health first (cover)*The health of black women is in crisis and it’s time they take charge, according to Eleanor Hinton Hoytt who co-authored, Health First! The Black Woman’s Wellness Guide.

A passionate leader in the women’s health movement, Hinton Hoytt is the president and CEO of the Black Women’s Health Imperative, the leading organization advancing the health and wellness of the nation’s 20 million black women and girls across their lifespan physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually.

In support of the book, published by Tavis Smiley’s SmileyBooks and co-authored by Hilary Beard (an award-winning health journalist specializing in health, healthy lifestyle, and personal development), Hoytt is on a nine-city tour around the country to inspire, encourage, and motivate Black women everywhere to achieve a healthy future.  The tour started in Baltimore, MD and will include stops in Los Angeles, CA (Feb. 7), Houston, TX, (Feb. 9), Philadelphia, PA (Feb. 25-26), New York, NY (Feb. 29), Chicago, IL (March 8), Boston, MA (March 13) and Atlanta, GA (March 16).

I caught up with Hoytt recently to discuss the book and the state of black women’s health.

Darlene Donloe: What is the state of black women’s health?

Eleanor Hinton Hoytt: We really have to deal with the fact that we are still in a crisis. It’s not just black women. It’s this country. There is an overuse of emergency rooms and a lack of preventive care. Black women fail to put their health and themselves first. We’re very good caregivers and not self-givers. Until we do that we won’t be able to address the chronic conditions.

DD: The book says black women’s Top 10 health risks include heart disease, cancer, obesity, depression, and violence. Are we predisposed to get these diseases and if so, why?

EHH: No, that’s a good question. We’re not predisposed. We’re not destined to be ill or have diabetes.  We’re not destined to have heart disease. It doesn’t affect all black women. In fact, it doesn’t really start  affecting black women until age 65. It has to do with lifestyle, societal expectations, our legacy, our cultural dynamics, being the sacrificial lamb in the home, church and community. It’s mind-blowing. To be a strong, dead woman or crippled or unhappy woman – doesn’t make any sense. We claim to be strong, black women and wear it as a badge of honor. We need more laughter and joy and more connectedness to everyone. We live in isolation. We haven’t forgiven ourselves for not being as perfect as we want to be.

DD: Does class, education and income come into play in regards to our health?

EHH: It comes into play. What it means is that some of us have more access to resources. But it doesn’t mean we take the corrective actions that won’t put us into risk. We’re struggling to aspire for more. It’s hard to keep up Teflon lives with out Teflon children and Teflon lawns. There’s a lot of pain we don’t share with others. Lets come out of denial and self-neglect. In order for me to be loving to my daughter, I have to be very healthy, emotionally and physically. Our families and our children deserve that.

DD: What do you see as your role as the president and CEO of the Black Women’s Health Imperative?

EHH: Giving voice to those who are without a voice. It’s about articulating a vision and making black women’s health a priority.

DD: Why is it so hard for black women to self-care?

EHH: It’s directly related to cultural legacies, historical realities, racism, sexism and oppression and eternalized guilt, as well as always being subjected to other people’s expectations and resenting or trying to live up to white women’s standards of beauty. It’s a culmination of that.

You have to love yourself. You have to care about yourself to say, “no.” as Billy says. make that a complete sentence. We’re always trying to solve someone else’s problems.

$26,600 median income for black women.

I really love myself.

DD: What is the one thing black women can do right now to improve their health?

EHH: No one has ever asked me that question. I would think the one thing they could do is pause long enough to find out what they want.   I think that until one knows who they are, they will not be able to take a decisive step to health and wellness. Get in touch with your feelings and emotions and pain. Try to conjure up some joy. Forgive yourself. To do that you have to be aware of who you are. That’s not a medical solution. Until we come to grips with who we are – we are not going to be able to figure out anything.

DD: This is extremely comprehensive. Why did you write the book?

EHH: This book was needed. Of all the books on the market, no one gives us the facts and exposes our truth and realities and gives voice to women who suffered and can give hope and aspirations by overcoming handicaps and vulnerabilities.  We needed to hear and read about these women. We needed to know the leading health conditions affecting us. Our girls need us. They want to do better. And they want us to help them do better.  Very few people are talking about the health of black women. It needed to be written to give us hope and motivate us to be better. We’re not doing as well as we say we are doing.  Maya Angelou says ‘when we know better we can do better.’

DD: What was the most shocking thing you found out about black women’s health?

EHH: I have to admit that because I’ve been associated with the organization, I knew a lot of this. I’m not sure I was shocked by anything. We started a sister circle in 1983 as a way for them to come together and share their stories. If you had asked me then, I would have said everything from rape, incest, heart disease, etc. I take it back, I was surprised in suicide in adolescence. We talk about it on page 31, under Emotional Well-Being. It’s a growing problem as 18 percent of black girls have considered suicide, while another 13 had actually made a plan.  That is what shocked me.

DD: Is it too late for some women to make a turnaround?

EHH: No, it’s never too early and never too late. If we consider ourselves a victim, it will be harder.  We are so resilient. We have overcome so many difficulties in our own lives.

DD: If we can only read one chapter in the book, which chapter should we read?

EHH: One of the best parts is Chapter 9 about self-care. What we tried to do is say, ok, this is not a prescriptive book. It’s a resource book. There are things you can do now to maintain good health. These are simple things you can take. First is to know your body. Girls say nobody is teaching them about their bodies. This chapter tells you how to do your homework, how to go to the doctor prepared and what to expect as a patient. We have rights.

DD: Have you ever fallen victim to that same trap of not taking care of yourself?

EHH: No, I’m chronically gifted. I’m over 65. No medication. I’m a size 6-8 depending on what day it is. I have a rigid diet during the week cause it gives me energy. This has been an intentional decision I made in 1980 when I became a single mother. I knew in order to raise my daughter to be healthy and happy, I would have to be healthy and happy.

For more information about HEALTH FIRST! The Black Woman’s Wellness Guide:

Darlene Donloe is an entertainment journalist based in Southern california. Contact her at [email protected].