Stretch marks, cellulite, wrinkles, rolls, dimples. If you have a female body, you almost inevitably will experience some, if not all of these things at one point or another. Yet, we’re told to hide them, buy creams to erase them, inject them with fillers, go under the knife, or at the minimum, airbrush them out in photos.Danae Mercer has made it her mission to remind women what a real, living, breathing female body looks like – when it’s not contorted or posed to look perfect for the gram, and it is so refreshing.
In this episode I sat down with this former Editor in Chief of Women’s Health Middle East to chat all things becoming unapologetically you from physical attributes, to age, to marital and baby status.
Journalist & Body Positivity Champion
Danae Mercer is a freelance health and travel journalist, previously editor-in-chief of Women's Health Middle East and Men's Health Middle East. She has also worked with: CNN Travel, The Sunday Times, BBC, The Guardian, The Telegraph, The Independent, Travel + Leisure, Afar, and more. In addition to writing, Danae teaches at Crank in Alserkal.
Maria Marlowe: [00:00:34] Welcome back to the Happier and Healthier podcast. Today’s guest is my dear friend Danae Mercer. Danae is such a beautiful spirit and she has somehow found herself as a body positivity expert. She did not set out to become one. It happened quite organically and naturally from her keeping it really real. On Instagram about what it looks like in real life to have a female body. Today’s background is in print media. She was the former editor in chief of Women’s Health Middle East. Now she is a travel and wellness freelance writer, but she seems to have really hit her stride. And to become known for being a body positivity expert and really teaching women to love their body is no matter what it looks like. So she shows us on her Instagram what it looks like to have cellulite and stretch marks. And when you sit down, your stomach rolls a little bit what it looks like when you’re bloated, because so often in the images that we see in magazines and social media, we never see these normal parts of life for a normal part of our body. So she’s here to really remind us this is what a normal body looks like. So don’t freak out if you don’t look like an airbrushed plastic Barbie doll in real life. Now, some super exciting news before we jump into the interview.
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Maria Marlowe: [00:04:41] So thanks so much for being here Danae
Danae Mercer: [00:04:43] Well, thank you for having me.
Maria Marlowe: [00:04:45] So let’s step back a little bit. Now, you’re really known as one of these leaders in the body positivity movement, but you originally started out as a journalist. So how did you make that transition? How did you get here?
Danae Mercer: [00:04:58] Well, I’ve always really been interested in health. So I was a travel journalist for years, but writing a lot about health. And then I was editor in chief of Women’s Health Middle-East and Men’s Health Middle East for a while out here. And then just sort of moved into the health journalism space specifically. So as part of that, I guess I started to learn more about bodies, learn more about the conversations around bodies and some of the questions and some of the areas of focus and all that simultaneously. I mean, I became a personal trainer. I got my qualification so. Well, a group trainer at Craig. Yeah. Yeah. Sometimes like a substitute teacher these days. But altogether, I just meant I myself start to think a lot more about the body’s mental health. It just some of the things that I think women, especially in our region, don’t talk about. So I decided to use my platform. Social media was just so big out here to start that conversation.
Maria Marlowe: [00:06:00] Yeah. And it’s incredible. I see some of the feedback on your posts, the comments, and you’re posting things that I think most people would never, ever post because they would just be too ashamed or too scared to. And that’s the really the beauty of your account is that you’re showing us that this is normal. I think with all the media images that we see of bodies like the magazines on TV, we forget that these people are airbrushed. We forget that the lighting is perfect. We forget that they’re on Instagram. People are face tuning. And when you look at your body after looking at magazines, you feel like, what is wrong with me? Right. And you’re like, I don’t understand. My body does not look like it’s supposed to me. And then that just leads to a whole negative chain of events. But what you’re doing is you’re showing, hey, I look really fit in this picture. But look, when I do this, my body is rolls or there’s really like there’s stretch marks. And it’s really just so refreshing and incredible to see that. So how did you what made you decide to start posting like that?
Danae Mercer: [00:07:01] Well, that’s a good question. You know, I dealt in kind of luxury social media for a long time where everything was perfect and beautiful. And I think that comes from my background of managing photo shoots. So you know how to make a good image. And then with bodies like I you know, you’re constantly directing photo shoots and athletes have cover stars. And so you you know how to position, you know, what kind of light you know, what type of the day. Time of the day. You know, clothing, move suits or bodies, you know, all these little things that turn. You know, I would say like a healthy body into a kind of an exceptional body. But I also think, you know, that very few people are, quote unquote, that perfect. We all have things whereas self-conscious about it, nervous about or that we think we’re alone. And that’s a big thing. But we internalize it like, oh, I’m the only one that has this because I don’t see it anywhere. So all these things I just started to really feel a bit disconnected from my own social media. And what I was talking about and what I actually felt and feel and believe in, which is not perfection.
Danae Mercer: [00:08:13] You know, I’m anyone who knows me will say, like, I’m not a guy. I’m kinda clumsy, quirky thing. Like I’m always breaking stuff or spilling things or these hands are dangerous. They knock stuff over all the time. And also, I’m not you know, gosh, I’m far from perfect. And it’s easy for me to only shoot my best angles and to only present myself in a very particular way that would suggest a very certain message. That’s not who I am. So I just reached a point earlier this year, actually, where I wanted to just be myself. And I was scared. I was nervous.
Danae Mercer: [00:08:53] You know, I was very nervous because I’d never done anything that vulnerable before. But I also just believe so strongly in that I had to do it, that I had to take this leap, that it matters to me. That’s where it started. Wow. And and what has the response been? Nothing like I expected. I didn’t know that there was this community. I didn’t know that there was such a hunger for honest conversation in the region, but also globally. And I’m constantly I think part of me is just constantly surprised and stunned. And I think, you know, again, growing up as women, we’re often taught that our bodies matter, that diet culture is normal. That perfection is normal. That restriction is normal is. That restriction is good. We’re taught all these these funny things that are so against, you know, who we probably naturally are, but we don’t know to talk about it. We don’t know how to say, hey, you know, instead of saying, oh, Sally, you look like you’ve lost weight. It’s like, hey, Sally, this is what I was feeling about my body today. Let’s talk about what’s going on. Like what in my life is making me think these things? So it it’s been really incredible to me to see this community of women, some men, but mostly women, just kind of open up and share their stories. Mostly. Most people just want to be heard. Want to you know, they they send me these heartfelt messages that are incredible and humbling and painful and really raw. And it’s you know, I’m not a psychologist. I’m not a doctor. I can’t give any specific advice, but I don’t think they’re looking for that. They just want to say, hey, I understand. I feel that, too. And that’s been really incredible.
Maria Marlowe: [00:10:42] I feel like our generation definitely grew up with all of these media images. And there were no Instagram and Facebook for people to speak out and say, hey, you realize all these people are airbrushed. This is what a real human looks like. So for the next generation or for anyone listening who maybe has young children or even teenagers, what advice do you have for them to help them raise children that do have a healthy image around their body?
Danae Mercer: [00:11:07] First off, I want to say being a parent, I think is incredibly complicated, especially in today’s world where social media is so ubiquitous. I think one of the things that a parent, a woman can do is just be very conscious of how she talks about herself. And I think this is true. It’s also with friends. I mean, it’s very common for friends to be like, oh, I feel fat today. Oh, you look like you’ve lost weight or you know, that that kind of language that they’re in my mind, there is nothing healthy about that kind of language. That’s a very triggering language. And I think that’s true with children as well.
Danae Mercer: [00:11:47] I was listening to incidentally to a podcast yesterday where a couple of doctors were talking around body positivity and body negativity and being kind of body neutral and all this stuff. And there is a woman who started dieting when she was five. And this is something we see a lot is especially as you enter puberty. It’s one of the most fragile times and kind of dangerous times for eating disorders because women naturally put on weight since entering puberty. We’re also seeing eating disorders starting younger and younger. And part of that is linked to social media. But it’s also just media in general. So I think all of these things are very complicated, very, very delicate. But the first step, whether it’s with your children or with your friends, is just being very conscious of how you talk about your own body and how your relationship is with food, with your body, with health. You know, do you view health as being skinny? Do you view a lower number as better? Do you view it, you know, terms like thin as good? These kind of very delicate things? Yeah.
Maria Marlowe: [00:13:00] I think that our parents are very often our examples. And so when we grow up with a parent who’s constantly saying I’m fat, ugly and this I’m that, it’s just we pick it up. And I remember I interviewed Taylor, it seems on the podcast, oh, about a year ago. And she was saying that when she grew up, her mom never said any of those things, never commented negatively on her body. And so she just grew up to be very self-assured and positive. And it never even occurred to her to think negatively about it. And I just felt like it was such a stark contrast, because I know where I grew up. It was it was always something there’s always something negative to find. So you really do have to retrain yourself to think differently. So being cognisant of what you say or what you think is really step one. But is there anything else for anyone who’s listening now who does not feel great about their body? What else can they do?
Danae Mercer: [00:13:55] Well, first off, I would absolutely recommend, above all, professional help like I’ve seen. It’s one of the best things we can do, whether it’s for a month or a few weeks or whether it’s online. There’s a Web site called betterhelp.com or in person here in the region. There’s Lighthouse Arabia. And a couple of other centers. So if you’re struggling with body image, if you go to bed and you’re thinking, oh, I feel fine, I feel great. And then you wake up one morning and suddenly it’s like, oh, I feel awful. This body, it’s horrible. It’s I do think it’s worth talking to someone who can help you learn the tools to understand what’s happening. Professional help is incredible. It’s really powerful. I’ve done it. I’ve definitely done it. I think it’s very, very useful.
Danae Mercer: [00:14:41] If you’re kind of struggling with body image, I would also be very cognisant about what sort of media you’re consuming. We possibly absorb on social media. So we sit and we scroll and we don’t look for it. It comes to us and whether we like it or not. That seeps into our brain and it becomes kind of a mirror. Social media is often super, super perfect. The same with TV and movie stars. But at least there you feel a distance. Whereas on social media, you feel like, oh, this is my neighbor. This is the girl next door. And so that perfection becomes a bit more dangerous. I would say. So it’s looking at what you consume and being really conscious about what you consume and curating. I read a quote and I think it’s genius. And it said, if your if your feed doesn’t have different types of bodies, different types of opinions, different types, lifestyles, you’re not learning. And I thought that was really actually very, very true. And very tediously it’s trying to make an active effort to curate something that isn’t just, you know, the fit. So in the bikini in a beautiful destination in their perfect relationship, because ultimately that isn’t that isn’t reality.
Maria Marlowe: [00:15:58] All right. So besides for image, you also talk a lot about age. And this is an area where I know I’ve come to terms with age more recently now that I’m in my 30s. But I remember when I was in my 20s thinking that 30 was over the hill. And so ultimately 30. And then you get to 13, you’re like, oh, my God, I’m so young. But there’s a lot of pressure on women. And especially once you get into your later 20s and into your early 30s, there’s just this pressure on women to get married or to have kids. And by a certain age, certain things need to be done. So share a little bit about your thoughts on age and how do we start taking those silly thoughts out of our heads that we need to be somewhere by a certain age.
Danae Mercer: [00:16:46] The most important thing is just to realize everyone has a different life path. And although we’ve been told, you know, it’s college, it’s marriage, it’s baby one, it’s baby 2, it’s got a good job through all of that. Like our life paths are so different these days than what they were for generations before the generations before that. And there are all these women especially who maybe they don’t want kids, maybe they’re married and maybe they want just one child. Maybe they don’t want to be married. Maybe they’re in their 40s or 50s and now they’re looking at marriage. There’s so many different roads to kind of this sort of self-actualization. But it’s not just one route.
Danae Mercer: [00:17:32] I mean, I just turned 33, and I did post awhile back about being 32 and unmarried and having a cat. And the response I got to it was very, very, very eye opening. I mean, I shared it. And it was one that actually Women’s Health Global, who is such a lovely, lovely brand. They shared it on their page as well. And I read all the comments that they got because I was so inspired by it. And I want to say they got over 700 comments of different women just saying, oh, I’m thirty five. Oh, I’m forty. Oh, I’m twenty eight. Oh, I’m this not in this not and talking about their own life path and how it’s so different from what we are told. Our lives have to be there. Such power in women when we raise our voices and we acknowledge maybe sort of a conditioned shame, something we’re taught to hate or that we’re taught ways that we cannot be.
Danae Mercer: [00:18:33] There’s such a power when we speak together, when we create this community of of, OK, we aren’t alone and age is one. This huge, really juicy topics that we are taught to keep hidden, where we’re taught to feel a bit ashamed about. We’re taught if we don’t achieve certain milestones by certain points, then in a way we are a failure. We’re a failure. As a woman, I’m very optimistic and very excited by the idea that we’re moving away from that. We’re gradually reaching a point where with so many women saying this is actually really stupid, this is a stupid idea that will shift away from this fear over age and secrecy around it.
Maria Marlowe: [00:19:16] Yeah. And you were saying earlier that you used to say whenever anyone asks you when your age is, what did you used to say?
Danae Mercer: [00:19:23] I used to say a lady never tells her age, which is a really stupid because essentially it’s a way of making age feel shameful because you’re hiding it, you’re deflecting and you’re hiding it with a joke, but it’s hiding that part of you and making yourself feel a little bit small about whatever part of you it is to hide. So I don’t do that anymore.
Maria Marlowe: [00:19:47] Yeah, I feel the same like I. Grew up thinking that age was not good and you don’t want to tell your age, a lady never tells her age. Of course I might like my grandma used to say that. My mother used to say that. I used to say that as well. And I think of people now like J-Lo. I was telling you, I saw the Hustler’s movie. And holy moly, that woman is 50 years old. She looks amazing. She looks like she’s living her best life right now at 50. And when I was 20, I would basically taught that when you’re 50 or over, that, hell, your life is going to suck. You’re going to be overweight. You’re gonna have all these problems.
Maria Marlowe: [00:20:25] But it doesn’t have to be that way. And I think we have a choice. Even in other cultures, for example, Asian culture, when someone gets older, they get wiser. Just in this Western culture where we have this idea, when someone gets older, particularly women, they get worse. They get their health decreases. They have weight problems. They have this problem. They have that problem. They can’t get married after a certain age. They can’t do this after a certain age. And it’s really limiting. And we really have to just shift our perspective around what age is and be thankful and grateful every single day that we’re a day older, year older.
Danae Mercer: [00:21:02] Exactly. And I don’t think getting older has to mean being unhealthier. I know for me, mentally getting older has been incredibly positive and powerful. I’ve started to figure out who I am. And I feel like a lot of women in their 30s, in their 40s. They do the same. You start to sort out, yes, this is me. No, that’s not me. That’s incredible. And then in terms of fitness and health, again, I would send the healthiest I’ve ever been. Yeah. Bodies change. That’s that’s part of being human. But how you work with them, how you celebrate them. That’s all up to you. There is an incredible athlete out here in the region, Hanlie. And she goes by fitter, stronger on Instagram. I want to say she’s 46, 47. She’s in incredible shape. She’s an international, strong woman. She competes in all these like Spartan races and that sort of thing and wins a lot of them. She’s just incredible. And again, she’s in her 40s and she can do stuff like headstands, handstands, all these crazy things that I dream of doing one day. Age isn’t a limiting factor. It’s it’s how we approach it and the way we think about it. It’s all mindset shifts.
Maria Marlowe: [00:22:18] So I’m curious for you. What does your day look like? What are some of the daily practices that you have that are keeping you healthy and happy?
Danae Mercer: [00:22:27] Well, I travel about 80 percent of the time with my job because I’m I’m a journalist primarily and also consultant, content creator. All that stuff. So I’m on the road a lot.
Danae Mercer: [00:22:39] And when I’m on the road, my schedule really isn’t my own. Your. It’s wherever you are and whatever you’re doing. But there are a couple of things that I always am quite strict with. And one of them is allowing myself, you know, some time, every day to move my body. Usually go to a gym. So I like I like having a physical space, but move my body for me, that is my meditation. It’s just moving, sweating, focusing, turning inwards. And I’m incredibly protective of my version of meditation. It starts me for the day. It makes me feel good and strong and powerful. I’m also very protective of sleep. I go to bed early because I wake up early. And in my industry specifically, there are so many events. Oh, many events. And so many of them start at like 8 or 9 or even 10 p.m.. And I have reached a point in my life where I’m very protective over sleep. I know if I’m sleep deprived the next day, I’ll feel maybe a bit sad, a bit glum. More stress, more anxious. Want, you know, food that I normally don’t crave. All it will just kind of throw me off. And it’s often not worth it for me. So I’ve been very strict in setting boundaries. Sometimes I think I think no is a complete answer. It doesn’t. There doesn’t need to be an explanation. It doesn’t need an excuse. It’s just no. And boundaries are incredibly powerful and positive for sure.
Maria Marlowe: [00:24:15] Boundaries have been a game changer for me. Definitely something that came with age for me anyway. And yeah, I think it is really important to know what you want and what makes your body feel the best and then not let anyone encroach upon that.
Danae Mercer: [00:24:30] Yeah. It’s so unique to each of us. It’s bodies. I’ve been to one of your talks and you’re saying that kind of bodies are very unique. What? You know what we need to eat and the way we function. It’s it’s different. It’s easier. It’s different. Exactly. So that’s the same with what makes us feel good. And once we figured that. Now we need to do everything we can to protect that. Because ultimately, if we aren’t feeling good, we’re not going to be giving our best. We’re not going to be our best. We’re gonna be cranky or tired or hungry or resentful or all these things that no one really wins from. So it’s I’m increasingly I’m a fan of the word no. And just being firm and boundaries for sure.
Maria Marlowe: [00:25:15] And I don’t know why this made me think of that, but I just read a post by Dr. Jess, who’s also been on the podcast, and she was talking about personality and how our personality is shaped by the foods that we eat, whether or not we exercise, whether or not we got enough sleep. All of these things that we think are these attributes, these character attributes that we think are our personality are actually a reflection of the things that we’re doing. So it’s really fascinating to think about that and realize we really do have so much control over our health and our body more than we think we actually do.
Danae Mercer: [00:25:52] Oh, absolutely. I mean, we’re very chemical. We’re very chemical. And it’s one of the reasons sleep research is so fascinating to me because they’re starting to realize, like sleep is one of the best antidepressants that we have. But we just were just learning it because in our society, it’s culturally accepted, even praise to be sleep deprived. Oh, I’m so busy. Oh, I’m so stressed. Oh, I only slept two hours last night. And this is my eighth coffee. No, no, no. Why? Why? And your you will stop functioning. You won’t be functioning as well or you’ll be burning yourself out. So I think there’s a huge power in things like sleep, but also in understanding how we feel our body, how we nurture our body and what we consume in terms of media, TV, social media. It absolutely plays part of that as well.
Maria Marlowe: [00:26:46] Yeah. So we definitely have to set boundaries for sure. So you are amazing on Instagram. For anyone who’s not following her. Definitely. Go follow Danae. It’s @danaemercer. And I link that in the show notes and you’re posting about body positivity. You’re a leader. Especially here in the Middle East and that scene. And I know you’re working on a bunch of different projects, but what is your mission and what do you want everyone to know?
Danae Mercer: [00:27:13] I guess my my big goal for the next year is to sort of encourage this conversation to create a space where women can talk about so many of the things that we’ve done. We just don’t talk about from birth control to periods to mental health to freezing eggs to got miscarriages. You know, there’s a thousand and one things that are so traditionally perceived as taboo because because they’re female, because they’re other, because they’re different, maybe because they’re vulnerable or raw or emotional. There’s no shame in those things. And there’s immense power in realizing you aren’t alone, that other women have felt this, that they struggled with this, that they’re also learning to handle this. They’re also, you know, some days they maybe look at their thighs and they think, oh, not today or some days they might feel really strong and powerful. Or maybe they’re wondering, should I be freezing my eggs or is it too late or is it too soon? Or, you know, do I need to be married down? Like, is this important?
Danae Mercer: [00:28:24] I want to create a space where we can have conversations about all the things that I think traditionally we have left off the table. Because if if my inbox is any indication, there’s such a desperate thirst for that. There’s such so many, so many women all around the world who want to know, like I’ve spoken about arm, armpit fat. It’s one of the ones that went a bit viral and was picked up by all these different outlets. It was covered in magazines. And I’m sat there and I’m just like, well, I did it. I didn’t expect this. I didn’t. This is shocking. But then I went to a top by a doctor who specialized in breast cancer. And she’s saying, well, your boob. It’s actually like teardrop shaped. So you’re your boobies is just this little round ball on your chest. It extends up into your armpit. So when you’re checking for four lumps and bumps, you should actually go up into your armpit. But also, yeah, that’s going to be a bit soft and squidgy and a little bit flabby because it is essentially it’s breast fat. It’s breast tissue. Why the heck haven’t we learned this? Like why? Have we said, oh, if you have that nuts, that’s shameful. You should. You know, that’s something to be photoshopped out. No, no, no.
Danae Mercer: [00:29:47] This is just the way clothing or bodies are. They’re designed, so let’s not hide these things. So I just want to create a conversation so I feel like I am learning so much that I wish I would have known so long ago that it made me it’s made me feel more comfortable about aspects of myself or even if, you know, I’m not everyday celebrating, oh, gosh, my butt has cellulite. I’m not out there like you. Hey! Woo hoo! At least there are days where I think, OK, I’m feeling good in this. I’m feeling strong in this. Or I can understand days when I am feeling bad what’s going on and pull back and look at it and try to consider what’s happening in my life. I want to create a space where we can have these conversations.
Maria Marlowe: [00:30:31] I love that. And I’m very much looking forward to it because I also I feel like it’s missing. There’s so many things that we don’t talk about. And I find it so interesting that with all of the different media outlets that we have, they’re all saying the same thing. And sometimes, especially on the new shows, different media outlets are using verbatim the same exact words to describe something. It’s mind boggling. So I think it’s definitely needed. I wish that when we were growing up, we were taught or given some sort of manual for our body because we have no idea. We have no idea about our period, what it means. I’m reading this book. I can’t think of the name of the book anyway. It talks about your period and how the different phases of your period, how to tell when they are, what they mean, like simple things that are like, if I would have learned this when I was 16 would have taken a completely different life. You know, so it’s just really, really needed for sure.
Danae Mercer: [00:31:29] Absolutely. With periods I’ve only this year, really learned about then. I downloaded this great app called Flo.
Maria Marlowe: [00:31:38] So Alisa Vitti, She’s been on the podcast for anyone if you have any period problems. Listen to that episode. Go on.
Danae Mercer: [00:31:45] It’s incredible. Because it sits there and it’s like, hey, you are one week into your ovulation cycle. That’s what this means, that this is what your body is doing. This is where the egg is. This is when, you know, it’s a little house. This is that’s a medical term. It’s if you know, these are what your hormones are doing. This is you might be feeling this way and you aren’t alone. And you sat there and you’re like, what? How did I not know that hormones go through such a cycle? Why are we taught that p._m._s is the punchline of a joke? Why are we taught that? Oh, you’re on. Your period is a comedic thing. Why aren’t we, Todd? Look, it’s this quite powerful, incredible thing that your body does every month. Let’s talk about it. Let’s have a conversation. Let’s learn. You know, if you exercise like this is something Fitbit has been doing a lot of research into because women can mark on their period and where they are on the app. And then obviously they get anonymous data from people who wear it. And they’re finding things like, you know, if women when they’re on their period at the start, they’re much less likely to exercise. But if they do, they have this percentage of increased calorie burn because your body does function differently throughout the month. Why haven’t we looked at that before? Right.
Maria Marlowe: [00:33:03] Yeah, it’s fascinating. And there’s just so many things like that that were never taught and are just not talked about. So I’m really looking forward to that. So one last question that I’d like to ask everyone on the show. Is there one tip that you can leave our listeners to live a happier and healthier life?
Danae Mercer: [00:33:21] Yes, I would say be kinder to yourself. Be a little bit kinder to yourself. We all have parts that we hate. We all have things that we’re ashamed of where we feel alone. And in those situations, it’s about realizing. First off, we aren’t we aren’t alone. We aren’t alone even in your most vulnerable or raw or shameful or embarrassing thing, just because you haven’t seen it out there before or heard it before. Know that you aren’t alone. There are others who have felt that way. And there’s a real power in that sense of community. But also that it can get better, that it will get better. But just being kind to yourself in that process, sort of accepting, you know, there are things that you will love that you won’t love. There are parts that are a mystery. There are things we need to learn. You will make mistakes. You will be incredible. You will screw up all these things. But being kind to yourself as all that happens is just one of most powerful things.
Maria Marlowe: [00:34:24] I love it. Very well said. Well, thank you so much, Danae. And for anyone who wants more from Danae, you can check her out on Instagram. It’s at Danae Mercer and I will link that in the show notes.