Women truly are the root of a community’s health, and filmmaker, author, and now women’s health advocate Tonya Lewis Lee understands that.
With award-winning documentaries such as, I Sit Where I Want: The Legacy of Brown v. Board of Education, her own film production company Tonik Productions, and features in O, Essence, Redbook, as well as books co-written with husband Spike Lee, the mother of two is now lending her voice to women’s health. And like so many people before her, Lee’s calling found her.
Lee’s role as spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health’s infant mortality awareness campaign, “A Healthy Baby Begins with You,” opened her eyes to the nuances and challenges of women’s health, particularly for women of color. The wife and mother admits that she was surprised to learn of the disparities of infant mortality rates between Black and White women in the U.S.
“If our babies aren’t well, our women aren’t well, and if our women aren’t well then that means our communities aren’t well,” says Lewis.
Lee would go on to write and produce Crisis in the Crib: Saving our Nation’s Babies for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and sustain a women’s health digital source “Healthy You Now,” both inspired by her time as an infant mortality health spokesperson.
Currently, Lee has launched Movita, a women’s health multivitamin designed for the active women’s lifestyle. In a time where women are expected to be “always on,” Lee says her new multivitamin can aid women.
“No one pill can solve all your health and wellness problems” Lee admits. “But Movita does assist in helping women to stay in motion.”
In this exclusive interview with EBONY.com, Lee shares her personal health challenges, details how the community can help keep their women healthy, and tells us why society shouldn’t overlook women of color when it comes to health discrepancies.
EBONY: Did you struggle with any health problems growing up?
Lee: I did. I was a chubby little kid. At 13, I use to go to weekly weigh-ins with my pediatrician. We would talk about nutrition and the importance of exercise. I knew that in order to be at least the size or the weight I wanted to be, what I ate and how much I exercised had an impact. At a very young age, I was always struggling with my weight.
EBONY: It sounds like you were able to instill a good sense of self and what being healthy meant at a young age. How did you develop this in your daughter Satchel?
Lee: With her hair. That was critical for me, and she loves her natural hair. I was so grateful that I was able to learn how to do her hair the natural way, so that she loves it. I also think that with children, it’s not what you tell them; it’s that they watch everything you do. So being very aware of my diet and how I fed myself, how I fed my children, so that they believe in good food.
EBONY: That’s so true. Kids will always do what you do, not what you say.
Lee: They’re 21 and 19 and to both of them I say, “You’re healthy now, but in another four or five years you better start figuring out an exercise routine that just becomes a part of your life.” So I do talk to them about that and I try to be as healthy as I can, because I know they’re watching and they’re going to do what I do as opposed to what I tell them to do.
EBONY: OK, we open your fridge today. What will we find?
Lee: If you looked in my refrigerator right now, you would see lots of water, hummus, maybe some lemonade, and some coconut milk to go in the coffee I make in the morning. I’m in pre-production on a film, so I’m not eating at home as much.
EBONY: What do you think is fueling the health disparities that exist between Black and White women?
Lee: People think of our health really [in relation] to poverty and a lack of opportunities for things, but that’s not the entire picture. I think we as Black women need to recognize that we are vulnerable. We need to think about how we can take care of ourselves, and how we can also work to make our communities support our better lifestyle. I would say being supportive, being helpful, and not expecting momma to do it all. I do think that we as women need to be able to allow others to help us and delegate a little bit. We can’t do it all, and we should not be expected to do it all.
EBONY: And you’re doing your part as well! You have a new organic multivitamin for women out called Movita. Tell us more.
Lee: We’re very excited about it! We were working on my platform “Healthy You Now” and talking to different professionals to come on board. We met a guy who was the CEO of an international multivitamin company who really liked what were doing and said, “Hey maybe we should think about an organic vitamin supplement.” And I had just cycled onto a very high-end premium supplement and was feeling really good. The thought of creating an organic multivitamin that is a premium product that can really support an active lifestyle for a woman was very exciting for me.
EBONY: You’re a very active and hardworking person yourself, so this seems like something that you can definitely benefit from.
Lee: I want to be working until I’m 95 years old in some way. I want to be engaged, active, and able to move, feel good, and contribute. I know in order to do that I’ve got to take care of my body. So, for me it’s really about taking care of my physical, mental, and spiritual well-being to carry me through my life, so I can do all the things I want to accomplish.
EBONY: There’s also this stereotype that Black women aren’t involved in their own health. How are you working to change that narrative?
Lee: I think that women of color are doing a whole lot more than people think. You have Black Girls Run. There are a lot of sisters out there running. And, I think that it’s complicated. There’s a lot of stress that we [Black women] are under. We are out here trying to figure it out. By the way, for the United States, White women aren’t doing so great either. You hear the statistics about Black women as it relates to White women in this country. But the truth is that White women should be doing a whole lot better than they are, and they’re not. It’s complex, and we need to hold our communities accountable to support our well-being. Yes we need to hear the statistics, but at the same time, I don’t want to beat up on Black women about not taking care of themselves because it’s so complex.
EBONY: Earlier in our conversation you mentioned your digital destination, “Healthy You Now.” Can you tell us more about the platform?
Lee: “Healthy You Now” is a derivative of my work with The Infant Mortality Awareness Campaign. I wanted to create a platform to get that information out to a broader audience in more of a girlfriend to a girlfriend way. Our intention is to be a community for women to receive and share information about health and wellness.
EBONY: What’s next for Tonya Lewis Lee?
Lee: One of the things I’m looking forward to growing is hosting offline events. I love to sit with women across the country to talk about what the barriers are in particular communities because each community is different. What are those barriers to health and wellness? What are the good thing that are happening? What do they think they can do to help their community? Those events are just so great because it sparks conversation.