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This week on my “Healing Herself” series I interview Stefanie Michele, who suffered from eating disorders for over 20 years. After decades of extensive therapy, she created her own formula for healing and made a full recovery, all while raising three kids and working full time. She started her own business to help others do the same. Now she feels more "awake" in her 40s than ever before.
Stefanie was born as the oldest of three kids in an Italian family with strongly defined gender roles. Her father changed jobs and they moved to a different state for her senior year of high school, which was difficult for her whole family.
“It was directly stated that women had certain roles and expectations and part of that was appearance… and that men had more privileges and expectations…my father was and still continues to be pretty dominant and does not really accept anything that challenges his authority.”
Her father’s temperament also affected her self-esteem and relationships with other people. A few years ago, she started to question the ideas her father fed her, including how to be a woman and general patterns of oppression. After growing up shy and quiet, in recent years she has started to push back against his ideals.
Stefanie received distinct messages about weight when she was growing up. Her father was overweight and always dieting. As he got larger, he tried to control his kids’ weight.
“We were taught that we shouldn't eat too much, especially the girls…he would sort of side glance and tsk, tsk if you had dessert, or if your portion was a little too big or if you showed any evidence of wanting more than he thought was reasonable.”
Although she was an average size, she gained some weight during puberty (a completely normal developmental stage). She ended up dieting to the point where she became anorexic by age 16.
She got away with it for a long time, because people thought she had just become really lean. She knew she had a problem and she asked for help, but no one else seemed to care. It soon morphed into binge eating and bulimia.
“I remember opening the fridge and my mom's macaroni salad was in there. And I felt this primal urge to go for it, and I did after that.”
She entered college with significant bulimia, but her parents were just happy she was putting the weight back on because she had gotten a little too thin. During her sophomore year of college, feeling miserable, she came home from college after signing herself out of school and demanded help from her parents. That’s when she started receiving therapy.
I shared that my sophomore-year roommate had an eating disorder as well and also dropped out of school to get help after her parents did an intervention.
We talked about the comments people with eating disorders receive when they start losing weight.
“My parents have lots of friends. Our neighbor came over one day before I went off to college. She took one look at me and she said, oh look at you, there's not an ounce of fat on you. And there wasn't…she said it with such longing like, ‘Ah, you're so good.’”
She got a lot of feedback like that, especially from adults but also from her peers. She still remembers and thinks about those damaging comments she received.
When she was 19, she went into a treatment center and received valuable help from a therapist who helped her work through issues from her upbringing and her sense of self. But the treatment did not improve her symptoms. None of the therapy she received over 20 years helped her symptoms.
“I struggled through the age of 38 through having kids. During my pregnancies I was still going to therapy, but I was still bingeing and even purging. I basically just thought I'm broken. No amount of anything seems to fix me.”
I asked her how she did when she was pregnant, as I know that can be hard for women with eating disorders.
“I was terrified of my body changing, but I kind of also saw it as permission for my body to change so I did relax around the rules that I had built around eating…I'm supposed to gain weight now so I can nourish the growing baby…I did allow myself to eat more, and I think that as a result of actually relaxing the rules, I ended up having less symptoms during my pregnancies.”
But the symptoms didn’t go away entirely. With the emotional and hormonal upheaval, she still found herself bingeing to the point of pain, and then purging.
“The shame you feel when you purge when you're pregnant is incredible. I just took it as more evidence that I was heinously broken that I would do that while I was pregnant…I did end up tempering that as the pregnancy progressed, but not entirely.”
Fortunately, her kids are all healthy. She was eating enough, in spite of the physical and emotional pain she was causing herself.
We talked about whether Stefanie was predisposed to eating disorders. By nature, she was a creative, intense, and introspective child, while the rest of her family is very logical.
“I was called weird…I was called crazy by my family because I was so emotionally in tune.”
She had to suppress her true self, being called out as different.
“I think I pushed down a lot of who I was, and so as a result did not have a strong sense of self and the eating disorder was, I think, a symptom of that.”
Later in her 30s, Stefanie became obsessed with clean eating and health and developed a new eating disorder called orthorexia, fueled by the wellness culture.
“I was known by everyone as the healthy one, so I just adopted this as my identity and I didn't really know myself outside of it, which is why it was scary to let it go.”
I asked her what woke her up and helped her shift beyond her eating disorders, since therapy didn’t help. She can’t define one single moment, but rather it was a collection of things when she was around 38.
“I had just had my third daughter, and the fact that they're all daughters did not escape me. I felt this huge sense of responsibility for the fact that I was raising girls and yet I could not accept my own body and had this incredibly disordered relationship with food. My oldest was getting to an age where she was beginning to notice that there were certain days that I didn't eat anything and that my dinners were always different than hers…she started to notice and I could see her noticing, and it made me really afraid.”
She was also aware of approaching 40 and facing another decade of eating disorders and more shame. At the time she was a sugar detox coach, actually coaching people into orthorexia by fear mongering about GMOs and sugar. She began to feel that what she was doing was wrong.
“What I'm doing is I'm making people afraid of fruit…I'm making people fear their food.”
When she read an article called “Smash the Wellness Industry” by Jessica Knoll, at first she rejected it as ridiculous. It completely dismantled everything she had known and identified with. But the more she thought about it, she began to see herself as what she was and what she was doing. Here’s an excerpt:
“The diet industry is a virus, and viruses are smart. It has survived all these decades by adapting, but it’s as dangerous as ever. In 2019, dieting presents itself as wellness and clean eating, duping modern feminists to participate under the guise of health. Wellness influencers attract sponsorships and hundreds of thousands of followers on Instagram by tying before and after selfies to inspiring narratives. Go from sluggish to vibrant, insecure to confident, foggy-brained to clear-eyed. But when you have to deprive, punish and isolate yourself to look ‘good,’ it is impossible to feel good. I was my sickest and loneliest when I appeared my healthiest.”
On her 40th birthday, she read a book called The F*ck-It Diet by Caroline Dooner.
“The book is about how dieting ultimately increases our weight, but more than that, it also completely destroys our relationship with food…and that the only way out is to allow yourself to eat whatever you want.”
In all the therapy she’d received, she’d never received this message.
“I said I'm starting this…I’m going to allow myself to eat whatever I want to eat, and I am not going to restrict myself.”
The book changed her life. After spending a year recovering, to this day she still wakes up and can’t believe she is not living that kind of life anymore.
Feeling passionate about the fact that if she could do this that anyone could do that, she decided to help other people who struggle with eating disorders…not just working through their recovery but also accepting their bodies the way they are.
We talked about the damaging messages people receive about their bodies and the popularity of intermittent fasting, which clearly is not helpful for people who struggle with eating disorders. She recommends the books Health at Every Size by Lindo Bacon, Ph.D., and Anti-Diet by Christy Harrison.
Stefanie points out that a lot of people in larger bodies are not given adequate health care treatment because of weight stigma.
I asked Stefanie about an article she wrote, “fatphobia has roots in racism.” She recommended a book called Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia, by Sabrina Strings. Stefanie acknowledged that before George Floyd’s murder, she had no knowledge of racism and her own implicit biases. Reading this book helped her understand the link between racism and fat phobia.
I asked Stefanie what advice she would give to someone whose friend or family member has an eating disorder. She suggested that providing a safe place to land is helpful, but not trying to “fix” the problem.
“Just be supportive and listen…if they bring it up to you, listen and sympathize instead of trying to fix it or give advice….I think knowing that your friends are there as a steady, reliable rock is probably good for someone with an eating disorder who feels like their life is constantly upside down and there is no stability or sense of groundedness..”
Stefanie feels an incredible sense of freedom now, having moved beyond her eating disorders.
“I do not struggle with these issues anymore and I wouldn't do this work if I did. My life opened up after I healed…I feel like one of my only friends who's so excited to be in my 40s…I look forward to my 50th. I feel like I have a lot of living to do and I embrace it.”
Now she’s enjoying her food like she never did before, especially sushi, pasta, and mint chip ice cream!
Recently she read So You Want to Talk about Race by Ijeoma Oluo, furthering her education about racial justice. It’s helping her navigate conversations with her family about dominance, including regarding gender roles.
She is inspired by the people she meets in her work. She’s also grateful to one of her long-time best friends, Laura, who supported her during her entire recovery. Laura had a brain aneurysm and is now in a wheelchair, raising her three kids.
“They didn't even think she was going to make it at one point…you can't help but look at someone like that and think, wow, I don't know that I could do that. I don't know that I have the resilience, but she does.”
Next week we’ll meet Brigitte Ayoub, who is a first-generation American daughter of two Palestinian immigrants. She grew up experiencing the challenges of finding her place as an American with Arab roots. Right after leaving her corporate job to start her own business in April 2018, her dad died…and then her mom was diagnosed with leukemia the following year. Brigitte believes that “we have two choices every day, to sit and lament, or face the adversity with courage and choose to lean into it.” She has chosen the latter option.
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