In South Africa, Womxn’s Month is a historic tribute to the thousands of womxn, from across the country, who marched to the Union Buildings, on 9 August 1956, to protest the extension of Apartheid Pass Laws to womxn. We celebrate Womxn’s Month as a commemoration of the resilient, remarkable, passionate, multi-faceted, inspirational womxn, that form the past, present, and future of our country.
This Womxn’s Month, in honour and celebration of South African womxn, we want to share with you a short series of conversations with a few inspirational, trailblazing South African womxn. We hope their stories and their words remind you of your own potential, as we continue to shape the future we hope for.
In this week’s Trailblazing Womxn series, I have had the privilege of speaking to Dr. Carmen James again as we talk about how she navigates her online presence, holistic medicine, and the harmful culture of secrecy regarding womxn’s health. Dr. Carmen James is a general practitioner and a certified health and wellness coach, with further certifications in integrative medicine, which takes a holistic approach to healing. She has special interests in womxn's health and cannabis medicine, which is translated onto her active social media accounts.
When did you know you wanted to be a doctor and why?
Dr. Carmen James: That’s a great question, because the honest answer is that I didn’t know. I landed in Medicine quite unconventionally. Growing up, I had no idea what career path I wanted to pursue. I did many aptitude tests and attended multiple career days to figure it out without getting much clarity. All my personality tests showed that I was a people's person and that my career path should involve helping people. My older brother once suggested that I become a doctor, which was laughable to me at the time. One day, two medical students visited my high school to share their experiences of studying medicine. One of them made the comment that, “medicine is just glorified Biology.” That was all I needed to hear. I absolutely LOVED Biology (I still do), and I also love helping people. So, I figured I would go to Medical School and study Biology all day, then help people for the rest of my life. That’s how I ended up at Medical School.
What was your shift to holistic medicine inspired by?
Dr. Carmen James: After about a decade of practicing medicine, I found myself deeply dissatisfied and unfulfilled with relying on medication as the primary “solution” to chronic (long-term) illness, which occurs largely as a result of lifestyle choices. I felt that if there was a way to educate and empower people with practical ways to live a healthier lifestyle, then that was where I needed to be focusing. My frustration with prescribing more and more pills for conditions that could be improved with simple yet powerful lifestyle changes, such as healthy eating, exercise, stress management, and improved sleep is what led me to explore other ways to help those who were living with chronic diseases.
As a doctor, you not only practice in the office, so to say, but you also have a strong online presence that is largely focused around female health. Why did you decide to take your knowledge to the online platform?
Dr. Carmen James: I chose to start sharing about Health and Wellness online, because I believe that health information should be accessible to all. It was the only way that I could empower a wider audience with what I believe is potentially life-changing knowledge on a large scale. It is also an opportunity for me to discover exactly what the challenges are as I rely on the feedback, questions, and requests that I receive to inform my content.
Online, your content is largely targeted towards womxn, and has created a space for womxn to learn more and engage with information about our bodies. What has motivated the focus on womxn’s health?
Dr. Carmen James: I draw from my own health journey which helps me to relate and share based on what has worked for me. More importantly, Womxn’s Health has been notoriously neglected over the years, and I believe that it is about time that we focus on the holistic health and wellbeing of womxn. I also believe that when you empower womxn, you empower nations and generations to come. The power that womxn hold to influence those around them is exponential, and healthy womxn will have a profound, long-term impact on our world that will resonate and compound over time.
What tips would you give womxn in the medical field wanting to extend their work or knowledge online?
Dr. Carmen James: Just start. There is no perfect time, there will always be something that’s “not right” or “not quite perfect yet.” Don’t allow that to hold you back. Like Brené Brown said, “perfectionism is a 20-ton shield that we lug around thinking it will protect us when, in fact, it's the thing that's really preventing us from being seen and taking flight.” You have an incredible wealth of knowledge and experience to share with the world and the world needs your voice and your story. Start where you are and use what you have, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant. What you have to offer will help those who need to hear from you.
As a coloured women, do you feel that womxn’s health is something that needs to be focused on more closely in our community and that speaking about traditionally “sensitive” topics such as sex, periods, PCOS, etc. should be normalised?
Dr. Carmen James: Absolutely. There is a double discrimination, in Healthcare and in general, that occurs when womxn are brown-skinned. This is what makes it all the more important for the health challenges that we face to be highlighted. We have a culture of secrecy surrounding womxn’s health that is shrouded in silence and shame. This only perpetuates and feeds the injustices that we face. Talking openly about “sensitive” issues helps to open a few windows and let some fresh air in which allows us to begin to feel safe, heard, and validated in a world that traditionally perpetuates a culture of being seen and not heard.
As a womxn practicing in a male-dominated career, have there been times when navigating your professional space as a womxn was challenging? If so, what advice would you give to womxn who are leading in the same career path?
Dr. Carmen James: In my experience, studying Medicine was tough because the learning environment, especially during practicals, was usually hostile. Seniors were often aggressive, condescending, and seemed to get a thrill out of belittling medical students. I think that this was challenging for everyone, regardless of gender. I wouldn’t say that I experienced overt discrimination based on gender throughout my practice of medicine, however, I think that this does vary from department to department as some branches of medicine tend to be more male-dominated and egocentric than others. To those who do experience challenges in this regard, I would say that silence and inaction provide as much fuel to the fire as overt acts of discrimination. Speak up against injustice and never be afraid to call out discrimination.
Which womxn in your field inspires you and why?
Dr. Carmen James: Dr. Rachel Knox. She is a thought leader in the cannabis medicine space, a dynamic voice against inequality, and an advocate for truth, justice, and health for all. Her tenacity and boldness are truly inspiring. I am a huge fan.