Women’s History, Beauty, & Autoimmune Disease

March is Women’s History month, “commemorating and encouraging the study, observance and celebration of the vital role of women in American history”. March is also Autoimmune Awareness month. According to the Autoimmune Association, more than 50 million Americans live with an autoimmune disease; that’s more people than are living with cancer and heart disease, and the numbers keep rising. Despite its prevalence, awareness about autoimmune diseases remains shockingly low. Autoimmune diseases are often misunderstood, and their impact is underestimated. Moreover, 70-80% of those diagnosed with autoimmune diseases are women, which, unfortunately, helps explain why these diseases aren’t researched as much as they might otherwise be. As Betty White, naturally beautiful well into her nineties, is rumored to have said, “If men could get pregnant, abortions would be available in under 20 minutes at any corner Jiffy Lube. 

The Autoimmune Registry Inc. (ARI) is a hub for research, statistics, and patient data on all autoimmune diseases. It tracks prevalence/incidence, epidemiology, and longitudinal data on all autoimmune diseases, similar to the role of the National Cancer Registry for cancer patients. ARI aggregates information on all confirmed and suspected autoimmune diseases (including long Covid) and their comorbidities to help researchers identify trends to gain a deeper understanding of this complex class of conditions. If you have an autoimmune disease or long Covid, please consider joining the registry.

The immune system is complex and currently known to have three main jobs. It fights disease-causing germs and removes them from your body, it recognizes and neutralizes harmful substances from the environment, and it fights disease-causing changes in the body, such as, but not limited to, cancer cells.

Autoimmune disease occurs when your immune system, which is supposed to protect you, attacks you, instead. When studying autoimmune diseases, the main question asked is, “What causes the body to stop tolerating itself?”, which insinuates that the immune system is defective. But what if it’s not?  

What if autoimmune diseases are caused by injury or non-physiological events in cells or tissues or by defects in the detection and/or handling of stressed, injured, and dying cells, rather than by defects in the immune system itself? 

In this case, particularly during an autoimmune disease’s early development, the prodromal stage (similar to precursors like precancer or prediabetes), you still can alter the trajectory and progression of the disease by addressing diet and lifestyle. Remember, what you put in, on, and around your body matters greatly.

With some exceptions, women toxify themselves far more than men do. They plump, exfoliate, depilate, and resurface their skin, dye their hair, get fillers and implants, and undergo the knife way more than men do, all in the name of looking young and flawless, an unattainable beauty “ideal” rooted in capitalism, patriarchy, racism, and even white supremacy. The pursuit of this toxic beauty “ideal” leads to psychological, emotional, chemical, and physical stress on the body, all of which produce abnormal physiology and injury to the cells in the body, potentially driving the initiation and progression of autoimmune disease. Yet, looking young and flawless is so ingrained in society that women frequently and unconsciously impose it upon each other. 

And now, thanks to social media, the same toxic beauty “ideal” is being imposed on children. Tweens (8 to 12-year olds) are buying and using products formulated for aging skin with destructive results to their actually young and flawless skin. The obsession with looking young and flawless has finally corrupted the very age group whose skin the beauty industry upholds, venerates, and promotes as the beauty “ideal”.   

Most of these children are probably copying their favorite influencer, friends, sister, or mom. A very real danger is that by using all these seemingly benign, “natural”, performance-driven skincare products, kids are learning behaviors that nurture insecurity, a lack of self-tolerance, a fear of the normal, inevitable process of aging, and addictions to products that do more damage than good at any age. And, obviously, there’s the actual damage done to their skin and overall health.

Skin care can be the gateway to mindfulness, connection and health, or it can be a gateway to self-loathing, addiction, disconnection, and disease. Like everything else, it all depends on your approach.  

Your skin is your largest organ, the organ that has the most interaction with the environment, and upon which entire ecosystems of microbes (viruses, bacteria, and fungi) coexist. Caring for your skin by nourishing it, nurturing your connection to it, and developing a tolerance rather than an intolerance for its uniqueness has proven effective not just for me, but also for many of my clients with autoimmune diseases, dishydrotic eczema, or mystery conditions like rosacea.  

My approach to skin care is to feed skin from the outside in and within, allowing the body’s innate ability to self-heal and self-correct to occur with minimal intervention and maximum attention. To feed means to “give food to” and that’s exactly what I do; I make skincare products from whole food from researched and trusted sources, local whenever possible: goat’s milk from Dixon (from a single heirloom goat, Lafawnduh), honey from West Davis, beeswax from Sacramento, organic ginger, fresh limes, and a variety of extra virgin, cold-pressed nut and seed oils. These are all whole foods that historically have been used in skincare by various cultures around the world. Moreover, as a scientist, I know they’re safe and effective.  

While the beauty “ideal” of looking young and flawless is historically rooted in patriarchy, women have the power to change the course of history. I’m not saying we should stop caring about how we look and let ourselves go. I’m merely suggesting that it’s futile to try to fight biology, fool Mother Nature, or cheat Father Time. That has real consequences; just take a close look at celebrities who’ve strived for eternal flawlessness and glamour (accurately, the perception of “beauty” where there is none), before, during and, especially, after their so-called “beauty” treatments. That alone should be compelling enough to merit your attention. 

If you’re a woman, especially one with an autoimmune disease, do yourself a favor, make history this month; buck the beauty “ideal” of looking young and flawless.  It’s a lie, and it’s toxic.

 A version of this blog post is published in my local newspaper, the Davis Enterprise.  You may have to create a free account to read the article

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