Hee Haw Meets Public Health: A Southern-Inspired Spring Cleaning

When I was a little girl growing up in the South, I used to welcome spring with a new Easter dress and hat worn Minnie Pearl style.

Minnie Pearl

Minnie Pearl

For those who were born above the Mason-Dixon Line (and in Florida), Minnie Pearl was the lifeblood of Hee Haw, a deep-fried version of Saturday Night Live meets Salute Your Shorts for folks without cable. Ms. Pearl proudly kept the price tag of her hat on display and delivered the signature line, “How-DEE! I’m jes’ so proud to be here!”

Now that I am older and my fashion sense has shifted (note: not necessarily improved), I no longer herald the season by donning a wide-brimmed hat covered in fake flowers. Instead, like most adults, it’s the time of year when I find myself cleaning house. And since Banyan decreed April to be “Health Month,” I didn’t want to shed all traces of winter in just a practical sense—dusting neglected corners and donating clothes that no longer fit. This time around, I wanted a more personal spring cleaning—one worthy of the season that aptly shares its name with a verb that means “to be released from a constrained position, to take an upward course, or to come into being and life.”

Like my coworkers, I took time this month to figure out how to better support the health of our community, nation and planet. At the heart of that aim was the discovery that I needed to start by taking better care of myself. Although I was an athlete in high school and even had a stint as a rollergirl during my early 20s, I had recently come to fully embrace the writing lifestyle of perpetual sitting and bottomless cups of coffee. I was stressed out, exhausted creatively and finding it difficult to detach from my computer and phone long enough to be of any use to those around me. I desperately needed to rid myself of some unhealthy habits and a certain subconscious mentality that was keeping me from being productive in all aspects of my life—the belief that I would never measure up or, if we’re talking body image, measure just right.

Without ceremony, I joined a gym within walking distance from my home. But unlike short-lived memberships from the past, I didn’t go in with a certain number of pounds, clothing size or special occasion in mind. I simply channeled two newfound mantras that have drastically altered my relationship to exercise: “Make changes to see changes” and “Use your fitness.” Now that my thoughts aren’t centered on perfection but on seeing where a first step (or lunge) will take me, I’ve found freedom in movement both inside and outside the gym. My goals and focus have been jostled in a positive way to consider how I can use, improve upon and protect my health and the well-being of those around me through the habits I practice and the environments I build and seek.

Although I’m talking about evaluation and transformation on a personal level, it reflects, in many ways, what I’ve come to learn about on a professional level as Policy, Systems and Environmental (PSE) change. A little more complex than just public health’s version of spring cleaning, PSE change is about making healthy options available, accessible and convenient for all by identifying barriers to health and improving the places where people live, learn, work and play. As the Cook County Department of Public Health and the Public Health Institute of Metropolitan Chicago explain, “Where you live affects how you live – you simply can’t make healthy decisions if healthy options aren’t available to you. Policy, systems and environmental change make healthier choices a real, feasible option for every community member by looking at the laws, rules and environments that impact our behavior.”

This might mean increasing student access to fruits and vegetables and physical activity in school, after school, and early care settings. At a workplace or business, this could involve instituting a smoke-free policy and providing employees with tobacco cessation services. Within neighborhoods, towns or cities, an example of PSE change might be creating community design standards and/or plans for sidewalks, paths and recreation areas that are safe and accessible for all users and forms of transport. (Source: http://www.cdc.gov/NCCDPHP/dch/health-equity-guide/index.htm)

At the end of the day, if I’m going to hang my hat on anything, it’s that there’s a responsibility attached to the reality that we’re all connected. It’s time to use my fitness to help others find theirs. Creating change for good… even Minnie Pearl couldn’t put a price tag on that.