogram—until it was too late. My dear friend Lisa died of lung cancer. She ignored the signs for months because she was busy organizing our support groups, taking care of her partner and everyone but herself.
Lesbian health is about all of this—homophobia, access to health insurance, and the challenge of putting ourselves first in a busy, stressful world. But to hear most doctors talk, you would think tackling our BMI (Body Mass Index) would magically solve all these problems. Obesity is often the first thing out of their mouths when it comes to lesbian health—but it shouldn’t be.
What we really should be talking about is strength. How are we building strength in our bodies, our muscles, our bones? How are we building strong hearts, relationships, and communities? In what ways are we already strong, and where do we need to get stronger?
Me? I'm 44 years old and keep suffering from lower back pain. As soon as my doctor described how core strength would support my back, it all made sense. Suddenly, it wasn’t a conversation about weight but about strength. Many of us avoid going to the doctor because we don’t want to talk about our weight—especially with a straight doctor. Prioritizing a strong back and core was exactly what I needed to motivate my feminist lesbian soul.
I propose centering lesbian health—our health—on strength and resilience. Lesbians building muscles. Lesbians with strong hearts. Lesbians whose backs can bear the weight of it all. Resilience is the ability to bounce back or quickly adjust to change. As lesbians, we should see this as a crucial and powerful goal. Resilience is built on strength.
I now work at Harvard Medical School, where I get to influence the next generation of doctors. I asked a woman on our faculty to tell me what she thought about the idea that strength is a powerful key to health. Dr. Jennifer Potter is an associate professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School, the director of Women’s Health at Fenway Health, and an out lesbian. Dr. Potter says, “Building physical strength helps build psychological resilience and a sense of empowerment,” affirming that there is a strong connection between the mind and body.
I asked her directly how we could shift the focus away from weight with our doctors. Her advice was to say something like this at your next appointment: “I am aware that my body size is outside the ‘ideal body weight’ range for my height. I’m looking for a provider who can help me focus on wellness by helping me increase my strength or endurance, rather than focusing on diet or calories, which I’ve never found helpful. Is that something you think you can do?”
Imagine if our health care providers asked us to describe how we take care of our bodies and minds in a world that makes doing so a challenge—or if doctors communicated that they understood how homophobia directly impacts our health. Dr. Potter wishes you would tell your doctor more, like what brings you joy and what challenges you to go forward. Imagine you and your doctor talking about strategies for building physical and emotional strength, brainstorming together about potential solutions to life’s challenges.
Remember, self-care is an act of resistance. We are lesbians, we are strong—we got this.
Rebecca Fox pictured above. Photo Credit: Bayla Bryski