We need to own who we are

Leslie_Faerstein Morrison.jpg

I realized that what we used to think of as a psychological problem was finally framed as a social, cultural issue. I realized that we are made to feel bad about our bodies and ourselves

Leslie Morrison Faerstein, Ed.D., LCSW, executive director of Amazing.Community and psychotherapist specialized in women, eating disorders and trauma

With her short blond hair and her unmistakable glasses, Leslie talks and smiles, smiles and talks. There’s a warmth in her ensemble that blends with the surrounding colors of her therapy office. Leslie Morrison Faerstein is the executive director of Amazing.Community. This, the New York City based nonprofit organization, - co-founded by Stela Lupushor, with whom I had the pleasure of talking a few months ago - helps women to re-enter, pivot, or remain in the workforce by expanding their professional horizons. 

Although rationally it would be impossible to build a bridge between this strong-willed and energetic woman and Brunelleschi, my mind did the trick and linked her words with the onset of the Renaissance. At first, I thought it was because both Leslie and the Tuscan architect have a way of looking at things - a perspective, precisely - that separates them from their contemporaries. But then I realized that, each in their own way, they embody the concept of Renaissance as a movement that brings forth a new, more conscious way of conceiving our role in the world and pushes the boundaries of the achievable.

Can you tell us something about yourself? What experiences shaped you in the person you are today?

I worked all my life in non-profit administration. I received a Master of Science in Social Work from Columbia University School of Social Work and a doctorate from Teachers College, Columbia University in Family and Community Education. I wrote a thesis on “Copying and defense mechanism of mothers of learning disabled children.”

At that time, there was no literature on this subject and professionals tended to dismiss the problem, convinced that the mothers would have eventually coped with their reality. I worked in mental health, art in healthcare and voluntarism. I have a private psychotherapy practice in New York City specialized in women, eating disorders, and trauma. 

Where does your interest for aging women come from?

I was almost 66 when I resigned from my job and, despite my experience as an executive director, for the first time in my life I couldn’t get an interview. It dawned on me that it was because of my age. It was devastating. I couldn’t believe it. While unemployed, I read a lot of books, but that was a fall-back: I never intended to retire.

That’s when you met with Stela, the co-founder of Amazing.Community, right?

Yes, we met over a coffee and started to talk immediately about getting a non-profit status. Stela brings her corporate experience and I’m a sort of role model for women, my presence proves that there’s nothing wrong with age.

Have you experienced that magic moment when, more or less around your forties, all the pieces of the puzzle of your life begin to make sense? 

It happened in my thirties, when my child was born and I got my doctorate. I began to work with Susie Orbach, the psychotherapist and social critic. She trained me one-on-one and everything fell into place. It was a radical and transformative experience, but also an incredibly liberating feeling to learn how body image gets passed down by generation.

What we used to think of as a psychological problem was finally framed as a social, cultural issue. I realized that we are made to feel so bad about our bodies and ourselves. After this experience, I got a license to operate a non-profit center for eating disorders and women who were sexually abused. There’s a correlation between the two.

Was it like taking the red pill in Matrix?

Yes, definitely. Both personally and professionally, that was the turning point of my life. 

Is there a red pill for aging too?

It’s time itself. As I was getting older, I saw how people were relating to me. We are pushed to conform to what society and companies want, but I think we need to own who we are. Susie once said: “Women are trying to change the shape of their lives by changing the shape of their bodies.” That’s why I talk about my thinning hair, my need for hearing aids. I think that if I don’t come out, nothing is going to change.

You have a psychotherapy practice in New York and you take care (also) of aging women: do you see a pattern in their needs? 

Aging women feel fragile and vulnerable. They are afraid of doing things they used to do before. For example, using the underground. If they injured themselves in the past, they are preoccupied of re-injuring themselves and this limits the things they do and they think they can do.

What do you tell to aging women who feel confused, doubt themselves and their abilities?

We work on recognizing what stereotypes they are giving into. Stereotypes are a way to hide and withdraw. They can really make you feel invisible; they hit your self-esteem and confidence

We work on fears, we bring up old feelings, we design self-protecting strategies. Several of my clients, as they age, have had accidents or developed problems needing knee replacements and other medical interventions.

I have helped them through the process of coping with their fears of aging and their physical fragility. We work on overcoming their limitations, knowing that those don't define them, while acknowledging there are real changes as we age.

Generally speaking, what do society and media get wrong about aging women?

They convey the message that older women cannot do anything. They condition us to think about the look. As my career progressed, I understood sociologically the far-reaching issues of image for women. Our youth-oriented society provides few, if any, realistic role models. My grandmother was obsessed about her looks, my mother - with a bachelor, a master, a doctorate and a faculty position at an Ivy League university - struggled with her weight. This is what society does to us.

How has the work with Amazing.Community impacted on your perception of aging women? 

I have learned a lot about what goes on statistically. Even if I suffered from age-related discrimination first hand, I didn’t realized its extent. The largest group of unemployed workers in the US are women over the age of 50. I learned about inclusion and diversity. I also had a chance to experience inter-generational work: I co-created a chat bot with a younger woman, Bianca Palmarini. It was not reverse mentoring, it was a genuine collaboration.

Amazing.Community is the world as it should be and offers women tools and support that are generally lacking otherwise. From what you have noticed so far, what are the most sought after types of help and support for women who are re-inventing themselves?

When you’ve been out of work, you feel embarrassed and Amazing.Community is helping to deal with these feelings while offering the tools to re-enter or pivot one’s career. 

Last year, our first conference brought together over 150 people for a two-day event. There were older women who felt disempowered and frustrated and younger ones who volunteered because they already see where all this is going to.

When it comes to aging, we talk about inclusivity and diversity, but we’re still far from a truly inclusive and diverse group. What is your opinion?

We’re doing terribly wrong with aging and inclusion. The same goes for sexism and ageism. We are conscious about this, but we’re not fighting back.