Armed with her own personal health lessons,
the supermodel has become a strong advocate for
maternal wellness and the fight against cancer.
By Allan Richter
Christy Turlington was 17 when she appeared on her first Vogue magazine cover. The other milestone she hit at that age was hitting the five-year mark since she started a pack-a-day smoking habit. By the time she was 19, Turlington felt winded going up stairs but still felt she needed a cigarette first thing in the morning. In fact, she needed to smoke more often than not. That left her feeling out of control.
So Turlington quit. Using hypnosis, she stayed smoke-free for two years. But the accomplishment inflated her self-confidence and she felt she could quit anytime. After resuming smoking, she tried hypnosis again but failed to quit with any sense of permanence. Over the next several years, the cycle between her quitting and resuming smoking grew shorter and shorter. “It was like one step forward, two steps back,” she would reflect later.
Years later both she and her father quit smoking—Turlington looked up to her father and says his smoking influenced her own habit—but it was too late for him. He died of lung cancer in 1997, when she was 28.
That huge loss and the anti-smoking campaign she embarked upon afterwards—along with another major health event in her life, the difficulty she endured with the birth of her first child—have made Turlington Burns, known for her high cheekbones and Salvadoran background, almost as recognizable as a health advocate, particularly maternal health, as she is as one of the world’s most beautiful supermodels.
“Since becoming a mother and surviving my own childbirth complication, I am especially concerned with mothers I meet,” says Turlington Burns, 44 and a mother of two, who is married to filmmaker and actor Ed Burns. “I see how hard they work with little support, and yet their health and their lives are so often taken for granted. I have always believed in that saying, ‘One’s health is their greatest wealth.’ My own health and the health of my family is never taken lightly, and I wish the same for every mother, because I know it’s what most of us want above all else.”
The complication that Turlington Burns refers to is post-partum hemorrhage, or PPH, which the model endured after a smooth pregnancy and 2003 delivery of her daughter. In the months following the birth, Turlington Burns learned that PPH is the leading cause of pregnancy-related death in the world, including in the US.
“The tricky thing about birth-related complications like PPH is we can’t always identify them in advance,” Turlington Burns says. “This is why it’s so important that every pregnant woman be in the care or supervision of a healthcare provider as soon as possible and especially at the time of delivery. When I began to hemorrhage after delivering my daughter, my midwife and backing OB worked together as a team to manage the situation.
There was blood on hand in the event I needed a transfusion, which is often required.”
After delivering her second child, a son, in 2006, this time with no complications, Turlington Burns traveled to the Peruvian highlands to learn about programs that had helped cut maternal mortality rates in half. Inspired to bring the success stories she had witnessed there to others, she decided to produce a film with the help of her husband. “No Woman, No Cry” premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2010 and tells stories abut mothers from Tanzania, Bangladesh, Guatemala and the United States, including her own.
The film has been screened worldwide and helped spawn Turlington Burns’ advocacy group Every Mother Counts (www.everymothercounts.org). The organization has built a small but geographically diverse portfolio of programs supporting vulnerable mothers. “So far, we are supporting a voucher program that provides transport for pregnant women in western Uganda so they are able to give birth with a skilled provider in a facility,” Turlington Burns says. “The other is supporting a class of midwifery students in Haiti through another partner called Midwives for Haiti. We plan to add a US program to this portfolio in the coming months and other countries throughout the year.”
Of the hundreds of thousands of maternal deaths from pregnancy and childbirth complications, most are preventable and nearly all occur in developing countries, she says. Though more than 60% occur in just 11 countries, the United States is not immune. And, for every one woman who dies, more than 20 others suffer from lifelong disabilities after childbirth. “In the US, that’s nearly 2 million women each year,” Turlington Burns says.
One of the issues Every Mother Counts is trying to raise public awareness about is an over-reliance on C-sections, whose risks, the organization says, include hemorrhage, infection and other surgical complications. To help keep the increase in C-section rates in check, the organization educates about nutrition, exercise, stress management and other factors that weigh on reproductive health.
“One of the contributing factors to the increase in C-section rates that is clearly having an impact on the rise of maternal mortality in this country is obesity,” Turlington Burns says. Further, related chronic conditions such as hypertension and diabetes make complications in pregnancy more likely.
“All of these chronic health issues are related to nutrition and general health and wellness,” she adds. “As important as prenatal care is throughout a pregnancy, pre-conception and post-delivery healthcare are also critical.”
Turlington Burns, who says she enjoys fresh seasonal organic produce and all food groups in moderation, calls yoga the centerpiece of her own wellness efforts—she’s been practicing since she was 18. “It is my favorite physical activity because it also addresses mental and spiritual wellness,” she says. In one of her most famous magazine covers—she has appeared on about 1,000—
Turlington Burns was seen in a “bow pose” for a 2002 Vogue feature on yoga. And in 2006, she appeared in another yoga pose for Gap’s Product (Red) campaign for AIDS relief.
Although programs sponsored by Every Mother Counts do not include a yoga component, Turlington Burns says she has seen “a number of yoga initiatives all over the world that are having an impact on women and children in vulnerable societies.” She visited a birthing center in Uganda last fall called Shanti Uganda that has integrated prenatal yoga, and in Bali the Bumi Sehat Clinic offers daily yoga classes. “It’s wonderful to see disciplines like yoga come into practice,” she says.
After her father died, the supermodel felt like she lost a part of herself. She also found she had to reevaluate her other relationships, including her partner at the time, from whom she was receiving little support, she writes in her 2002 book Living Yoga: Creating a Life Practice (Hyperion). To move forward, she spent time at a small holistic cleansing center in Palm Springs. She lived on a strict regime of herbs and drinks to detoxify and restore health. Each day began at 6 a.m. with a brisk walk, followed by a yoga session, nutrition classes, lymphatic massages and colonics. Later in the day, she wrote in her journal.
“The best medicine is preventative,” Turlington Burns writes in Living Yoga. She left the holistic center “feeling clear-minded and revitalized. I had vowed to make a healthier lifestyle a priority. I promised myself to continue with yoga, which I’d rediscovered, when I got back home, and to pay more attention to what I would put in my body from that point on.”
More recently, Turlington Burns has discovered distance running and cycling. “One of the biggest barriers that millions of women around the world face with getting access to critical maternity healthcare is distance, so to raise awareness about this barrier, Every Mother Counts started a running team, which I am a part of, and we train for and run marathons,” Turlington Burns says. “The fact that many women around the world have to walk a minimum of 5 kilometers just to receive basic maternal care is something that I keep in mind when I’m running, and it gives me the determination to keep going.”
Indeed, Turlington Burns appears to have married her advocacy work with her personal health in a way that has allowed the two concepts to reside comfortably together.
“All of my interests in wellness and global public health are very much aligned,” the supermodel says. “I learned through the anti-smoking advocacy work that women’s bodies are more susceptible and vulnerable because of our reproductive systems, and the capacity to give birth and my practice of yoga is what allowed me to learn to care for my body. It also inspired me to find ways to live purposefully and in service to others.”