About a year ago, I began to reassess my relationship with health and beauty when I read an Instagram post by Lena Dunham. (Yes, Lena Dunham. What? Where do you get your news?) She was posting about the launch of Gwyneth Paltrow’s skincare line, Goop. I had never really listened to beauty news before. (Lies. I hang on every new Nars, Tom Ford, Marc Jacobs Beauty, Dior, Chanel, and Charlotte Tilbury release as if it’s my job. I just didn’t pay attention to celebrity endorsements.) This one stopped me, though, because she wrote about how she had to use natural products due to her endometriosis.
I have endometriosis. I grew up with brothers and very few female friends, so I never talked about my downstairs lady stuff. Whether due to lack of health insurance or a general discomfort with the subject or just being too busy to care for myself, I didn’t see a gynecologist until I was 33. At our second visit (2 years later….my bad) and at the request of my psychiatrist, I was more open about my mental health history. She asked if my periods were painful. Uncomfortable with everything that was happening, I said, “No more than usual.” In a move no one had previously attempted, she asked me to describe what exactly was “usual” to me.
“Oh, it’s not that bad. About a week before my period, the cramps are excruciating, but I can still walk a little. Then, for the week of my period, I can’t walk or even sleep because of the pain. I sit up in my bed, crying and exhausted. And then it takes about a week to recover from that. So, I get a few pain-free days every month.”
You know, just the usual.
“Do you do anything to treat that?”
“Um, for work I had to be on my feet all day, so I would take 6 Advil every couple hours, but I heard that wasn’t safe, so I stopped. I’d also wear heating pads under my clothes. But then it got to a point where I couldn’t work anymore.”
So, there’s that.
“And you never thought to look into that?”
I thought it was normal, and I thought everyone else just did a better job of handling it. And I would rather people think any other negative thing about me than think that I couldn’t handle pain.
So, she did some ultrasounds and found that I most likely had endometriosis (you can’t know for sure without a surgery), and that the damage was probably past the point of repair. A quick Google search will point you to the fact that I most likely cannot have children, but that’s a reality I’ll have to face once I’m a grown-up.
There are a couple treatment options: surgery and birth control pills. Surgery isn’t an absolute cure and can often result in lasting complications. Because of my bipolar disorder, birth control pills are risky at best. So, no options. A doctor at the Mayo Clinic Women’s Center suggested I take simple, over-the-counter magnesium, and that provided enough relief that I decided to move on.
And then Lena came along. It never occurred to me to look for homeopathic remedies. (Since then, I’ve found that celery and dandelion root and lavender and limiting my demanding coffee habit have calming effects.) And it certainly never occurred to me to connect what I put ON my body with what happens IN my body. All Lena said was that as a woman living with endometriosis, she has had to go chemical-free with her beauty and skincare and that Goop provided her with that opportunity.
So, I started studying. And let me add that, like discussing periods, science is also not my comfort zone. I mean, I did really well in chemistry and physics, but let’s just call those math for the sake of my disclosure that I’m not an expert and I’m just a girl trying to minimize some pain and live some happy days and wear some pretty things. Apparently, parabens are the best bad guy to avoid. They hide in ingredient lists with prefixes like “methyl,” “propyl,” “benzyl,” “butyl,” and “ethyl.” (This is me passing up some sort of Lucy & Ethel joke here, because this is serious stuff, you guys.) They are used as preservatives in many cosmetics, toiletries (hair products, lotion, skincare, deodorants), household cleaning products (like laundry detergent that is then on your clothes and linens), and food. Once they come into contact with your skin, whether by direct application or not, they are quickly absorbed into your system.
Then, what? The main deal is that once in our system, parabens mimic hormones and generally mess with everything our bodies do (but specifically things dealing with hormones, which is a lot of things and a lot of things that someone suffering from both mental health disorders and endometriosis can’t afford to be messing with).
But here’s some more science from a girl who just wanted to blog about Trump tomfooleries and puppies and makeup: parabens have been labeled “chemical endocrine disrupters.” Our endocrine system is responsible for producing and releasing hormones that regulate metabolism, growth, development, tissue function, sleep, reproduction, sexual function, and mood. The United Nations and the World Health Organization have jointly stated that “endocrine disrupters are a global threat to fertility and the environment.” Endocrine disrupters basically play tricks on our already tricked out bodies. They increase the production of certain hormones, decrease the production of others, imitate hormones, turn one hormone into another, interfere with hormone signaling, tell cells to die prematurely, compete with essential nutrients, bind to essential hormones, and accumulate in organs that produce hormones. So…..they disrupt. And all of this can affect boys, too, so it isn’t just about downstairs lady stuff and painting faces.
Thanks to Lena plus research and a general attraction to retail, I was ready to start shopping. Goop is Gwyneth Paltrow’s line, but it is harder to find locally. It was made in conjunction with the more affordable Juice Beauty, so I started there. I went to my local Ulta, and the fates conspired to put the Juice rep in front of me the moment I approached their display. We talked about life in L.A., doing things because Gwyneth told us to, and obviously the benefits of removing toxic chemicals from your life. I told her that I would start by mixing them into my rotation, and she assured me that eventually I’d just stay natural because it would feel better (and she’s sort of right, but Tom Ford lipsticks, y’all, and Nars made a lovely matte foundation last year and a hydrating tint just recently, and gosh, I’m only human). I started with the Stem Cellular Cleanser, the Green Apple Age Defy Moisturizer, the Stem Cellular CC Cream, and the Green Apple Brightening Eye Cream. Ok, and also a handful of their makeup. And I’m not ashamed to say that I then splurged on Goop (and so many others that I’ll tell you about later). I’m also happy to report that less granola lines like Charlotte Tilbury, Hourglass, Byredo, and Diptyque have gone paraben-free (and surely others, but those are the ones in my collection). Oh, and I did a full household overhaul and only use cleaning products by the Honest Company and laundry detergent by The Laundress.
So…..is Lena right? Does this work? I don’t know. I know that I’m in significantly less pain than I’ve ever been before. I know that I’m healthier than I’ve ever been before, and I also know that sometimes I don’t feel good at all. Sometimes. And sometimes is a vast improvement.
I know that my beauty is cleaner, but I also know that I have diet and doctors and medications and daily puppy demands to assist in my health journey. And I also know that in talking about the things that make me a woman and make me vulnerable and make me sick, I’ve found the strength to walk while I’m in pain and seek out paths to health that were previously hidden. And if I happen to find those paths because of Instagram and celebrities, well, I’m fine with that. That’s my clean truth.