You Should Know… Dani Stoller

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Photo courtesy of Dani Stoller

When not on stage — at Olney, Studio or Folger Shakespeare theaters, among others in the region — Gaithersburg-based actress and playwright Dani Stoller, 33, coaches young women on body hatred and diet culture, to help them overcome eating disorders.

As a woman working in theater, you are often judged and cast by your body type. Did you have an eating disorder?

Oh, yes. And I’m open about it. I overexercised. I was a binger, not a purger, so I didn’t throw up. But I would starve myself or try to eat very restrictively. I got involved in personal training and then realized that I was exacerbating an issue that was really prevalent, especially among women — body hatred and diet culture.

What did you do?

I did a boatload of therapy, not specifically for food. It was just therapy, and I was learning from all these different people [about nutrition], but something wasn’t right … until I found something called intuitive eating. It’s not an easy path because while it’s called intuitive, you have to unlearn what you thought you knew about eating, nutrition and being intuitive.

In working with other women on these issues, have you found that disordered eating is more prevalent in the Jewish community, since so many of our celebrations revolve around food and either feasting or fasting?

I do have some clients who are Jewish. But I think this is a woman issue. Food issues cross all religious, racial and ethnic boundaries. The way we eat ends up being a great equalizer. I see [women] from different backgrounds where they might not really have much in common, but I see in my sessions that, no matter who they are, they’re able to relate to one another on food issues.

What about the stereotypical Jewish mother, insisting that everyone eat?

Well, we have the Jewish mother stereotype, but there’s also the Catholic mother, the Italian mother, the Greek mother, the Indian mother. Mothers are always feeding you. No matter our culture, we all have this same idea of food as a love language.

Yet, food is also something that, when you hit a certain age, you’re then talking with your mother about what diet she’s doing and how you can hit a certain weight. That’s fascinatingly bizarre to me, that the same people who feed you are also the ones who are terrified of being bigger. In group sessions, [I hear about] moms who were feeding and feeding, yet at the same time restricting themselves.

Tell me about your Jewish life.

As a child, I went to synagogue every week and to Hebrew school twice a week. I was bat mitzvahed and went to Jewish summer camp. The theater world is very Christian, shows go on Fridays and high holidays, so I lost my [Jewish] connection. As I’ve found in speaking to many Jews, the rise in antisemitism really sparked my desire to get involved again. [During the pandemic], I started going virtually to Temple Beth Ami. I met with their rabbi and I’m feeling this incredible resurgence of my Judaism. When we’re able to go back in person, my husband and I are planning to go to synagogue in person.

What’s next for you?

This fall I’m in “The Thanksgiving Play” at Olney Theatre [Center] and I’m working with an African playwright, Awa Sal Secka, on a new drama about a Black family and an Ashkenazi Jewish family.

Back to food, what do you like?

I don’t like the idea of “bad” versus “good” food. That’s ridiculous. Food doesn’t have morality. It’s just food. I love to bake lemon bars. Citrus in desserts is really underutilized.

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