When Jillian Lampert asked KARE-11 host Jana Shortal to take part in a live recording of Peace Meal, The Emily Program’s podcast focused on eating disorders and body image, she wasn’t sure just how comfortable Shortal would feel talking about her personal history of disordered eating.
Lampert, The Emily Program’s chief strategy officer, first met Shortal when she was working a story about eating disorders for KARE-11. Back then, Shortal told Lampert about the eating disorder that she’d been treated for when she was a young teen. Gold-medal-winning Olympic skier Jessie Diggins had already agreed to take part in the podcast, talking to a live audience about her own recovery from an eating-disorder, and Lampert thought like the sports-fanatic Shortal would be the perfect addition — even if she was mum on her own history.
It didn’t take long to see Shortal’s comfort level. “When I asked Jana to be part of the live podcast. I said, ‘You can just talk about whatever you want,’” Lampert said. “Then, we started taping, and right away Jana launched in with her story. I was like, ‘I guess you are comfortable. Here we go.’”
Shortal has made a name for herself by being open about most aspects of her life story, including her health struggles, her romantic life and the sometimes-painful journey she took before claiming her identity as a gay woman, so when Lampert asked her to join the Peace Meal podcast, she said she assumed she’d be open about her eating disorder, too.
“When Jillian asked me to join Jessie on the podcast,” Shortal recalled, “it was like, ‘How could I sit on stage and talk about eating disorders for an hour without telling my own story?’ That would be disingenuous.”
Also not one to be disingenuous, Diggins said she enjoyed sharing the stage with Shortal and talking about their shared history of disordered eating; she believes that Peace Meal is a powerful tool that could help even more people learn about eating disorders and body-image issues and the many treatment options that are now available.
While being on the podcast was “a natural extension of my being a spokesperson for The Emily Program,” Diggins said, “The conversation was just a lot of fun.”
Fun aside, Diggins added that she is excited about The Emily Program producing a podcast. “Having a tool like a that is really incredible,” she said. “Sometimes people don’t feel comfortable coming out in the world and seeing people talk about eating disorders. Maybe they’re embarrassed to be seen going to an eating disorder place, or maybe they don’t have time or maybe they’re not sure they need help. A podcast is a private, convenient place to get important information.”
The Emily Program has been producing Peace Meal for a little over a year, but the first-ever live episode, posted on Nov. 2, marks a change, with Lampert replacing digital content specailist Claire Holtz as host.
“The idea of doing a live podcast with Jana and Jessie came up because live podcasts are cool,” Lampert said. “They’re so popular. I thought, ‘Let’s do one and see what happens.’”
Live podcasts often feature noteworthy guests, and Lampert already had her dream lineup in mind.
“To have a good live podcast you need interesting, celebrity-esque people, so having done the work we’ve done with Jessie over the past year and talking with Jana, I thought, ‘Let’s see if they’ll do it,’” She said. “They both agreed, and we had this great conversation around the eating-disorder piece and the how-to-be-yourself piece, which was really our goal.”
One element that kept the conversation flowing was Diggins’ and Shortal’s shared struggles over how they viewed their bodies and their relationship with food. Lampert also shared her own personal story of being in recovery from an eating disorder.
This made for a lively conversation, as three high-achieving, focused women talked about the ways their lives were taken over for a time by thoughts of food and dieting.
Shortal said she was young teenager, around age 13 or 14, when her eating disorder began. Her concerning weight loss, combined with a rigid refusal to eat certain foods, eventually persuaded her parents to admit her to a hospital-based treatment program.
“I was so young,” Shortal recalled. “It had a major impact on me just because I was scared by the experience. I was in a hospital where you got weighed every day. I was a sophomore in high school.”
The experience was memorable, and made her a focus of rumors in her small Illinois town. “There were whispers, like, ‘Jana’s in a mental institution,’” she said.
Diggins’ eating disorder began just as her cross-country ski-racing career was heating up. Convinced that the world’s best skiers had the least amount of body fat, she forced herself to throw up her food several times a day in a misguided attempt to improve her racing times. But bulimia only made Diggins weaker and had a negative impact on her performance.
Now, over a decade into her recovery, Diggins sees her eating disorder, even though it came on later than Shortal’s, as a powerful, foundational presence in her life, something she has had to dedicate herself to keeping at bay.
“I’d gone almost 18 years without an eating disorder,” she said. “When I got it, my entire world in a matter of months switched to, ‘This is what I’m going to be like forever.’ It was scary to see how quickly my eating disorder hijacked my brain. Now that I’m past that, I feel so much better, but I do have to pay attention to not letting it get out of control.”
In the public eye
On the live podcast, Diggins and Shortal discussed how being in the public eye sometimes contributes to their struggle with body image and self-confidence.
Diggins said that athletes, especially elite athletes, are subjected to intense body scrutiny. “I race in a tiny, think spandex, suit,” she said. “Everybody gets to see what my body looks like all the time.”
And when she is competing in a race that is broadcast on international television, all bets are off, Diggins said.
“When people are watching you on TV, there is this weird sense that you are less human. People feel like they own a little part of you. They think they can say whatever they want about your body. No one would ever come up to a person on the street and say, ‘You’re too heavy to do your job well,’ but when you are on TV, sometimes people feel like it is OK to say things like that.”
As a local TV anchor, Shortal said she knows all too well the feeling that her every move is being scrutinized. Other female broadcasters have the same experience, she added.
“Almost always the first thing anyone does when they see me in person is comment on my size. I don’t think that’s uncommon for any woman in television.”
Because she has colitis, a chronic digestive disease characterized by inflammation of the inner lining of the colon, Shortal has a hard time keeping her weight up. This reality made her think twice about disclosing her eating disorder.
“I’m not a very big person right now,” Shortal said. “I’m underweight by all standards. I worried that even disclosing my history with eating disorders would strengthen the speculation that that was still my truth. But I have colitis. That’s why I’m so small. I am sick a lot. I also have some lesions on my skin that are indirectly related to malnutrition.”
Sometimes Shortal questions her decision to be so open about her physical and mental health struggles, but she’s decided that honesty is the best policy.
“On days when I am not doing very well physically, all this exposure can be hard,” she said. “I try being mindful of knowing when I need a break and mindful about adjusting what I’m putting out into the world.”
But it often feels better to laugh than to cry, she added. “Sometimes you just have to joke about what’s not going well,” she said, ruefully. “If you joke about pooping your pants, you control the message.”
Why a podcast?
Emily Program staff decided to launch Peace Meal as a way to reach a broader audience with their message of body acceptance and eating disorder treatment. While staff were satisfied with the program’s website, which provides comprehensive information about The Emily Program’s offerings, they wanted to further expand their reach.
“It turns out that people live on Instagram and Pinterest and Facebook,” Lampert said. “We thought, ‘What else do people do? They listen to podcasts. That’s where everybody gets their information now.’ So we thought, ‘We can do a podcast. How hard can it be?’ We found a podcasting program and got some microphones and stands we can attach to a table and started a podcast. We decided we wanted to get our message out to people where they live.”
A podcast is a good option for reaching a younger generation, Shortal added. And the fact that it can be accessed and listened to in private makes it especially appealing to a person who may not feel comfortable talking about his or her eating issues.
“I think that people, especially young people, get their information in so many different spaces,” Shortal said. “There is still so much misinformation and stigmatizing attitudes about eating disorders, so a podcast works because it is a place to get information where you can privately listen to it wherever you are. If you think a friend or family member is struggling with an eating disorder, a podcast could be a great thing to suggest.”
Each Peace Meal episode features an interview with a person in recovery from an eating disorder on an eating-disorder researcher or expert. So far, guests have all been from the region, but Lampert said they have plans to expand their reach in the coming season.
The episodes don’t have a highly produced feel. “It’s a very casual, ‘Let’s have a conversation,’ approach,” Lampert said. “Ahead of time, we have a set of questions we give every guest. We say, ‘Here’s the questions we think we’ll cover. You can take them wherever you want.’”
Though this open-ended format might feel like taking the easy road, it actually is intentional, Lampert said.
“It’s meant to be relatable stories that someone can learn something from and take away a little bit of, ‘Wow. I should think about that in my own life.’ In the intro, we say ‘Peace Meal is a place where we put it all together for you, where we try to take these bits of information around food and eating and put them in a cohesive story so it makes some sense.’ If we can accomplish that, that’s our goal.”
One of the main messages in the live episode is the importance of reducing shame and secrecy around disordered eating and body-image issues. Diggins said that the shame she felt over letting her eating disorder rule her life was part of why the disease was able to grow out of control so quickly.
“Unfortunately there is still a certain amount of shame and stigma associated with eating disorders, which is why I now speak so publicly about my experience,” she said. “Back then, I didn’t want to let people know what was happening, because it felt like a weakness. Now I realize that it was a sickness that took over my life until I got treatment.”
Because she is in the public eye, Diggins said it is important for her to speak out, to let others know that there a healthy life is possible after eating disorder treatment.
“There is nothing wrong with me,” she said. “I’m a very normal person. I like to think I can be a good role model — and I had an eating disorder. It is one little, tiny part of my life.”
“Jessie has such a beautiful story about being someone whose body is used as a machine to get her to the apex of sport, and even that body is subjected to the cruelty of an eating disorder.”
While eating disorders are still often shrouded in shame, Shortal said she believes that societal attitudes around diagnosis and treatment are changing, just as attitudes are shifting around mental illness and addiction.
“You weren’t allowed to have an eating disorder 25 years ago,” Shortal said. “Then, people didn’t talk about it. When I was in treatment, I was not able to go to a specialized place like The Emily Program. The place I went more replicated the mental health wing of a hospital.”
When she looks back on the days when her eating disorder ruled her life, Diggins said she recalls living under a heavy cloud of shame. When she was able to shift her thinking to see bulimia and other eating disorders as mental health issues, she felt much more comfortable telling her story.
“I would never put any shame on someone who was living with depression,” Diggins said. “But I put shame on myself over my eating disorder. If a podcast like this one had been around back then, I think that would have been incredibly helpful. I’m hoping what we’re doing now will help so many more people.”
There was a time when both Diggins and Shortal wondered what their future would look like — or even if they’d have much of a future at all. These days, though, both feel confident saying they are “in recovery” from their eating disorders.
Carefully selecting the language they use helps give their experience the weight it deserves, Diggins and Shortal said; it helps them remember that it is important to always take care of themselves in order to keep the disease at bay.
“I don’t use the word, ‘cured,’” Shortal explained. “I live in recovery. I have habits in my brain just like any addict would have. There are still things in my brain that can trip me up. I don’t give them much attention any more. They are just there in my brain. But I keep an eye on them.”
Diggins agreed that the reality of her recovery is something she can never ignore.
“It still takes work,” she said. “I have to constantly have my own back against my own brain and make sure I’m in a good, healthy place. That doesn’t just pertain to eating-disorder people. Everybody has to have their own back, whether or not it is focused on their body.”
Eventually, the time comes when even the world’s greatest athletes need to retire from their sport. Does the idea of stepping away from the profession that has defined her life so far ever give Diggins pause?
“When I retire, when it’s time to walk away, I’ll know if I’m done with racing competitively,” she said. “Hopefully that pressure we often put on ourselves to be perfect will fade a bit.”
Now, when her profession requires her to train four hours a day, Diggins feels confident that she’s in optimal physical condition. Staying healthy after stepping away will require a healthy mindset.
“I feel really good about myself and where I’m at, but I am in a profession where I get to train four hours a day for a living,” Diggins said. “Of course I feel good. It would be naïve to pretend that it doesn’t help me feel good about my body because I know it looks like it does because it makes me fast at skiing. I hope that I’ll get to a space where I can be normal and settle into what my body is like when I’m not racing all the time. That will be an ongoing part of my recovery, and something all my work with The Emily Program will help me maintain.”