In a world where the average woman has a negative body image, stand-up comedian Stephanie Anne Doyle isn’t the average woman.
“I look like my dad, so I’m very androgynous,” says Stephanie Anne Doyle of Portland. “Until I got to high school, I was the tallest ‘boy’ in my class. I get referred to as different genders all day long, and it doesn’t bother me. I spend a lot of time making people know it’s OK when I speak and they realize they had misgendered me.”
Doyle was born with Marfan Syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that affects the body’s connective tissues and how the body grows—including exaggerated height. She’s an inch shy of 6 feet, a height she reached at the age of 12. Her medic alert bracelet, which she wears because a person with Marfan’s can tear an aorta just sitting, and her strong prescription glasses, which she wears because her optic lenses don’t contract properly, look like fashion statements. Unseen, she has screws and wires holding her lower jaw and chin in place, and her sternum, she says, is “noticeably concave.”
And yet, when asked how she feels about her body, 47-year-old Doyle calls it “a gift.” Some people with Marfan’s, she says, are in wheelchairs. In contrast, she has spent the past two decades as a licensed caregiver to adults with developmental disabilities, cerebral palsy or mental illness.
“If I could, I would give that caregiving experience to the average Joe so they could see what a beautiful, amazing body they really have,” Doyle says. “As a comedian, I really listen to people. And I’ve always been struck by how much hate people express toward their body—I hate my this, I hate my that.”
She compares that kind of self-talk to staying in an abusive relationship—and one based on a lie.
“Even though I love how physically strong my body is, I know my body doesn’t appear stereotypically female,” she says. “And yet my partners have expressed that they love my body the way it is. Our bodies are a lot more attractive to other people than we often realize. There’s always somebody out there who thinks you’re a hottie.”
In 2013, Doyle injured her back in a traffic accident and had to not only take a break from caregiving but be the recipient of care.
“That was the first time that the conversation with my body changed,” she says. Not being one to linger in an abusive relationship, Doyle changed the dialogue. She named her injury Lumpy, and took care of Lumpy through chiropractic care, massage therapy and old-fashioned positive thinking. Before long Lumpy was out of commission and Doyle was back to work.
Since 2004, Doyle has been practicing meditation daily using sweeping breath, a Central American practice that is about sweeping the cares of the previous day away. Out with the old, in with the new, so to speak. Since starting her meditation practice, Doyle has swept out a stomach ulcer and a cigarette habit and swept in a standup career. “Standup is a big part of my wellness program,” she says. “I used to have really bad social anxiety. My friend Kate Ghiloni said that standup is my shock therapy, and it’s true. I have desensitized myself to social anxiety. Fear and excitement feel exactly the same. Everything we do for the first time, even just kissing somebody for that first time, has that coating of fear. We can all relate to that vulnerability and that fear of being judged.”
Doyle has been known to push her own boundaries—climbing and jumping out of trees as a kid and, as an adult, playing competitive sports and studying Kenpo karate, taking some “reasonable precautions.”
“Life comes with bumps and bruises,” Doyle says, “but I have a lust for life.”
She’s aware that the average life expectancy for a person with Marfan’s is 67—younger than for the general population.
“For me that just makes me live harder,” Doyle says. “It’s more important to me to see that I took risks and had some crazy adventures and have some stories to tell.”
One of those risks she has taken was being openly gay for the past 30 years, coming out as a teenager in the 1980s during the AIDS epidemic and anti-gay backlash.
“I had no role models whatsoever. It was a very secretive community,” Doyle says. “But I decided in high school when I was being heckled to say, ‘Yes, this is what I am.’”
There were indeed bumps and bruises—like when her first date with a girl ended with being chased by hecklers—but she owns those bumps and bruises.
They’re fodder, after all, for a comic.
“Standup has helped me let go of any shame I’ve held about myself,” Doyle says. “When I leave and I’m not Stef Doyle anymore, I want to know that I didn’t let fear hold me back.”
Amy Paradysz is a freelance writer from Scarborough who, after interviewing Stef, vowed to push her own physical boundaries more often. It wouldn’t take much.