Black women take center stage in April, celebrating International Black Women's History Month. In addition, April 11-17 sheds light on Black Maternal Health Week to raise awareness of the disparity of mortality rates among Black women compared to their non-Hispanic white counterparts. The discussions surrounding Black maternal mortality are becoming more mainstream with Baby Dove joining Sista Midwife Productions, "a birth advocacy, training, and consulting agency," to comprise a comprehensive list of the Black Doula Directory.
Tonya Lewis Lee has become a staunch advocate of ensuring that the American public is cognizant of alarming statistics that show "Black women are three times more likely to die from a pregnancy-related cause than White women" even though 80% of "pregnancy-related deaths in the U.S. are preventable," according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Bias, racial and gender inequities are prevalent in the American healthcare system, including other disparities such as "quality healthcare, underlying chronic conditions, and structural racism," all impair marginalized patients from having the same opportunities to receive care to uphold their "economic, physical, and emotional health," the CDC reports.
According to the organization's report, approximately 700 women die in the U.S. from pregnancy or various other pregnancy-related complications. Recently, in Detroit, Michigan, Alona White, a 25-year-old mother, died after giving birth to her second daughter; White succumbed to an emergency craniotomy that caused her brain to bleed. As a patient at Ascension St. John Moross, White underwent a C-section, a medical procedure that Lee’s documentary Aftershock also explores and shows the financial benefits hospitals and doctors reap from this particular surgery, even though it may not be conducive to the birthing process.
Lee, who co-directed and co-produced with Paula Eiselt, discusses through her documentary Aftershock about Black maternal health and places several human faces to those victimized by this growing health crisis. The Hulu doc, which is a part of the streaming service's Onyx Collective, initially premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival in the U.S. Doc Competition and was awarded the Special Jury Award: Impact for Change. Aftershock follows Omari Maynard and Bruce McIntyre, who both lost their partners, Shamony Makeba Gibson and Amber Rose Isaac, during childbirth, and how the two men, along with other family members, are in the streets providing advocacy and activism to eradicate this epidemic.
Using her background as a former human rights attorney, a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, and an author of the children's book Please, Baby, Please—which she co-wrote with her Academy awarding-winning husband, Spike Lee, she uses her platform to heighten the conversation of Black maternal health.
L-R Omari Maynard and Bruce McIntyre
Photo courtesy of Onyx Collective
xoNecole: Based on your research, what are the factors causing Black women's death in most hospitals? The documentary did expound on it, but if you can say it in your own words.
Tonya Lewis Lee: First, I want to say that most of these deaths happening with Black women from childbirth complications are preventable. When we were making the film, 65% of these deaths were preventable. Since then, a new statistic has come out that says 85% of these deaths are preventable. When you asked me what we discovered in our research about why this is happening? First and foremost, what keeps coming through is very clear that Black women are being dismissed and ignored when they express pain or discomfort or something is not right. A lot of these deaths are postpartum.
It's frustrating because it's not like women aren't seeking help, as you see in Aftershock. The two families that we cover, the two women who passed away, each of them were seeking help from their healthcare providers. Unfortunately, their calls for help were dismissed, minimized, and ultimately led to their death. I will say that what tends to happen is there is either too little intervention too late, or there tends to be too much intervention done too soon, which, unfortunately, often causes these deaths.
xoN: Is this something that residents are taught in medical school because, like the doc pointed out, the founder of gynecology J. Marion Sims, believed Black women don't feel pain? Is this ideology still continually introduced in medical schools?
TLL: My understanding, and I've heard, anecdotally, that it is still taught in med schools today that Black people do not suffer or have the same kind of pain that white patients do, which is insane to me that we're still having these conversations. I empathize with doctors because I think they are trained in such a way--it's a patriarchal, technocratic system. They go through rigorous training, which is great, but they're also kind of dehumanized doctors, when they're going through a process so that by the time they get to their patients, they often inadvertently treat their patients in the way they have to rush, let's get through to the problem. What's the problem? Let's solve it.
I'll go back to the question you asked before about what's causing these deaths also, is that [birthing] is not woman-centered, and what I mean by that is, when a woman is giving birth, as opposed to listening to her desires and how she wants to give birth and who she needs in the room, what is she doing and how is it working for her? Unfortunately, a lot of times, it's more on the doctor's schedule, what works for the doctor, and what's efficient for the doctor. Why do we lay on our backs and put our legs up? Well, because it's easier for the doctor to get in there than allowing a woman to move around during her labor to help the baby work its way down. So the baby gets in position, and she's able to do what she wants to do. I think that a lot of education works against the natural birthing process.
xoN: Regarding the medical schools, is there any way we can change how they're instructed? How can we upgrade their curriculum on how they handle Black maternity?
TLL: I agree with you, and I will say, at least some of the good news; I see that with Aftershock, we've been invited by medical schools to bring the film. We were at Harvard and Columbia [to show the film] to their residents and converse with me, my co-director, and the film's protagonist. To your point, they need to be educated; differently, they're beginning to understand that and are looking at it [but] it's going to take a little bit of time to turn the ship. But at least there's a conversation that is starting to happen, but I completely agree with you that med schools need to start thinking about how they teach maternal care.
And again, even the midwifery programs, too, because I am a big advocate for midwives. Yet, they're not enough midwives in general in the United States, and they're certainly not enough Black midwives. So, to that point, we also need to work on the pipeline of doctors, Obstetricians, and Gynecologists, because there's a shortage of doctors. There's a shortage of nurses, and certainly Black nurses and doctors. We want to think about who's going to med school and how we cultivate them so that we have a workforce that can care for all of us.
Photo courtesy of Onyx Collective
xoN: To add to that point, maybe there should be a movement to have Black owned hospitals. Many Jewish communities have their own doctors and ambulances. Is that also something we need to start putting on our agenda to start creating Black-owned hospitals in these cities with a high Black population?
TLL: I think we can [have] Black hospitals; we're talking about education in general. Our issue as a community is whether we need more resources or we need to focus the resources in that way. It's worth thinking about. Looking to our HBCUs, our Black students, bringing them through to get us to a place where we could create that kind of thing. I don't think it's a bad thing. A study showed that when Black doctors treat Black infants, they have better outcomes. So I think a movement towards ensuring that we have more Black doctors, more Black nurses, a robust Black health care system to begin with, or at least doctors. Having an awesome Black hospital that's important for us would be amazing because we do not have the resources to do that.
xoN: How can we change policy as it relates to the health of Black women when they're giving birth? What can we do?
TLL: Well, the good news is policies are moving through Congress right now, the Momnibus bills, its pieces of legislation, a group of bills. One in particular that is great that I believe recently passed is making sure that women have Medicaid coverage through their first year of birthing; I think it's important that we deal with women a year postpartum because, again, as I said earlier, most of these deaths do happen postpartum. Many women who don't have coverage get lost, and they don't see doctors thereafter or are not seen. We need to ensure policies that make sure that women have the support they need. For example, doulas get covered by insurance companies and Medicaid as well.
I think midwives are really important to this process; the United States is the only industrialized nation that does not have midwifery care at the center of women's health care. So we need to ensure that when women go to midwives, they can get reimbursed. So those are some policies that can have an impact. I will say voting matters because our politicians, locally at the federal level, but particularly locally, and our state and local governments are the ones that drive the policies and our communities around birthing. I think, as individuals, we need to be out there voting, ensuring women can get the support they need.
Also, to the voting piece because many hospitals in the Black communities have been divested from [offering] the services, if they do have maternal health care at all. They don't have a lot of services. So we want to make sure that our hospitals and our communities are well-resourced so that they can provide the care they need for people, especially when they're in distress.
Photo courtesy of Onyx Collective
xoN: What was your experience when you gave birth to your children?
TLL: I appreciate that question. It's interesting. When I gave birth to my children, my daughter is now 27; my son is 25. I didn't know about midwives. So I had a wonderful doctor who was a friend of the family. But even then, I look back with a little frustration because my water broke, I went to the hospital, my family was there, and it was like, 'We can just move this thing along, let's get you on Pitocin get you going,' and I did that and stayed in the hospital overnight. Then the contractions were coming hard, as they do, especially when you're on Pitocin.
They suggested that I have an epidural, which I had. Then, my lips started to numb because they told me I was only supposed to be numb from the waist down. But I was beginning to feel numb over my entire body. I told my anesthesiologist to turn it down, my lips were numb, and she kept saying, 'Well, no, if I turn it down, I have to turn it off, and you're gonna feel pain.' I was like, I need to feel something because I'm now not feeling anything. I had to get nasty with her and didn't want to do it. Because you're laying there, you're vulnerable; I couldn't move. My mother and sister were there, and then they started noticing my oxygen levels were getting weird. I was like, 'You need to turn it off, and I had to get nasty for [the nurse to] finally turn down the anesthesia so that I can at least feel something. Thank God everything was fine, and my daughter was fine. Similarly with my son, a different doctor this time, by the way, both Black women, lovely people, but in a system, right?
With my son, the same thing happened; similarly, my water began to leak, and I was saved in a way by the nurse because at one point I was pushing, and the doctor was like, 'Okay, his umbilical cord is around his neck, his shoulders are stuck,' and she just stopped. The nurse said, 'This may hurt a little bit,' She put her hands on my stomach and pushed my son out. Again, I was fine, thank God, and the children are fine, but in retrospect, I wish I had allowed my body time to do what it wanted to do, and I think I would have been fine. I don't think I needed Pitocin. I don't think I needed the epidural if I had done it that way. But that's the way I did it back then.
But I joke with my daughter that by the time she's ready, I'm ready, and we're going to get it right this time because I don't think that surviving birth is what it should be. I think we should thrive in our births and be able to have beautiful birthing experiences that are not with trauma. And I'm not saying they don't have pain, but I believe that the pain that one goes through is what we're supposed to go through. I don't think women should suffer. But as Helena Grant, the midwife in our film, says that when a woman is birthing a baby, she's not just birthing a baby, she's birthing a mother, and it's a rite of passage that we have to go through to get on that other side. So we are prepared to take care of this young life we've just brought here.
xoN: How can women protect themselves when pregnant or about to give birth in this environment?
TLL: First of all, shop around for your healthcare provider. If you go to a health care provider and you don't connect with them, then keep looking for that health care provider that is right for you. First and foremost, ask as many questions as you can ask. Remember that you're in the power seat, you should be empowered; you're about to go through something amazing. Make sure you get the support you need. No [woman] can be doing everything in the moment of labor and birthing.
So make sure you have the right energy and people around you who can advocate for you and support you the way you need during your birthing process. I was with these people through the process of this documentary. I was able to be up close and personal with people grieving from a loss but activated by the loss. I was able to be up close and personal with people going through the birthing process themselves, trying to figure it out for themselves as well. So it's been quite a journey.
Aftershock is now streaming on Hulu.
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Feature image by Keith Williams
This post is in partnership with Ulta Beauty.
Gone are the days where we prioritize “the grind” over our own wellbeing. #Teamnosleep is canceled. Millennial women are prioritizing themselves and their rest above all else, and we love to see it. We’re seeing proof of this powerful shift everywhere we look, but especially in the #softlife hashtag that’s been trending all over social media. The soft life movement is all about pursuing the path of least resistance, choosing ease over struggle, and relaxing in your vulnerability.
xoNecole and Ulta Beauty have identified six beauty influencers who are fully embracing the “soft life.” They’re rejecting the notion that their worth is measured by their professional output, how many followers they have, or how hard they’re hustling. Each of these creative powerhouses has learned to make self-care a non-negotiable in their lives while walking into the fullness of their most authentic selves. There will always be a demand for more content amidst the ever-changing algorithms, but as influencers like Tiffany Renee, Caitlyn Davis, and Alanna Doherty know all too well, you can’t properly show up for others until you fully show up for yourself first.
Read all about how these six beauty influencers are approaching the soft life on their own terms.
Hometown: Atlanta, GA
As a full-time content creator and founder of the college clothing label HBCU Yearbook, Caitlyn Davis is no stranger to hard work. She started gaining followers while attending undergrad at FAMU, filming natural hair tutorials for YouTube in her dorm room. From there, she steadily picked up ambassador gigs for popular online fashion and beauty brands. “[They were] paying us around $300 a month,” she remembers. “I thought I was doing something with my money. I was like, ‘What? I'm getting paid to do something that I love?’ It became a snowball effect.”
After linking up with a cousin who had just become a makeup artist, Caitlyn fell in love with the idea of creating beauty content. “Beauty just elevates your personality,” she tells xoNecole. “And because it does that, you just feel better about yourself. And when you do that and show other people and they start learning and getting better at makeup and beauty, their personality and confidence starts to elevate as well.”
Caitlyn admits that maintaining a healthy work-life balance doesn’t come easy for her. She’s a self-proclaimed workaholic who takes pride in her business. “[I’ve learned] the soft life is working hard for what you want but knowing we're deserving of the best life has to offer, including rest.” When life gets overwhelming, she turns to the great outdoors. “I go on hikes,” she says. “There’s something about being in nature, being grounded, hearing birds, the trees moving, and water [flowing] that immediately de-stresses me."
Hometown: Knoxville, TN
Tiffany Renee grew up on a farm in Tennessee, where her first introduction to the world of beauty and fashion came via Tyra Banks. The smizing supermodel’s competition series “America’s Next Top Model” drew this southern girl in. “Beauty wasn't really a thing [in the environment I grew up in],” she says. “So I've got to give it to Tyra. A lot of my posing and wearing my makeup a certain way had a lot to do with Tyra and how she coached those models. As I got older and started experimenting more with makeup, I just grew to love it more and more.” Tiffany says she sharpened her makeup skills by learning one thing at a time, starting with winged eyeliner. Next brows, and then lashes. Along the way, she made it a point to develop the techniques that worked for her face rather than copying and pasting from YouTube tutorials.
After moving to Atlanta in 2012, Tiffany began to rack up followers on Instagram with her beauty, hair, and fashion content. She even created an online community called “Curl Gang,” which celebrates the beauty and versatility of natural hair. With all she’s accomplished, Tiffany says she’s most proud of shedding her tough exterior and learning to be vulnerable. “My life has been pretty tough, so that made me a tough woman,” she tells xoNecole. “In my relationships, I've always had this tough persona on the outside, but really, I'm internally very much a soft person.
“For me, taking on the soft life was doing the work to break that mold, and accept that it's okay to be vulnerable,” she continues. “It's okay to be expressive. It's okay to love people. It's not just about the tasks of my life, but more so about my well-being. I’m actively deciding not to hold onto things that make me [have to] be tough.”
Hometown: Napa, California
They say if you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life. Kinya Claiborne is living proof. This lifestyle influencer has a professional resume that would make any recruiter salivate. She’s worked in print, television, and radio, and has even overseen public relations for billion-dollar projects. But like all creatives at heart, there came a point in her career where she felt a calling elsewhere. “My job wasn't sexy,” she admits. “I still loved my job and I loved working in corporate America, but there was a void. There were other things that I also loved that my job wasn't fulfilling.”
Inspired by the DailyCandy newsletters she used to read in college, Kinya launched her own lifestyle magazine called Style & Society which covers fashion, beauty, health, wellness, entertainment, travel - all the things Kinya loves. What started as a creative outlet turned into a booming business. Her readers wanted to know more about her, which led her to posting photos of herself inside her stories. “I started Style & Society back in 2013. The term influencer didn't exist back then. Brands started contacting me and wanting me to do product placements and campaigns. That's how my social media following started growing. Then eventually, the term influencer came about, and at that point, I had already been doing it.”
As you can tell from her Instagram, Kinya is always well put together. Her early beauty memories include getting her hair done at the salon with her mom and wearing different lipstick colors to school. Kinya says she’s always been a girly girl. but she’s as resilient as they come. The Northern Californian survived the Route 91 festival shooting in 2017. She also lost her brother to suicide. From her perspective, being soft isn’t just about pampering yourself, but showing up for those around you. “You can't just look at someone and know how they're feeling,” she says. “It’s so important to check in, because even a phone call, text message, or just saying hello to a stranger could really change their path.”
Hometown: Jacksonville, Florida
For Taylor Winbush, presentation is everything. Embracing that belief has gotten her far. “My mom would always say ‘dress how you want to be treated,’” she says. “She would always dress up to go to the grocery store, making sure her hair was always done, and she was fresh-faced. She taught me that when you look better, you feel better.”
As a dancer and theater performer, Taylor got to hone in on her makeup skills early. “I remember even from a young age, when I used to take ballet classes, they would make you do your makeup way in the back of the mirror to make sure you'd be able to see it [far from the stage].” After moving to Atlanta in 2019 to pursue a career in acting and commercial modeling, Taylor discovered she could book more gigs if she added “content creator” to her resume. As a beauty lover, it came naturally to her, and it’s paid off tenfold.
At the start of the year, Taylor stepped out on faith and decided to work for herself full-time. She acknowledges that it’s a risk, but nothing a little discipline can’t manage. “As long as I'm doing my part, then I truly and firmly believe that God will handle the rest.”
Aside from constantly developing her self-discipline, Taylor says she’s embracing the soft life by taking care of her physical and spiritual temple. “I'm a super giving person, so I would give a lot of my time to friends and family, making sure everyone else is taken care of before me,” she says. “There's a saying that if you help someone build their sandcastle first, then what will you have left to build? I’m learning you have to take care of yourself first in order for you to help someone else.”
Hometown: Jacksonville, FL
Fashion and beauty haven’t always been a welcoming world for curvy women, but that hasn’t stopped influencer Thamarr Guerrier from accepting her rightful seat at the table. This bubbly and effervescent content creator started her lifestyle blog, Musings of a Curvy Lady, back in 2012 on her lunch break working as a nurse. “I started [my blog] as a way to promote personal style and beauty in this body of mine,” Thamarr shared on her site. “Visibility matters and you’re going to see me. I’m going to take up all the space and bring my own chair to the table.”
Thamarr’s beauty memories stem all the way back to childhood. “I was obsessed with watching my mother do her hair and makeup in the mirror,” she says. “I played dress-up in her clothes and would sneak and put on her mascara. I just couldn’t wait to be old enough to wear lipstick.”
If you peep her IG feed, you’ll notice Thamarr documents her globetrotting in head-turning looks that will make you want to book a one-way ticket to your nearest island. But it’s actually not her extravagant travel experiences that bring her the most peace. It’s the little things, like sipping a glass of wine during her skincare routine as Kacey Musgraves plays in the background. “After a shower, I always feel a little better, especially after a crummy day,” she tells xoNecole. “It’s also my favorite place to shed a tear or two. After my literal and sometimes emotional cleanse, I feel renewed. I talk positively to myself as I pamper myself with my favorite products. Taking the time and being purposeful as I go.”
Thamarr’s interpretation of “the soft life” is to live and love in a way that makes her inner being the happiest. “If it brings me peace, it’s the soft life for me.”
Hometown: Bridgetown, Barbados
It’s hard not to feel a spark of joy when you browse through Alanna Doherty’s IG page. It’s chock-full of Alanna dressed to the nines in bright psychedelic patterns. Her lush ‘fro bounces back and forth in all its glory as Alanna jams to her favorite tunes. Alanna is happiness personified, but her initial introduction to beauty was quite the opposite. “I started loving makeup and beauty products because I felt they were necessary in order to cover up my insecurities,” she tells xoNecole. “I’m finally starting to truly fall in love with them this year. I no longer need a full face of makeup to make me feel good. I’m perfectly happy going without any at all now, but love that I have the option to play with makeup. It’s more of a creative process now and I LOVE that!”
Alanna’s bold and colorful aesthetic is brave and inspiring. And when it comes to the soft life, she’s honest enough to admit that she’s figuring it out along the way. “For years I’ve been putting my own self-care behind work and I’m now starting to realize its importance in my life,” she says. “I’ve still got a long way to go but ‘the soft life’ to me would be creating the space to focus on myself and taking the time to enjoy it. I see long walks along the beach, spas, more hot yoga, and relaxing on the balcony.”
Featured image courtesy of Tiffany Renee
Congratulations are in order for Cori “Coco” Gauff, who won her first 2023 US Open on Saturday. The 19-year-old defeated Aryna Sabalenka in a 2-6, 6-3, 6-2 win, making her the first American teenager since Serena Williams to win the coveted title. After her win, Coco gave an inspiring speech about not giving up.
"Thank you to the people who didn’t believe in me," she said. "Like, a month ago, I won a (World Tennis Association) 500 title, and people said I would stop at that. Two weeks ago, I won a 1000 title, and people were saying that was as big as it was going to get. Three weeks later, I’m here with this trophy now.
She continued, “I’ve tried my best to carry this with grace, and I’ve been doing my best so, honestly, to those who thought you were putting water in my fire, you were actually adding gas to it. And now I’m really burning too bright right now."
Many celebrities, including Coco’s idol, Serena, took to Instagram to share their excitement about Coco’s win. “Ahhhhhhhhhhh!!!! Amazing!!!!!!!! @cocogauff,” Serena wrote on her Instagram story. Coco also praised Serena and her sister Venus for their contributions to tennis during her trophy presentation and post-match conference.
“Crazy. They’re the reason why I have this trophy today,” she said. “To be honest, they’ve allowed me to believe in this dream. Growing up, there wasn’t too many just Black tennis players dominating the sport. It was literally at that time when I was younger, it was just them that I can remember.
She continued, “And obviously, more came because of their legacy. So it made the dream more believable. But all the things that they had to go through they made it easier for someone like me to do this. I mean, you look back at the history with the Indian Wells, with Serena, all she had to go through, Venus fighting for equal pay.
“It’s just like it was crazy. And it’s an honor to be in that kind of lineup as them, and I’m looking at it, and she’s won this a lot of times.”
Along with her trophy, Coco also walks away with $3 million in prize money. As her fame continues to rise, we’ll be sure to get to know the Florida native better. But for now, here are three things we do know about Coco.
She still lives at home with her parents
As a 19-year-old millionaire, one would think she would have her own nice pad in the trendiest neighborhood, but Coco actually still lives with her parents. Coco made the declaration in a recent Instagram Live after her big win. When someone asked her about using her prize money to pay off debt, she revealed that she doesn’t have debt because she still lives at home with her parents.
Her aunt gave her the nickname Coco
Coco is named after her dad, Corey. However, having the same name became confusing for the family, and thus the nickname was born. "I believe it was my aunt who said, 'Oh, we should just call her Coco,'" she in an interview with Sports Illustrated Kids in 2021. "When my dad was growing up, people used to call him Co and I guess they just said, 'Oh, Coco’s a cool nickname.' Ever since then, I’ve been going by Coco. For sure more people used Coco than Cori."
She’s open about her Christian faith
After winning, the tennis phenom dropped down to her knees and prayed. Coco reflected on that moment with her Monday interview with Today. "I was just saying thank you, and I understood all the tough times were just to make that moment even sweeter," she said. "I think if it came easy, I wouldn't feel as appreciative as I did in that moment, clearly."
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Feature image by Elsa/Getty Images