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Work It: Exposure

Burlesque dancer Phoebe Nyx explores the idea of exposure on the season finale of WFAE's Work It podcast.
Phoebe Nyx
Burlesque dancer Phoebe Nyx explores the idea of exposure on the season finale of WFAE's Work It podcast.

Despite all we have created as humans, all the structures that protect us from the natural world, we still somehow know that we are vulnerable. For the season finale of Work It, we’re getting vulnerable and exploring the theme of exposure with a burlesque dancer, photographer and OBGYN.

Everyone has a "Work It" story (whether it involves exposure or not). Who should we interview next? Submit your guest idea in the box below or leave us a comment on Facebook.com/WorkItPodcast.

Receive the Work It podcast as soon as it's available: subscribe for free (and leave a rating/review) on Apple Podcasts, NPR One or on your favorite podcast app.


Episode 5: Home

Phoebe Nyx: It's fascinating to plan for an audience's gaze. “Hey, how can I have some sort of cool trick to how this bra comes off? Can I do like a magician-style quick reveal?” I think equally as much about what I want it to look like and what an audience wants it to look like and do. Naked is what I tell you it is.

Jill Bjers: That’s Phoebe Nyx, a burlesque dancer who lives here in Charlotte. Her job gives her a particular perspective about being exposed because sometimes she is naked on stage.

Stephanie Hale: And sometimes she just makes you think she is.

Jill: Her last sentence really sticks with me. I’ve always thought of nakedness as a measurable thing.

Stephanie: Yeah, but for Phoebe, naked is subjective. If it is measurable, Jill, what does naked mean to you?

Jill: My whole life, I’ve been self-conscious about my body. So for me, the idea of being naked is wrapped up in a lot of anxiety and self-worth issues. But for Phoebe, nakedness and nudity are two different things.

Stephanie: I think of them as two different things too. I remember one of my most naked moments. My husband and I had just split up, and he was facing indictment for a crime related to his work. He was most likely going to jail, and I had no job, no career and three kids to care for. I felt so scared and ashamed… and exposed to the world.

Jill: Ouch, sounds raw.

Stephanie: It was. The first time I went to church alone after he moved out was really hard. I was so careful to appear as if everything was normal. But whenever someone asked, “How are you,” it felt like they were tearing away a layer of this barrier I had up to gawk something I just wasn’t ready to share yet.

Jill: The desire to cover ourselves is something we can all relate to. On today’s episode of the Work It podcast, we’re going to shine some light on the idea of being exposed.

Stephanie: …with a burlesque dancer, a photographer and a gynecologist. They’re all coming up on the Work It podcast.

Act 1: Phoebe & Ryan

Jill: Most people have a very complicated relationship with nakedness, both literal and figurative. It’s at the center of several folktales. Take The Emperor has No Clothes, for example. He knows that he can’t see the clothes, but his pride doesn’t allow him to admit that. So he parades around hoping no one reveals him as naked.

Stephanie: You’re right. Even the Bible story about Adam and Eve is wrought with this idea that we’re not supposed to be comfortable with our own nakedness. They created coverings so God wouldn’t see them naked, even though he is the one who created them that way.

Jill: The tension between being covered and safe versus exposed and authentic is depicted in art in every culture. Phoebe uses that tension in her work as a burlesque performer.

Stephanie: OK, Jill, you know me well enough by now to know what my first question is going to be.

Jill: Yes, I’ve been to burlesque shows. As a new convert to the “dark side,” I’m guessing you haven’t?

Stephanie: I think I saw the movie Burlesque. Is that what we are talking about here?

Jill: Nope, that movie should have been called Cabaret. Truth is, there’s a lot of nuances, so I’ll let Phoebe explain it.

Phoebe: Those terms are always going to be a little nebulous. When you think cabaret, think of the Liza Minnelli film and think of the Broadway show, cabaret is going to be a song and dance performance in a smaller intimate audience. Striptease will be a type of burlesque where it is about the reveal. And so it'll be either a movement piece or a singing piece where you're actively looking to strip away layers to add a vulnerability to what you're doing, whether it's physically removing clothes or really more sort of reveals of what your heart and your artistic spirit or are expressing. So that's a striptease, and burlesque sort of straddles all of those things, and you'll find a wide range of things for that. Burlesque will be a variety show that may involve anything from comedy or juggling or singing or dancing or strip teases in one event that is geared for adults and that is meant to amuse, titillate, inspire and inform.

Jill: Burlesque has its roots in vaudeville. So many acts include a mix of social commentary, entertainment, and humor.

Stephanie: Oh, so not really like the Christina Aguilera movie.

Jill: No. And if you’re picturing Christina Aguilera when you hear Phoebe’s voice, you’d be wrong again. Think more Christina Hendricks, the red-headed bombshell from Mad Men.

Phoebe: I’m a 5-11 and curvy human.

Jill: Phoebe has a very distinct 1950s style. When we met, her red hair was styled in perfect "victory rolls." She was wearing a bright, lime-green dress that matched her purse, mask and even her lime-green water bottle. As a talented seamstress, she is able to craft and coordinate outfits to perfection.

Stephanie: She sounds like a person who was meant to be on stage.

Jill: Oh, she is. She dresses for a performance, even in everyday life. Even my cats, who are cautious of new people, immediately took notice and were drawn to her.

Stephanie: So, she has a kind of magnetism. But how did she end up on a burlesque stage?

Jill: Like so many of our guests, serendipity played its role.

Phoebe: So, one of my friends was actually performing locally here in Charlotte

Jill: And that performance resonated with a lifetime of experience for Phoebe.

Phoebe: I lived in a household where, when the tooth fairy came, she would leave us a note. Her name was Tinkerbell. There was a cracked windowsill and a trail of fairy dust up to my pillow, and she would check in with Santa and the Easter Bunny. And so I come from this household where humor and magic and nostalgia were very important to my childhood and the idea of being able to present a complete, fully-realized figure and spread some magic in that way.

Stephanie: Aw… I admire those kinds of parents so much.

Jill: Me too. It’s interesting what aspects of a child’s environment stays with them.

Stephanie: Yes, my dad’s hobby as a call-in radio host on our local talk radio station was my first exposure to this kind of work.

Jill: Phoebe’s dad’s profession also influenced her.

Phoebe: Dad was not just in the marketing world, but in the sports marketing world. So I learned really clearly like what the visuals were going to look like and how to tell a story through images, which was really kind of a fascinating way to grow up, to be aware of brand placement. Like if, if I'm drinking X kind of soda, making sure that that label is rotated towards the can in the photo. In burlesque, the product I'm promoting is me. And so how do show these aspects of myself that I want to do through this one act, how do I rotate the soda can and make sure, you know, like, this is what I want you to see.

Stephanie: So her parents set the foundation and her friend introduced her to burlesque

Jill: Yes. Whether she knew it or not, she’s been preparing to be a burlesque performer her whole life. But that doesn’t mean it’s been easy.

Phoebe: Stage fright is awful! Which is something I already knew as a person who experiences anxiety and definitely has performance anxiety and gets imposter syndrome and things like that.

Stephanie: It’s notable how many performers report having stage fright. I guess just because they make it look easy doesn’t mean it is.

Phoebe: My stage persona is much more confident than the woman behind the false eyelashes and the big hair.

Phoebe: I mean, let's face it: what I'm doing with myself is a type of exposure therapy, isn't it? This is an area that I want to grow in, and it's terrifying, and it's scary, but the only way I'm going to be able to get through this myself is to go and do it and to live in that moment of “anxious and not good enough.”

Jill: Phoebe didn’t find a job in her comfort zone but instead uses her work to become the woman she wants to be.

Phoebe: Burlesque is an opportunity to explore aspects of yourself that you haven't had the chance to yet to get to know yourself a lot better, to play and explore with identity with your voice. And it ends up being really freeing and liberating way to express yourself artistically.

Stephanie: I have always had a deep admiration for artists for really putting themselves out there. But it seems that burlesque requires a unique level of vulnerability.

Jill: Oh definitely, to me art is emotionally exposed, but to add being in revealing costumes, physically exposed on stage... that takes it to another level.

Stephanie: Ugh. How does she get through the anxiety of having so many eyes see so much of her body?

Phoebe: One of the things I've learned is it takes me about 10 to 15 seconds of being out there in front of people before the heart rate starts to calm down, or it becomes adrenaline. And I can channel that into my performance.

Stephanie: That’s a helpful lesson. What else has she learned?

Phoebe: I've learned that I have a better sense of what an audience is looking for and how to play back-and-forth then I thought I did. One-on-one social interactions or social interactions in general can be tricky for me, but I understand an audience which I hadn't expected to. I expected that to be really difficult.

Jill: As an adult, Phoebe was diagnosed with Asperger’s, which is on the autism spectrum. For her, that mostly means she has to work harder to understand social cues. My son has similar challenges with social cues and social anxiety.

Stephanie: Same for my son.

Jill: Phoebe understands her anxiety and really wanted to lean into her performances.

Phoebe: I transitioned myself there. The idea of being physically bare in front of an audience was a hurdle I needed to get through, and it took me several years to get to the point that I went, “Now, I'm ready to move.” So I made a costume that was going to make me feel the most comfortable. I'm in a mesh body suit that I designed and sewed that I covered in rhinestones. To my brain, that said, “I'm covered from my neck down to my ankles in a way that I feel the most comfortable, so I can be more raw in how I'm moving because I'm not hung up about what the physical appearance of this is.”

Stephanie: Oh my gosh, she is a genius. It’s like a see-through fig leaf! Covered to yourself, bare to everyone else. My mind is racing thinking of how I can make myself a mesh fig leaf for the places in my life where I want to lean into being fully vulnerable, but I’m not completely ready yet.

Jill: Conquering our fears is rarely attacking them with a bulldozer but more of a gentle, self-accepting effort.

Stephanie: Wow. That was profound.

Jill: Thanks. We just used up all of my “profound” for the week.

Stephanie: Did her bodysuit trick work? Did she get comfortable enough to take it off?

Jill: It took about a year of wearing it before she was ready to go onstage without it. In true Phoebe form, the first time she went on stage without the bodysuit, revealing her bare skin, she also sang a very vulnerable song she wrote about being bullied for just being herself. Does that sound like enough vulnerability for ya?

Stephanie: More than enough for me.

Jill: Not Phoebe. She invited her mom to this performance. I’ve performed with my mom in the audience, I can tell you that adds a whole other level of anxiety.

Phoebe: I watched that vulnerability hit my mom in the audience. So watching my mom respond to that and being like, “Oh God. My mom's going to see like all of this hurt and all of this pain I've experienced as a performer! Here we go…” And when I was all done, my mom gave me the world's biggest hug. And she said, “I think you've found the way to work through those things that held you back before. And I'm really proud of you.”

Stephanie: Aw. As a mom, there is nothing more beautiful than seeing your child at their most whole and healed.

Jill: True. But also just really being seen by people and especially your parents. Burlesque really requires personal acceptance and courage.

Stephanie: It sounds like extreme personal development. Jill, what do you think… should we try it?

Jill: Actually, she and I talked about that. She was encouraging me to consider being in a show, and all of my body anxiety came flooding at me.

Phoebe: I think one of the biggest misconceptions about burlesque is about who can and cannot perform in a burlesque setting. So frequently what happens when you use the word burlesque, their preconceived notion is young, thin Caucasian, able-bodied females and women. Burlesque isn't! It is for all bodies, for all backgrounds, for all skin colors, for all ages, for all abilities.

Stephanie: Yeah, right. No one is paying to see my body onstage.

Jill: I’m with you. But that anxiety we’re both expressing says we’re missing something. Phoebe says that burlesque is more about community and art than sexuality. Being part of a community of performers inspires her to be more vulnerable in her performances.

Phoebe: We've got a venue here in town that, before you go out on stage, there's a spot that you stand in the chute waiting to go through the curtain.

Jill: It’s tradition for performers to write their names on the wall.

Phoebe: And I brought some markers with me on my first burlesque anniversary and like all of the other bands in that venue, I wrote my name on the wall exactly behind where my head goes to go, “This is where I belong. My name is here. This is my spot. I am owning that I am afraid and still doing it.” There's something about physically leaving a mark on a space that says, “I am part of this experience, and everybody else who has written on this wall or stuck a sticker on this mirror has done the same thing. I am part of a community of people who are nervous and scared and pushing themselves to express their art the way they need to.” I firmly believe that artists don't do this because like, “It's nice and it's fun.” We do it because we have this drive to share ourselves in this vulnerable way.

Stephanie: I love this tradition. I want to write my name on a wall. Do you think WFAE will freak out if I write my name in the studio?

Jill: Please don’t get us kicked out of the studio for vandalism.

Stephanie: Ok. I’ll try to control myself. So, I have one last question about Phoebe. I’m imagining that being a burlesque performer probably isn’t a full-time gig. Does she have another job, and if so, how does that mix with this unconventional career.

Jill: You’re right, she does have a day job. But she is very public about her goal to make performing her main gig. So we only briefly talked about it. She preferred to do the interview using her stage name, Phoebe Nyx. But here is what I do know about her day job… sometimes her colleagues do hear about her performances.

Phoebe: It’s interesting to see the look of realization that comes with, “That word means you probably get naked. Oh, this is a weird thing to think about!”

Stephanie: Ah, yes. Let’s not think of our co-workers naked. That just makes work awkward.

Jill: Yeah, that part doesn’t bother her. She takes the self-acceptance that she has learned on the stage into every aspect of her life. Remember how I told you how dressed up Phoebe was for our interview?

Stephanie: Yeah.

Jill: That is her most comfortable state. Hair and makeup done and dressed like she is ready to host a party. Phoebe has worked hard to be comfortable in her own skin. Because of that, she gets a lot of positive reactions, especially from kids.

Phoebe: I get really delighted when I run into little ones at my day job who see me with my hair done and my makeup done because I do those things for me, it makes me happy. And they start referring to the princess here at this place. “That's the princess! Look at her! She’s this pretty lady. She's very friendly. I want to communicate with her.” It's allowed me to find ways to make people feel welcome, even in my sort of everyday day job.

Stephanie: Do kids call you a princess or fairy because of your pink hair, Jill?

Jill: Sometimes. I don’t really project princess vibes, but I do love when I hear kids ask if they can have pink hair, too. Confidence is just one way burlesque has impacted Phoebe. Over the five years she has been performing, she’s noticed other positive changes too.

Phoebe: Empowerment. Freedom. Artistic expression. Vulnerability, but also strength and power. I’m a lot more comfortable in my own skin and in my own body and in my own artistic expression than I was five years ago.

Stephanie: This is like Brené Brown’s best case study ever. A woman embraces radical vulnerability and finds her unique power.

Jill: Yeah, while Phoebe is very vulnerable on stage, she is also in control of the narrative. In that way, she and our next guest have a bit in common. Ryan is a photographer. His goal is to help his clients highlight what they want the world to see. From his perspective, we have all gotten a lot more comfortable exposing ourselves and that actually makes his job easier... but not in the way you’d expect.

Ryan Sumner: Because we're so image-focused these days, between our Instagram and Facebook and everything else. We see a lot of pictures of ourselves on screens that we don’t necessarily like, and people internalize those in a negative way. So sometimes I think people are surprised when they come to me. So some of it's me, and some of it's I'm helped out by all those bad pictures people have of themselves.

Stephanie: Ryan Sumner is...

Ryan: Primarily a portrait photographer.

Ryan Sumner is a photographer based in the Charlotte-area.
Ryan Sumner
Ryan Sumner is a photographer based in the Charlotte-area.

Jill: With the rise of selfies, you might have thought that portrait photographers were an endangered species, but Ryan insists that an iPhone is not his competition.

Ryan: That’s one of my problems with iPhones. I know the new ones have got the extra lenses on them, but historically they had wide angle lenses on them, which widened people's face. The light is very flat. It’s almost the perfect tool to be unflattering.

Stephanie: So, the more selfies you take, the more you internalize this unflattering view of yourself?

Jill: Yep. Ever wonder why it takes a hundred selfies to find one that is decent? But when you get a portrait taken by a pro like Ryan, you get something else.

Ryan: I can reflect something back to them that is realistic. You know, I turn their head a little bit. I lift their chin here. I bring it forward. You know, I light them in a way that shows that they have cheekbones

Jill: It’s still you, but a bit more flattering.

Ryan: One of the things that brings me great joy as a photographer is that when I have those people, I sort of see it a little bit as a challenge. More often than not, the reaction that I get from those people is much more rewarding because they're like, “Wow, this is the best picture I've seen in myself in 25 years. I didn't think I could look this good.”

Stephanie: Yeah, that would be really rewarding. Photography is a big part of Charity’s work too, from our Love episode. Did Ryan’s work also grow out of a hobby for photography?

Jill: Not really a hobby. More like Phoebe where he uses it as a way to work through his social anxiety.

Ryan: My love affair with photography began when I was about 15, and that was when my uncle gave me a then-20-year-old film SLR. It was completely analog. I was a shy kid in high school, and cameras give me a reason to walk right up to people and start talking. It really wasn't until I was in college that I was able to sort of give it the time and attention that I wanted. And then eventually painting was really influential for me because I had always been influenced by painters such as a Rembrandt and Caravaggio who were known for dramatic lighting and photo realism, realistic results.

Stephanie: I’ve never thought about photographers being influenced by the portraits done by painters.

Jill: Yeah, he retouches photos like a painter, paying attention to pressure and other techniques. When it comes to talking about art, Ryan definitely has the ability to go deep, which makes sense as he has degrees in art history and arts administration. Due to North Carolina’s stay-at-home order, we didn’t get the chance to meet in person. Thanks to a bit of light Internet stalking, I found a couple of pictures of him. It wasn’t easy, probably because like most photographers, he is more comfortable behind the camera than in front of it. The photo on his website shows him with a full beard, maybe two inches long, broad shoulders and a serious expression.

Stephanie: I looked at that picture, too. What struck me about it is the way he has his head is tilted, he’s looking at the camera from the corner of his eye, with his lips pressed hard together. His expression almost looks like he’s looking at you skeptically, studying you maybe. But the warmth in his eyes makes it seem like he’s starting to see something he likes in you.

Jill: It does. From our first conversation, I could feel the internal tension between his desire to share his passion with his discomfort in being the subject.

Stephanie: Ah, so maybe his expression shows him warming up to being photographed, not warming up to the viewer.

Jill: Hm. Maybe. But his portraits of others aren’t meant to be revealing exactly.

Ryan: So I'm doing work that's typically a little staged. It's a little bit about presenting people and corporations or businesses or products in their best light. I think it's always true, but it's always also flattering if that makes sense.

Jill: A headshot that doesn’t look like you isn’t useful. But an unflattering headshot, isn’t helpful either. Remember when Phoebe said that she is the product, she shows you what she wants you to see on stage? For Ryan, you are the product and he helps you show the world what you want them to see.

Stephanie: So, let me see if I understand this, His work isn’t about exposing something unseen about you, or exposing his own views as an artist.

Jill: No, he’s pretty clear about this point. He understands some photographers take pictures that support a statement they want to make. However, Ryan is interested in using his art to help his clients make their own statements.

Ryan: I've always thought that you let people hang themselves or exonerate themselves by their words, and that you don't editorialize. I mean, I shoot a lot of political people from both parties, who I may or may not agree with, but I always want to give them the best possible presentation of themselves to go along with the other things they have to say. I don't want to pre-prejudice an audience against somebody. So that's very important to me.

Stephanie: But wait, always putting people in the best light is editorializing too.

Jill: Hm. I don’t see it the same way. Pictures are powerful. Say you want to hire a potential consultant and all of their pictures were unflattering selfies. Would you read enough of their website to hire them anyway? I’m not sure most people would. Ryan gets that.

Stephanie: Ok. So in that way, he is less artist and more what?

Ryan: I'm a marketer essentially, you know. I am telling you a story that someone is paying me to tell on their behalf. I've always helped them get their message out succinctly and clean and professionally and with the best light, but it's always real.

Jill: Ryan primarily focuses on headshots, where everyone wants to look their best.

Ryan: I'll adjust lights, and there's a lot I can do with lighting to flatter for either age or weight, that sort of thing. But I think it's always important to be honest. I think a lot of people don't trust photographs the way they used to. And I think that if you present photographs that feel disingenuous, then that kind of backfires on you. You don't want to photograph a person and then retouch them to death at the point where they look 15 or 20 years younger.

Stephanie: Why do we always think we look good if we look young? But then also cringe at pictures of our younger self?

Jill: No idea. But funny you should mention that. Sometimes Ryan does get asked by clients to help them look a bit older.

Stephanie: What? People always think I’m crazy for wanting to be older, I’m so glad to hear that I’m not the only one who thinks older is better. Who are these people, my people?

Jill: Lawyers, mostly. He says he has younger lawyers wanting to look more experienced, code for older. He also works with more nuanced requests too.

Ryan: Because I shoot while people talk because I'm trying to provoke the reactions, and then then I'll go through and we'll talk about, “Well, this one is a little more approachable. Depending on your leadership style, that might be the best way to go. Or this one is a little more confident and more like a boss. So if you're trying to be more of that type of leader, this might be the way that you want to go.” And we'll get into deep analysis of micro-expressions with the eyebrows and the eyes.

Stephanie: Hmm. My first degree is in public relations, so I understand the business value and need for putting a little spin on things. But still, I don’t like the idea of being on the receiving side of that. It’s kind of frustrating to know that my own first impressions of people are being manipulated by the lighting and the tilt of an eyebrow.

Jill: Wait, are you just learning that first impressions are often not a complete representation of who we are?

Stephanie: I’m not that naïve. But really, in the age of deep fakes, fake news and everything politicized to the max, maybe I just have spin fatigue.

Jill: Ryan gets there is a balance there between helping clients tell a story and helping them honestly represent themselves to the world.

Ryan: Because if someone encounters you in the real world, they're going to have a very negative reaction they're going to feel lied to.

Jill: Yep. Ryan’s art isn’t that much different than the art we studied in college or in museums. It was all commercialized at some point. Mona Lisa is a great example of commission work, where Da Vinci used lighting and micro-expression to hint of the story behind the woman.

Stephanie: You’re right, you’re right.

Jill: Most artists juggle this balance… if only to prevent themselves from living the starving artist lifestyle.

Stephanie: So, Ryan actually helps people cover up the parts of them they don’t want seen by accentuating what they do want to be seen. So, in a way, my Adam and Eve story applies here, too. Ryan creates the fig leaves to cover his clients’ nakedness.

Jill: That’s a weird way to put it, but sure. When someone’s work taps so deeply into their passion, I always wonder if they are capable of turning it off. So, I asked Ryan.

Ryan: It never stops mentally. I'm constantly framing and constantly freezing live moments. I'm I walk into a room, and I'm very conscious of things like the light levels or the color temperature of the artificial lights in a place. [Laughing] It's kind of infuriating, honestly. I hate sunny cloudless days, especially in the summer. Which is funny because a lot of people go, “Oh, it's so beautiful outside. It's amazing.” And I go out there and I'm like, “Oh, the shadows are so contrasting. This is terrible. I can’t photograph anything in this light.”

Stephanie: Awe, poor guy. Perfectionism is a curse.

Jill: I saw his tendency towards perfectionism during our conversation.

Stephanie: What do you mean by that?

Jill: I asked him what photography means to him and here is his first response.

Ryan: To me, the thing that I like most about my work is being able to… Hmm, okay, let's see. Now I'm going to start over so you can edit that out.

Jill: And of course, we edit things all the time. So no big deal. But the funny thing was, after a breath, this is what he said...

Ryan: What photography means to me is it's a way to encapsulate a story in the briefest flicker of time and then preserve that and show it to other people down the line.

Stephanie: That’s a nice quote. Perfectly worded soundbites aren’t usually our thing but I appreciate his desire to save us some work in the editing room.

Jill: I know. It’s endearing. He can’t help it.

Ryan: I'm a perfectionist. I'm almost OCD about that, and this lets me sort of work to make the best possible images, which is really exciting for someone with OCD because I'm controlling the lighting, I’m controlling where they stand and I'm controlling the lenses that I'm using. For someone who's a perfectionist, that's a lot of fun for us.

Stephanie: Over and over, Ryan mentioned his shyness and now this perfectionism. In both cases, his anxiety is relieved by the camera. So maybe... the camera is his fig leaf? It covers the parts of him that make him feel vulnerable.

Jill: Again, weird Steph.

Stephanie: No seriously, the Adam and Eve story is so profound for me. We are all in some way comforted by our fig leaf or horrified by its absence or trying to get back to that place of being so comfortable in our skin that we don’t even know we are bare.

Jill: But we are all exposed, some more than others. And when vulnerability is exploited, the impact is real. After the break we will hear from a gynecologist who helps women mitigate their vulnerability and find their strength.

Stephanie: That’s coming up on the Work It Podcast.

Act 2: Rochelle

Dr. Rochelle Brandon: I had an experience when I was younger. When I was a teenager, I had a simple yeast infection, and my mom took me to her gynecologist, and he was just so cold and mean, and it hurt and no sympathy and things like that.

Stephanie: Her mom explained, “This is just part of being a woman.”

Jill: Ugh. I hate that explanation. I’m so tired of everything from painful periods, unwanted sexual advances and unequal pay being dismissed as just part of being a woman.

Stephanie: But not on Dr. Rochelle Brandon’s watch. Even as a teenager she was not having that explanation.

Rochelle: No, it doesn't have to be like that. I don't want people to have a fear of pain or fear of lack of compassion to prevent them from taking care of themselves, particularly in a gynecological situation. So those are things that got me into gynecology.

Jill: But let’s be honest, here. Going to the gynecologist is like being forcibly laid bare for another person. You are physically exposed and vulnerable. That puts Rochelle in a very unique position of trust.

Stephanie: And she takes that seriously. Rochelle practices gynecology in the University City area here in Charlotte, and she is a badass! Am I allowed to say that on a public radio podcast?

Jill: I’m giving you permission. You know I love a badass woman.

Dr. Rochelle Brandon is an obstetrician based in Charlotte.
Dr. Rochelle Brandon
Dr. Rochelle Brandon is an obstetrician based in Charlotte.

Stephanie: I interviewed Rochelle, in her office, which immediately let’s you know a little something about her. Her waiting room has beautiful pictures of Black and African American women on the walls. Bright and colorful. No dull, plain office art here. She is also wearing a brightly colored dress and bracelets that you may hear rattle once in a while during the interview. I find out after the interview that some of the art in the office is her own creation. She’s soft spoken, which seems a little out of place once you found out how strong and determined she is. The only hint at her age is the thin strip of grey hair just starting to show at her temples. Rochelle works with women of all ages dealing with the broad range of women’s health issues.

Jill: But notably, she doesn’t deliver babies anymore.

Rochelle: So the phases in your career, and particularly for obstetrics and gynecology, there comes a point in life that you don't bounce back.

Jill: That makes sense. That sounds exhausting.

Stephanie: At the risk of you teasing me again, I’ve got to take us back to the Adam and Eve story. Remember what happens after God finds them covered in fig leaves?

Jill: Obsessed! Clearly the story didn’t have the impact on me that it did on you. I think he cast them out of the garden, right?

Stephanie: Right. But he also places a curse on everyone involved. Eve’s punishment has two parts which are: first, childbirth and all things associated will be very painful for women and second, Eve will desire her husband and he will rule over her.

Jill: That was definitely written by a man.

Stephanie: Yes, of course, a man but also someone merely human trying to understand how we came to be in this human experience. This story attempts to explain where we came from and why life can feel so hard.

Jill: But mostly, about the justification of mistreating women. If you keep telling me about this story, I’m going to be forced to go on a feminist rant.

Stephanie: I know that part is rant-worthy but I don’t think this is the time or place.

Jill: You’re probably right.

Stephanie: But this story helps me understand the emotional impact of the care Rochelle provides. She is keenly aware of dangers that women can be exposed to through sex and childbirth and she wants to make sure their physical and emotional health are considered.

Rochelle: I'm seeing patients that I diagnosed with chlamydia, and they've had one partner or been in a long-term relationship and then they're positive and their partner refuses to get tested or their partner blames her or um, you know, that kind of thing. And to learn that you can't necessarily trust what somebody says is a hard lesson to learn for our young women. I have tissues and everything cause there's a lot of tears.

Jill: That is a hard lesson to learn at any age. To truly care for a woman in that moment has to include recognition of the emotional pain she is going through.

Stephanie: Right. I wish that was the extent of the harm that Rochelle had to help women through, but you and I both know, there are worse betrayals.

Rochelle: Some of the most devastating questions I ask is, “Have you been raped, abused, molested in your life?” And usually there's a pause and then there's a quiet voice, “Yes.” “When?” “Well, long time ago.” And, you know, I am not interested in all the details of that. My next question is, “Did you ever get counseling and care?” And for most women, they have not. And a lot of them tell me, “Nobody's ever asked me this before,” which is shocking to me. I'm here to take care of you. If that's happened to you, then that's something that we need to take care of. It never should have happened. You know, you were six-years-old, 12-years-old. You could not do anything at that time. You were vulnerable, you were young and you were betrayed.

Jill: I’m trying to think if I’ve had a doctor ask me that, and I can’t come up with one.

Stephanie: Many don’t. It's like opening up Pandora’s Box. Rochelle made the decision to leave a large practice and open a small private practice for just this reason.

Rochelle: You know, physicians are responsible not only for their overhead, but their staff and their coworkers and things like that, and trying to maintain that balance of family life and children and do this kind of work, particularly in women's health care and being pushed for time. And I certainly understand not asking questions of whether you've been assaulted or abused or raped. I certainly understand asking how many children do you have and not asking how many times you've been pregnant to kind of avoid going through that type of thing because the system's not set up for caring. It's set up for healthcare delivery and medicine delivery, but not necessarily for caring. And that's the emotional work, and that's time-consuming work.

Stephanie: Fifteen-minute appointments don’t allow for this kind of care. How many times have you felt rushed in and out of a doctor’s office?

Jill: Tons. Sometimes it feels like I’m supposed to put on my “everything’s great” face to speed up the visit.

Stephanie: Yeah. But she believes asking these questions and uncovering key experiences are essential to the care that she provides.

Rochelle: I have a lot of women who have pelvic pain, orgasm dysfunction and fear, and when I'm doing a pelvic exam, I need to know if they've been abused. Because sometimes when I'm doing an exam and trying to get feedback from a patient about what hurts, she's not there. She's back in the past somewhere. So it helps me take the care then. And so I highly recommend counseling, but most of them don't get counselling. I have taken care of patients in their seventies who after that question told me, “I've never told anybody.” I carry a stack of cards in my white coat, so I don’t even have to leave the room to give them information about counselors in our area.

Jill: That hits home. I was a teenager when I was assaulted. It was a rough go for a while. But eventually, I realized that shame wasn’t mine to carry. But I still haven’t explored it in counselling yet.

Rochelle: A lot of people have a lot of fear about counseling. A lot of people go to the church for counseling and some churches have therapists that are skilled in that, but some churches don't have therapy for dealing with that kind of problem. There's some faiths who blame the woman. “You were doing something. You dressed like that. Why were you alone with this man?” You know, all kinds of things. And so it may not be the best place for counseling.

Stephanie: I grew up in church and this resonates with me. Church can be a place where you experience a lot of support but also a lot of shame. In church, I learned that sex was bad and scary and not a subject to be talked about openly.

Jill: I didn’t have a church upbringing. But you don’t need church for parents to be uncomfortable with the subject of sex. Mine where. Eventually, as an adult that changed, but not in time to help me navigate some really hard times. I think I’ve done better by my son.

Rochelle: It is hard to see your child as someone who's developing sexual desire and having sexual relationships.

Stephanie: I have certainly wrestled with this now that my kids are all teens or older.

Rochelle: There are also parents who are very protective of their child and by being protective, they keep their child uninformed. And I'm going to be completely honest with your child about whatever questions they asked to give them an honest answer in a healthcare risk and benefits type of thing.

Stephanie: Rochelle can only see so many patients during her workday. But she wants to empower as many women as possible so she looks for places to help women feel more educated and less exposed outside of her practice.

Jill: Cool. Where does she do that?

Stephanie: She told me about a time she was asked to teach a class to young women in her church, and she talked about prevention of sudden infant death syndrome, a pretty deep topic for kids.

Rochelle: Really deep subject. They want to be moms. And you can have those conversations, and these girls will listen and absorb that information and compare notes and things like that. And so at young age, girls are already planning about life.

Jill: I wasn’t planning my life at that age, but as a teen mom, that kind of education would have been really helpful.

Stephanie: Rochelle teaches whenever she can. She even tried teaching defense classes.

Rochelle: I, at 50 years old, got my black belt in Taekwondo.

Stephanie: And she used that knowledge to help women. You are going to love the title of her class: “You are worth protecting.”

Jill: That title has my whole heart. In my late teens and early twenties, I was a Thai Boxer. Back then, it helped me feel powerful at a time when I really needed to regain my power.

Stephanie: Rochelle feels that same power from martial arts.

Rochelle: And, girl, it was no joke. But I talk about being active to my patients and being athletic and staying healthy. And so I practice, hopefully, what I preach.

Jill: Because Rochelle sees women, day in and day out, in an exposed environment. She’s attuned to how others may experience vulnerability and, in doing so, helps them find their strength.

Stephanie: OK. Adam and Eve, just one more time.

Jill: OK. Let’s hear it.

Stephanie: Phoebe rejects the idea that we need to cover our nakedness, Ryan makes sure your fig leaf gives you the best look and Rochelle helps women see Eve’s curse is bullshit.

Jill: Finally. It isn’t weird.

Stephanie: So for each of our guests, there is this really interesting interplay between the exposed state of our physical bodies and our sense of being emotionally exposed.

Jill: I’m definitely more comfortable being emotionally exposed than physically exposed. I think Phoebe is incredibly brave to not just be emotionally exposed on stage but add that element of physical exposure.

Stephanie: I agree with you. I am more open with my feelings of vulnerability than with my body. So what is that about? Is it just body image issues from a lifetime of seeing unrealistic images of women, or is there something deeper?

Jill: I think it goes deeper. Despite all we have created as humans, all the structures that protect us from the natural world, we still somehow know that we are vulnerable. If we have nothing to shield our exposed forms with, we can easily be hurt. Damn, you’ve got me doing it. It is just like Adam and Eve. Getting thrown out of the garden means being alone against the elements.

Stephanie: It’s a powerful story, right! I guess it comes down to not being in control and how scary that can be for all of us.

Jill: Maybe I’m being sentimental, but when we talk about exposure, it really makes me look back on all of the amazing interviews we’ve had this season. People exposed themselves to us by sharing their stories without knowing where this process was really going or how their stories would be used. Our guests have extended so much trust to us.

Stephanie: Each time we interview someone, I kind of fall in love with them.

Jill: Yeah, me too. Cindy the piercer was my first interview crush. She took a bit of convincing.

Cindy Goode: Like, I've been paranoid about my voice literally since ninth grade because to be told like, "You're clearly intelligent, but you sound dumb."

Stephanie: That is crazy. She is so smart.

Jill: I know. The crappy things people say, can really stay with us.

Stephanie: Sometimes the good things stay with us, too. Like Milad the stock trader showing his sweet dog dad side.

Milad Hafezi: There are horror stories out there. I'm not one of them. I won't lie, there were times where I could have been one of them if I kept pushing. But Hank, he was my savior.

Jill: Or Kris, really being affected by each client, kind of taking on their anxiety.

Kris Finlon: Initially when I first was seeing people in that initial phase that would turn into anxiety about my own job. Like, “Oh, I need to be billing enough hours. I need to be bringing in enough money to make sure I don't get fired because look at how horrible that is.”

Jill: I really related to Gene’s hesitation to share his occupation with people.

Gene Haas: I learned years ago, especially back in the 80s and 90s, people were paranoid of therapists. They're like, “Are you analyzing me?” Right. So I sometimes got involved in civic activities and things and never identified my career because I didn't want to have to deal with that.

Stephanie: Yeah, but that vulnerability is not always about how the world sees them. Sarah the doula was worried about disappointing herself when it came to the birth of her first child.

Sarah Cowherd: Lots of expectations and hopes and fears of my own, my own anxieties about how the birth process would be, what it would be like, would I be able to meet my own expectations. I had a lot of fear that I would disappoint myself.

Jill: The honesty, vulnerability and wisdom all of our guests imparted on us over this season has been amazing.

Stephanie: Our work really does shape who we are, and who we are really does shape our work. These stories are about more than work. They are about how people perceive a piece of their contribution to the world and what that means to them. I’m so excited to fall in love with more people in season two. People are the best.

Jill: Well, cats are the best, but people are pretty cool too.

Stephanie: Oh, Jill, you really are a crazy cat lady.

Jill: And proud of it.


Jill: The Work It podcast is a production of WFAE. This episode was hosted by Stephanie Hale who feels exposed when she isn’t prepared for an interview.

Stephanie: ...and Jill Bjers who feels exposed when shopping for jeans.

Jill: Our producer is Joni Deutsch who feels exposed when she reveals her childhood crush was Johnny Depp. Our editor is Greg Collard who feels most exposed when he has to talk about pepperoni rolls. And a special thanks to our guests for today’s episode: Phoebe, Ryan and Rochelle.

Stephanie: We heard their stories. And now, we want to hear yours!

Jill: Yes, you, listening right now, we want your story.

Stephanie: Go to WFAE.org/WorkIt or leave us a comment on Facebook.com/WorkItPodcast and share with us why we should interview you for an upcoming episode.

Jill: And while you’re at it, make sure to subscribe to the Work It Podcast so you can hear the next episode as soon as it’s released! You can subscribe to Work It on NPR One, Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts.

Stephanie: Until next time, keep on working it.

Stephanie Hales's fascination with people, their work, and the things that drive them is central to her work as a leadership development consultant in her adopted hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina. Hale lives in the University City area in Charlotte, North Carolina. She is a graduate of Brigham Young University and obtained her master’s degree from Queens University.
A true Jill-of-all-trades: mother, wife, author/playwright, organizer, and travel junkie. Jill Bjers is originally from Salt Lake City, Utah. She currently lives in Seversville area in Charlotte, North Carolina. She is a graduate of the University of Utah.