Talking Radical Feminist Healthcare with Botanarchy’s Carolyn Barron
Posted by Courtney Mayszak, RDN, LDN
May 20, 2019
Carolyn Barron is a Los Angeles-based Chinese Medical Physician, acupuncturist, herbalist, nutritionist, and founder of Botanarchy Herbs + Acupuncture—a practice committed to providing accessible, radical healthcare while giving a voice to alternative viewpoints from marginalized areas of medicine.
Courtney Mayszak, RDN, LDN is De Lune's Lead Dietitian, overseeing clinical research and product development.
CM: Tell us about Botanarchy. What inspired you to found your practice?
CB: After a decade of working in the Chinese medical field and a lifetime of worshiping the wisdom of plants, I wanted to apply their ethos of authenticity, adaptability, resilience, and renewal to a healthcare model rooted in the principle of gentle transformation. I longed to offer my patients something that was both sacred and accessible, a communion with their bodies in an approachable environment.
I founded Botanarchy Herbs + Acupuncture in a little light-filled, plant-enshrined acupuncture studio in Los Angeles, with the idea of providing holistic primary care medicine to my community, in an inclusive space built on humanism, integrity, and respect for the flow of the natural world.
I keep my apothecary stocked with herbal products and botanicals made by friends + medicine women with a focus on DIY gynecology and menstrual care.
Botanarchy's mission statement is 'Botanical Medicine For Body Autonomy’, because I believe that botanical medicine enhances the body's innate capability to heal itself, empowering the patient as the healer and nature as the teacher.
The rich, expansive palate of nature, Taoism, and traditional Chinese medicine provide a path that engenders a true state of body autonomy, reacquainting us with the rhythms and cycles of our bodies and liberating us from a dependence on healthcare practices that undermine its intelligence and flow.
CM:You consider your approach to medicine to be radical feminist health care. How would you describe that term?
CB: While I treat the full spectrum of gender identities and expressions in a body positive environment, I consider my approach to medicine radical feminist healthcare in that it is rooted in natural models that do not suppress the true nature of the body, enhancing connection to both the microcosm of the body and the macrocosm of the earth.
Every gender expression benefits from radical feminist health care. We are all suffering from being underserved in a for-profit, disease-driven model that has taken power and autonomy out of the hands of the people and put it into the hands of corporations and politicians.
Radical feminist healthcare is oriented towards freeing us from a reliance upon medicines + institutions that are exploitive of natural resources and the body en masse. Radical feminist healthcare cultivates and values receptivity, gentleness, and subtlety, refusing to measure health by our ability to work harder, work longer, make more money, increase our sexual potency, feel better with less sleep, compete with each other, and push beyond our means and capacity.
Here are a few more core tenants of what I consider radical feminist healthcare, culled from over a decade of listening to the myriad ways my patients have been shamed, condescended, and underserved by the dominant medical model.
Radical feminist healthcare is:
- tethered to natural rhythms and embraces the cycles of change.
- based on thousands of years of observing and revering nature, not heterosexual cis white male bodies.
- insistent on inner authority.
- never shaming of choice.
- pro-autonomy, helping us recover the capacity to taste and feel and sense for ourselves.
- empowering mothers and working families with tools to take care of ourselves and our communities where the system has failed to protect and sustain us.
- acknowledging that emotions are aspects of disease, embraces their full spectrum, and is non-shaming of emotional states.
- against the immediate medicating of emotions that don’t fit the dominate narratives of health and wellness.
- age-positive, committed to providing compassionate healthcare for all stages of personhood, valuing the menstrual cycle and menopause as both sacred passages.
I literally wrote a manifesto on this subject (you can find it on my website and I encourage you to circulate it if it speaks to you!), as I find it to be a mandatory prerequisite for solving our healthcare crisis, and I am emphatic about using its tenants to rescue healthcare from the patriarchy.
CM:What does Chinese medicine get right that Western medicine gets wrong?
CB: Estrangement is a theme I see permeating the core of Western medicine. Beyond the estrangement we have with our own healthcare, the mind is estranged from the body.
The organ systems are estranged from each other. There’s an estrangement from the earth and its seasons and cycles, estrangement from our wildness, estrangement from our intuition. Whereas Western medicine likes to divide, Chinese medicine is about unification, keenly aware that everything exists in relationship.
The liver is in a relationship with the spleen, we are in a relationship with the earth, the heart is in a relationship with the mind, and so goes the dance en perpetuo.
Chinese medicine views each body as a unique ecosystem, influenced by the forces of nature and an embodiment of its cycles and patterns. The rising of sap, the falling of leaves, the rushing of water… each of these processes has its imprint in the body.
As physicians of this magical medicine, we watch the manifestations of natural cycles in the body and treat our patients in alignment with the patterns of the natural world. When we feel unwell, there are forces that impede or vitality and manifest as illness, forces that the whole ecosystem contends with: hot//cold, empty//full, dry//damp, stagnant//flowing.
When we treat by the guiding principle of unification with these forces, the end result is that our patients begin to feel less estranged from the cycles of nature, their wildness, their intuition, and their authentic selves. Its a beautiful process to witness and behold!
CM: What principles of radical feminist health care can people with periods use to help make peace with, or even empower, their menstrual cycle?
CB: This is perhaps my favorite question ever! Honestly, the best part of my job is that I literally talk about menstrual cycles all day. Gratitude, gratitude, gratitude.
Radical feminist healthcare is about embracing cycles, and also shadow. In refusing to industrialize the rhythms and cycles of the body, we must instead lean into them -all of them- listening to them, accepting them, and revering them.
This goes for all phases of the monthly journey, not just the times we feel productive, sexy, strong, and limitless. Shadow notoriously creeps into certain phases of our cycle (for me, it’s the week leading up to my period, for some it’s the hotsy totsy frenzy of ovulation), and we often feel guilt and shame for the person that emerges in these tender states.
Shadow work is wildly undervalued in our culture, and as a result, we can’t move past the guilt and shame into wisdom and action.
How do we begin to make peace with our shadow and extract it’s juicy manna? Engage in a dialogue with it! Chinese medicine is all about dialoguing with your period. If anything else in the world was squeezing the dickens out of your internal organs for three days straight, you would start to ask questions!
Every aspect of our flow is teaching us something about how we might be in and out of alignment with our tao, which is our unique pattern, path, and process unfolding in accord with the directive of the universe.
In asking the question of why to our periods, our shadow, and our doctors, we being to piece together a template of how we may treat some of the unruly aspects of body and psyche, and regain autonomy over our processes.
For example, a patient of mine was struggling with hot flashes and irritability in the days leading up to her bleed. She told me that she would hide in her car during her lunch break, taking off her bra, underwear, shoes, and letting down her bun. I invited her to take a pause the next time she found herself casting off her bra in the car, and ask her body what it was really asking for in this moment.
She noticed that she felt restricted in her job and confined to work that reinforced what her culture expected of her, and would lash out at anyone that was complicit in keeping her small. We took steps to help her body feel less oppressed (gyrotonics! herbs! avoiding alcohol during her luteal phase!), while she did the work of gently uncovering the kind of job that would make her feel expansive and free (she’s now a ceramicist and social media strategist).
Also, we created a practice called the ‘sacred manspread’, where we would let our bodies tumble every which way, and envision our qi stretching limitlessly in all directions. Extracting wisdom from chaos is the first stirring of empowerment. If there were a magic formula for this work, it would be communication + inspired action, and honoring ourselves wherever we fall when it comes to implementing what we have learned.
You can make the choice to do something different next time around. Or not! You can, with full power and permission, make any choice you like.
CM: What resources do people with periods have to promote healthy cycling, beyond their yearly gynecological check-up and the limits of conventional medicine?
CB: The most common collective woe expressed by my patients with periods is that their OB-GYN’s essentially left them for dead after giving them a diagnosis of endometriosis, PCOS, premature ovarian failure, dysmenorrhea, what have you.
There is often a second wave of anguish after we get their cycle regulated with acupuncture and herbs, and they get incensed that their doctors never mentioned these modalities as an option.
We should be incensed! I know I surely felt duped by the system after complaining to my doctors for years about perpetual pelvic pain, and never once hearing them mention that I might find some relief from changing my diet and seeing a pelvic floor therapist.
There is a bona fide treasure trove of practitioners outside of conventional medicine that help people with periods manage chronic pain, fertility, irregular cycling, hormonal imbalances, PMS, and sexual trauma.
Sexological bodyworkers, pelvic floor therapists, yoni steam practitioners, mayan abdominal massage therapists, acupuncturists, herbalists, nutritionists, psychotherapists… there is space at the table for each of these modalities in a well-balanced medical ecosystem.
Menstrual health products like De Lune are a goddess-send, because it’s safe and appropriate for most bleeding bodies who don’t have the ability to get a customized herbal formula or an acupuncture treatment in the middle of their work day.
It’s important to share our stories of tending and mending our cycles loudly and boldly. It’s the only way to shift the narrative around periods and gynecological health en masse. The more that conventional doctors hear and see these stories, the more likely they are to include other modalities in their repertoire.
The tides are definitely turning - I have OBGYN’s and fertility specialists that refer to me regularly, and doctors essentially look like dinosaurs at this point for snubbing their nose at practices that aren’t included in the scope of their medical training.
CM: You recently wrote on Botanarchy’s journal that “‘Wellness’ is shadow work, and most certainly NOT about drinking kale smoothies in a bikini.” What did you mean by this, and what are conventional interpretations of wellness missing?
CB: The instagramification of wellness has become a lot about ‘unleashing your inner goddess’, which often uses a rich, abled, skinny, glowing white woman managing to thrive on small amounts of ‘healthy’ food as a talisman of achievement.
Let’s face it- a lot of what passes for ‘wellness’ is methods and medicines intended to maximize our output in a capitalist labor market by inflating our insecurities and increasing our productivity… often at the expense of our actual health. Maybe kale smoothies cause your thyroid to go bonkers and raw vegetables give you nothing more than digestive duress.
Perhaps your inner goddess is NOT a size 2 Aphrodite in a bikini. I’m inclined to believe that much of the discord womxn feel with their bodies is because we’re conditioned to emulate and revere Aphrodites whilst many of us are wrathful Lilliths soaring through the night with a sickle.
I felt body shame for years until I realized that I am most certainly NOT a goddess of serenity and love, I am a multi-armed ireful Kali Ma, dancing upon the corpse of an oppressive system. Understanding that has enabled me to navigate my place in the world with much more grace and ease.
My practice is about supporting my patients in finding their own Tao, which at its core means recovering the self not corrupted by culture (or the male gaze, for that matter). This takes rolling up one’s sleeves and getting a little grizzly.
Who are we when we peel the layers off, when we tune into the cadence of our own body? What if we gently nudged ourselves towards homeostasis, and defined it on our own terms?
Wellness should feel inclusionary, not based on the static perfection of ‘healing,’ valuing the full spectrum of humanness instead.
CM: What self-care practices help you stay centered as a busy entrepreneur?
CB: Communing with the elements allows me to resource the myriad medicines of the earth without having to keep a medicine cabinet stocked full of exotic accoutrements.
A naked sunbath every morning (keeps my chronically low D levels up and manages my persnickety auto-immune issues), talking to plants and watching them grow (my jasmine is very loquacious right now), a luxurious dip in a sulphur hot spring (rare, but cherished), monastic meditations with the moonlight.
If I fall out of rapport with these practices, I start feeling stagnant and plagued with ennui, and then the feeling of overwhelm creeps in.
Just a small bit of earthy expansiveness on the daily is all I need to keep me grounded, and if I can honor my commitment to do this, I find I can throw most of my supplements to the wind and only need to harass my acupuncturist once every few weeks.