Hours before this interview with author, activist, and TV host Padma Lakshmi, I watched with apprehension as Judge Amy Coney Barrett—a prospective U.S. Supreme Court justice—batted away questions during her Senate confirmation hearings. I was sitting on the couch, grappling with the realization that when it comes to landmark cases like Roe v. Wade, it could be a woman who casts the crucial vote to undo the centuries of work of our founding feminist mothers.
But before I could spew out in rage, I felt the usual, sharp cramping. It’s a pervasive pain that might be familiar to Lakshmi, who has been open about her struggle to get diagnosed with endometriosis given that the debilitating condition’s symptoms are often dismissed as “period pain.” In fact, the long and winding road to getting properly evaluated prompted Lakshmi to cofound the Endometriosis Foundation of America, which advocates for patients and funds research for disease awareness. She’s taken a similar candid approach to other taboo topics, championing women’s health whether or not it seems “polite” and writing for the New York Times about the decades she spent keeping quiet about her sexual assault.
I didn’t grow up in an environment that was nearly that frank when it came to sex, bodies, or contraceptives. In our Ethiopian household, the sex talk was replaced by the words “Just don’t date.” And when I graduated high school, I barely understood preventive care, preexisting conditions, or the ins and outs of Planned Parenthood, let alone what my body was going through.
So when presented with the chance, I was thrilled to talk to Lakshmi about her work to pull back the curtain on women’s health care. So much is at stake for women nationwide, between the fate of crucial rulings in the Supreme Court and the upcoming election. Here, Lakshmi breaks it down.
Glamour: We are less than 20 days from the elections, and I’m sure you watched the vice presidential debate. There was an unforgettable moment where Senator Kamala Harris looked straight into the camera and said, of those with preexisting conditions, “They’re coming for you.” You are someone who’s been vocal about having a preexisting condition. How are you processing the risks of this election and the threat to health care?
Padma Lakshmi: Before you called, I was listening to the confirmation hearing of Amy Coney Barrett, and I don’t know if it’s true, but I’ve heard that Senator Lindsey Graham refuses to take a covid test. And Senator Mike Lee, who has already been diagnosed with covid, is sitting there on the Senate floor, yelling and screaming, and spewing all his germs everywhere.
It’s interesting to me that the same administration that wants to take health care away from 20 million people because of preexisting conditions is the same administration that’s not willing to wear a mask, mandate a national mask law, or have a national action plan against a pandemic.
But one thing I know for sure, because they’re sitting there—they have insurance.
You talk about the irresponsibility of our elected officials. As I’m sure you know, the pandemic disproportionately affects women in terms of jobs and economic losses and has us regressing in gender equalities. What do you feel like are the most critical issues women should be following in this election?
Well, the confirmation hearings are one thing. I think anybody who votes in favor of Amy Coney Barrett should be voted out of office. I find it very interesting that they’re bristling at the fact that there would be a law with a fine or any mandate to wear a mask because they feel like it’s an infringement on their freedom, yet they’re willing to tell a woman when she can have children or not. This is another way that the patriarchy subjugates women, and that’s really what this is about.
Why do you think there is still so much stigma around women’s health? You talk about your journey of getting diagnosed with endometriosis and growing up with painful periods. I’m 26, and I can barely walk, let alone function for a week’s worth of time during my cycle.
I think there’s a lot of stigma around women’s health because, like every other sector of our country, it’s still a male-dominated profession. Yes, there are more women in medicine than, say, engineering or the military or the food profession. However, it’s ironic that women make most of the world’s food, yet men still dominate the professional chef world. And medicine is no different.
Historically, you have male gynecologists who are writing the textbooks and not giving enough credence to what a woman is reporting to them about their pain. And that is the biggest problem. It’s like, “Well, I don’t understand why you have so much pain.” That’s because you don’t have a uterus.
What would you say to young girls today who are told by their doctors, mothers, or friends that period pain is part of being a woman?
Yes, I’ve heard that too, that period pain is part of being a woman. But pain is your body’s way of telling you something is wrong. It’s the way it raises an alarm. And it’s up to us to listen.
At a young age, who did you talk to about what you were going through? You emigrated to the United States within a year of when my family and I came from Ethiopia. And it gets me thinking about how very little we talked about health in the household. What kind of conversations did you have with your mother about preventive care and reproductive and sexual health?
I was lucky because my mother was a registered nurse. She spoke with me very openly about my body and my sexuality. And I realize now that coming from a conservative South Indian middle-class upbringing, that that was rare. Part of it is because we did live in America, and she was also influenced by the culture, which was a much more open society, at least about sexuality. So she did speak openly to me about that.
You’re fortunate to have those early conversations with your mother. I know you’re super close to your daughter. I read that you wrote a letter to her in the wake of the 2016 presidential election. What types of conversations are you having as it relates to what’s happening in today’s world with her?
I think anybody who’s a parent in this country will tell you it has been a tough year. As a parent, all you want to do is reassure your child that you are their umbrella. You’ve got them covered. You will take care of them. Mommy will fix it. Mommy will be there. I actually tried very hard to fix the potential of a Trump presidency during the Hillary campaign. I was a surrogate. So I was in the Javits Center, with Krishna, when Hillary lost. I brought her because I thought she would see this historical moment as a six-year-old when a woman was elected president, and that didn’t happen. Had I known it was even going to be close, I would not have brought her. And so as a parent, you feel powerless because you cannot control everything. I can’t control covid. I can’t control how everybody votes.
Krishna is muddling through and doing the best she can, like a trooper. But I don’t blame her for having any of those emotions because I have all those emotions, but I’m an adult and I have fully formed strategies to deal with those tumults of life. And that is the thing that I hold most against this administration. I measure a country’s worth by how they treat their women and children—that tells you everything about how our government has failed the American people in the most stunning and holistic way possible. They failed in women’s reproductive health. They’ve failed in health care.
In this moment, what do you feel like is your responsibility to drive the push for a Biden-Harris administration?
It’s having really difficult conversations, but in a respectful way, and that’s harder for me to do because I’m surrounded by people who think like me. I feel like I have these conversations at work, on the phone with my friends, and I’m really preaching to the choir, but who I need to be talking to are people in Wisconsin, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, all these places.
It comes down to caring for the community versus only caring for yourself. Now, if we look at Judge Coney Barrett, this is a critical moment. My hat’s off to her; she’s a very accomplished woman. It’s nothing against her qualifications. It’s more about her judgment and her policy. Under another Trump administration, with this Supreme Court, not only could Planned Parenthood be closed down, but nobody would have access to reproductive care that they need. The ACA would be totally struck down; we would have nothing.
At least you know in a Biden-Harris administration, Planned Parenthood would have increased funding. It would be safe. I also think Kamala Harris’s candidacy—first for president, and now on the ticket as vice president—having a woman in the White House at such a high level in the administration would go miles and miles to boost and shore up young women and girls’ confidence around this country, especially women of color, to say, “Yes, you can.” To borrow a phrase.
I feel like a lot of people today feel discouraged. They feel let down by our administration; there are a lot of people who confidently tell you that they don’t want to vote. That they would actually rather opt out. What would you say to them?
The first thing I would say is that I understand why people feel completely demoralized because I feel that way too. But opting out and not voting is saying you’re okay with your rights being stripped. It’s saying you’re okay with not having access to medical care, or even if you don’t need it, you’re okay with the families of the children that your children play with at school not having adequate medical care, or not having adequate vaccinations. That’s what you’re saying by not voting.
I think of our nation as a wound. You heal a wound by giving it medicine, by cleaning it out. And that medicine may really hurt, and it will sting and burn before it gets better. But that’s the only way to make that part of your body whole again. There are parts of the body of this nation that are ill. And those wounds have been festering for decades and decades. And health care is just one symptom of that.
This interview has been edited and condensed.