In 2018, celebrities continued to remind us that they’re human too. Bravely opening up about their health struggles, stars sought to raise awareness while reminding society that people, every day and everywhere (yes, even in Hollywood!), are fighting silent battles. And from tackling mental-health issues to coping with chronic illness, they’ve empowered countless individuals to be just as transparent and proactive for an overall healthier and happier life.
From Serena Williams’s near-death experience after giving birth to her daughter, Alexis Olympia, to Gwyneth Paltrow’s bold rebranding of menopause, here are the stars who let the public in on their personal hurdles—and subsequently stoked the conversation around today’s ever-evolving health and wellness landscape.
In Vogue’s February cover story, the tennis champion revealed that she experienced a frightening health scare following the birth of her first child, Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr. The trouble began in September of 2017, the day after her emergency C-section, when she had a pulmonary embolism, a condition where the arteries in her lungs became blocked by a blood clot. Due to the extreme coughing, her C-section wound opened, and she had to go undergo surgery, during which a large hematoma, a swelling of clotted blood in the abdomen, was found. Williams ended up spending her first six weeks of motherhood in bed.
Leading the charge of famous women who opened up about their birth and post-birth complications this year (Beyoncé and Jessica Biel likewise revealed they underwent emergency C-sections), Williams candor also shed light on the troubling statistic that black women in the United States are more than three times more likely to die from pregnancy or childbirth than white women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Triumphing over tragedy, it’s never been more clear: Williams is a ruthless fighter on and off the court.
The best-selling hardcover book of 2018 in the U.S., Michelle Obama’s memoir Becoming was inspiring in more ways than one. A candid account of her life story, the former First Lady revealed that she faced the misfortune of a miscarriage that left her and husband, Barack, feeling hopeless. “We were trying to get pregnant and it wasn’t going well,” she wrote. “We had one pregnancy test come back positive, which caused us both to forget every worry and swoon with joy, but a couple of weeks later I had a miscarriage, which left me physically uncomfortable and cratered any optimism we felt.” During her mid-30s, having come to terms with the fact that “the biological clock is real,” she sought IVF and her two daughters, Malia and Sasha, were eventually conceived through the assisted reproductive technology. Always one to use her clout for the greater good, Obama getting real about her fertility struggles has surely provided solace to other women, as well as shed even more light on IVF as a life-changing solution for many families.
Last year, Lady Gaga announced that she postponed the European leg of her Joanne World Tour due to her ongoing struggle with fibromyalgia, a chronic illness characterized by severe pain and fatigue. And in Vogue’s October issue, Gaga shared her frustrations with people not taking the condition seriously, as well as how her mental-health issues have exacerbated her symptoms. “I get so irritated with people who don’t believe fibromyalgia is real,” she explained. “For me, and I think for many others, it’s really a cyclone of anxiety, depression, PTSD, trauma, and panic disorder, all of which sends the nervous system into overdrive, and then you have nerve pain as a result.” Underlining the inextricable link between the mind and body when it comes to chronic conditions, Gaga continues to be an outspoken advocate for female health.
Watching FKA Twigs perform onstage, she looks nothing short of superhuman. As such, it came as a shock to many back in May when the 30-year-old British singer revealed that she underwent laparoscopic surgery to have six fibroid tumors (which she likened to two apples, three kiwis, a few strawberries, and “a fruit bowl of pain every day”) removed from her uterus late last year. “I tried to be brave, but it was excruciating at times, and to be honest, I started to doubt if my body would ever feel the same again,” she explained on Instagram. “I know that a lot of women suffer from fibroid tumors, and I just wanted to say after my experience that you are amazing warriors and that you are not alone. You can get through this.” Sharing her message alongside a black-and-white video of her robust physique bending and pirouetting while pole dancing to mesmerizing effect, she sent an encouraging message about the power of healing.
Always one to push the conversation around women’s health, the 46-year-old actress and Goop founder disclosed that she’s experiencing perimenopause, a precursor to menopause in which the ovaries gradually begin making less estrogen. “When you get into perimenopause, you notice a lot of changes,” Paltrow explained of the symptoms, which include hot flashes, mood swings, and drops in libido. “I can feel the hormonal changes happening: The sweating. The moods. You’re just like all of a sudden furious for no reason.” Taking her revelation to the next level, Paltrow also noted she’s hoping to reshape the narrative around this natural phase in a woman’s life as she navigates her own journey. “I think menopause gets a really bad rap and needs a bit of a rebranding,” she says. “I don’t think we have in our society a great example of an aspirational menopausal woman.” Paltrow may invite critique, but few will deny she’s the right woman to take the taboo topic of menopause to task.
“I could analyze the source of my depression forever,” wrote Janet Jackson in an open letter over the summer. “Low self-esteem might be rooted in childhood feelings of inferiority. It could relate to failing to meet impossibly high standards. And of course, there are always the societal issues of racism and sexism. Put it all together and depression is a tenacious and scary condition. Thankfully, I found my way through it.” While Jackson has opened up about her battle with depression in her 1997 album The Velvet Rope, as well as her 2011 book True You: A Journey to Finding and Loving Yourself, her most recent words hold just as much significance, with mental health being discussed more freely and seriously than ever before.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, endometriosis affects more than 6.5 million women in the U.S., and since her diagnosis Lena Dunham has been outspoken about every chapter of her journey with the distressing disease, including the agony of having to undergo a hysterectomy, a harrowing experienced she recounted for Vogue. And back in October, the 32-year-old actress, writer, producer, and director also divulged that she was six months sober after misusing antianxiety medication Klonopin. “I have a few sexual traumas in my past, and then I had all these surgeries, and then I had my hysterectomy after a period of really extreme pain,” she explained on actor Dax Shepard’s podcast, Armchair Expert. “It stopped feeling like I had panic attacks and it started feeling like I was a living panic attack. The only thing that was notable was the parts of the day where I didn’t feel like I was going to barf and faint.” Underscoring the lack of obstacles in obtaining high dosages of the drug and its prevalence among her high-profile peers, Dunham harnessed her star power to hone in on a crisis some experts refer to as the “the hidden epidemic,” with the number of adults filling a Klonopin prescription increasing 67 percent between 1996 and 2013, according to the National Library of Medicine. Dunham, like the other women on this list—and countless more—has weathered more than a fair share of health challenges, but she continues to advocate on behalf of women for better mental and physical health. And that’s something to celebrate.