Everyone has a little health skeleton hiding in her closet. Here, five inspiring women come clean about their own bodily sins -- and how they ultimately came to repent.
Back when Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) was majoring in Asian studies at Dartmouth, she was a petite size 6 and a whiz on the squash and tennis courts. Then came marriage and motherhood -- she and her husband, Jonathan Gillibrand, have two sons, Theodore, born in 2003, and Henry, in 2008 -- and before long, she was strolling the aisles of the plus-size department. As soon as she finished breast-feeding her youngest, she began mapping out a strategy. ‚ÄúI just wanted to get back to my regular self,‚ÄĚ says Gillibrand. When an old college buddy urged her to revive her interest in sports, she bought herself a new tennis racket, started jogging, and joined a softball team. ‚ÄúThe more physically active I got, the more I enjoyed the exercise and the more I made it a priority,‚ÄĚ she says.
On the advice of a nutritionist, Gillibrand revamped her mealtime habits. Fruits, vegetables, and lean meats were in; carbs and fried foods were out. She and her sister, who was also on a weight-loss program, wrote down everything they ate. ‚ÄúWe shared food journals and encouraged each other.‚ÄĚ She also discovered her weakness -- kiddie food. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs killer,‚ÄĚ she groans. ‚ÄúEvery time you make something delicious like mac and cheese, it‚Äôs hard not to take a bite."
Before entering politics, Gillibrand worked as a high-powered defense attorney. To keep motivated as she shed weight, she emptied her closet of power suits and donated them to Dress for Success, a nonprofit that helps disadvantaged women land jobs and provides them with confidence-boosting outfits. And she promised herself that if she ever got back to her old size, she‚Äôd reward herself with new clothes.
It took almost a year and a half, but Gillibrand dropped more than 40 pounds, just in time to emerge victorious from her 2010 Senate race against Republican Joseph J. DioGuardi. Since then, her physical makeover has proved so eye-catching that it‚Äôs been noted by everyone from the media to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who famously ranked her the ‚Äúhottest‚ÄĚ member of the Senate. As flattering as the compliments are, Gillibrand thinks of her transformation not in terms of a number on the bathroom scale but of how great she feels. ‚ÄúI don‚Äôt frame it as ‚Äėlosing weight‚Äô; I would say, ‚Äėfocusing on my health.‚Äô It gives you much more energy. You feel better about yourself and have a more positive outlook. When you take time to exercise every day, it refreshes you.‚ÄĚ
Zina Saro-Wiwa‚Äôs decision last October to walk into a barbershop near her Brooklyn home and have her head shaved clean wasn‚Äôt motivated by fashion. The British-Nigerian filmmaker, who‚Äôd worn long, braided extensions for years, wanted to explore her ethnic tribe‚Äôs mourning ritual -- shaving your hair -- as part of a video installation about her inability to mourn the 1995 execution of her environmental activist father, Ken Saro-Wiwa. ‚ÄúI had every intention of putting my braids back, of not staying like that,‚ÄĚ says Saro-Wiwa, whose queasy reaction upon first seeing her reflection -- ‚ÄúThis ... isn‚Äôt attractive,‚ÄĚ she mumbles -- is recorded in her New York Times Op-Doc film, "Transition." ‚ÄúBut having my hair like that, it changed me.‚ÄĚ
She discovered that she felt exposed without a long mane and so proceeded to reinvent her look. ‚ÄúWhen you have short hair, you cannot avoid yourself,‚ÄĚ she says. ‚ÄúPeople can see your cheekbones, skin, and eyes; everything is in the foreground.‚ÄĚ She turned to a raw vegan diet and drank alkaline, ionized water. ‚ÄúI know a lot of people think it‚Äôs hokum,‚ÄĚ she says, ‚Äúbut I tried those two things and that‚Äôs when I felt my healthiest and my skin and eyes looked best.‚ÄĚ
While falling in love with her TWA (‚Äúteeny weenie afro‚ÄĚ), Saro-Wiwa became fascinated by the ‚Äúnatural hair‚ÄĚ movement, which encourages women, and black females in particular, to give up unhealthy processing and let their hair go free. ‚ÄúNatural hair has always had this stigma attached to it, especially in America. During slavery -- and still today -- natural hair was seen as being rural, unkempt, and uneducated. Even now, people feel the need to look done.‚ÄĚ
The trend isn‚Äôt just cultural; straightening hair can have dangerous consequences. A 2011 study in the American Journal of Epidemiology found that regular use of hair-processing chemicals may cause scalp lesions and increase the risk of uterine fibroids. ‚ÄúWe‚Äôre realizing that what we have naturally is acceptable,‚ÄĚ says Saro-Wiwa. ‚ÄúSuddenly I feel like me, and it feels very good.‚ÄĚ
Members of 12-step programs often talk about rock bottom, the moment their lives became so out of control that they sought help. For Anna David, who grew up in California‚Äôs Marin County, that never happened. ‚ÄúI didn‚Äôt have a big dramatic event. My bottom went on for years,‚ÄĚ says David, who was stealing liquor from her parents‚Äô cabinet by age 12 and had discovered her drug of choice -- cocaine -- by high school.
She was a twentysomething with a degree in creative writing and uncertainty about the future when she moved to L.A. By the time she finally checked herself into rehab, in 2000, her days and nights had begun to blend: lines of coke, then chain-smoking and shots of vodka. To offset binges, she would go to punishing spin classes. Though a witty prose stylist, she kept getting fired from jobs. ‚ÄúI was suicidal. I‚Äôd always suffered from depression -- cocaine and alcohol and cigarettes only exacerbated that,‚ÄĚ says David, who eventually began working the steps and attending meetings. ‚ÄúI was grateful to see people who smiled and said, ‚ÄėI‚Äôm so glad you‚Äôre here!‚Äô At the end, I was all alone. Nobody had been happy to see me in a long time.‚ÄĚ
Nearly 12 years later, David is still drug-, alcohol-, and cigarette-free and does Pilates, spinning, or CrossFit every other day. She‚Äôs converted her journey to sobriety into two novels and a memoir, and she is the executive editor of The Fix, a website devoted to addiction and recovery. When people ask if it‚Äôs hard to avoid drugs and alcohol, David always thinks the same thing: ‚ÄúHard? That old way of living was hard. This is easy."
In the late ‚Äô70s, all it took for New York fashion designer Norma Kamali to alter her never-before-considered eating habits was a change of address. ‚ÄúThere was this great loft overlooking the river, so I moved into the Meatpacking District,‚ÄĚ says Kamali, who recalls how breathing in the scent of carcasses quickly turned her into a vegetarian. Soon she had quit cigarettes, too, making her an anomaly in her hard-partying disco crowd.
In fashion, Kamali has always been a skillful improviser. She came up with the idea for her signature down-filled puffer coat when she was on a camping trip and nature called: As she dashed toward a bush, wrapped in her sleeping bag, it occurred to her that it might be nice with sleeves. Her approach to diet and exercise has that same sense of experimentation. ‚ÄúI tried lots of different things, like macrobiotic diets and juice-fasting, to see what worked,‚ÄĚ says Kamali. She traded 10 cups of coffee a day for green tea and, in 2001, gave up fast food. Seven years later, she cut out processed foods and sugar.
This all comes naturally to Kamali, 67, whose earliest memories are of her Lebanese mother juicing and worshipping at the alter of fitness guru Jack LaLanne. Today, she does Pilates, Gyrotonics, tai chi, or Physique 57 daily. She rises early and is at her midtown office by 6 a.m. When she feels peckish, she heads downstairs to the Wellness Cafe, which she created in 2001 as a stress-free oasis for the public. Among its offerings are fresh juices, natural snacks, and olive oil, which she adds to her food every day, even taking a swig if she hasn‚Äôt had enough. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs like a lubricant for your intestines,‚ÄĚ she says.
In the early ‚Äô90s, at the age of 22, Elena Brower was introduced to yoga, and for the Long Island native, it was instant love. ‚ÄúYoga gave me clarity and power in my body, even an elegance that I‚Äôd never experienced before,‚ÄĚ says Brower, who was working as a textile designer at the time. Within just a few years, she‚Äôd ditched the fashion career and was working full-time bringing the virtues of Downward Dog to stressed-out Manhattanites.
But while she talked (and looked) a good mind-body health game, Brower was harboring a secret: She was still, as she had been for 25 years, a ‚Äúcasual smoker.‚ÄĚ Sometimes it was half a pack a day, sometimes it was none, so Brower thought, Why bother quitting? Finally, in 2010, she met with a life coach, who helped her kick it for good. ‚ÄúWhen Jonah is fifteen,‚ÄĚ the coach asked, referring to Brower‚Äôs then- 6-year-old son, ‚Äúhow many cigarettes would you like him to be smoking a week? That‚Äôs how many you can smoke.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúThat was it,‚ÄĚ says Brower. ‚ÄúI was done. It really does kill us, and there really is no point.‚ÄĚ This month, the single mom and yogi will publish "Art of Attention: Book One," and though her own next chapter is yet to be written, she knows one thing for sure: It will be smoke-free.