Armed with a camera and standing on her granite kitchen countertop, wellness and nutrition blogger Michelle Hoover hovers over her latest masterpiece to get the perfect shot.
Hoover has reached over a million people with her autoimmune protocol, Whole30 and Paleo recipes via her blog, UnboundWellness.com. Her recipes are a labor of love, but they are also created out of necessity. At 17 years old, she was diagnosed with Hashimoto's disease, an autoimmune disorder that attacks the thyroid.
Hashimoto's affects 14 million people in the United States alone, and women are 7 times more likely to have Hashimoto's than men. Because of this, Hoover thought she would be able to find online communities tailored to living with Hashimoto's and other autoimmune diseases. Instead, she found nothing.
Photo by Justin James
“I just felt so isolated. I felt like nobody in the world could relate to me," says Hoover. “I knew that all these women had this problem, I just didn't know where to find them."
After years of dealing with aversive symptoms, she decided it was time for a lifestyle change, and created her blog to document the process. Now a multi-faceted media brand, Hoover has been able to share her story while creating the online community she once sought after.
A diagnosis doesn't automatically initiate behavior changes. An answer to her mystery symptoms of fainting, heart palpitations and weight fluctuation came when she was 17, but Hoover did not start taking her health seriously until she was 23.
Hoover was afraid that making lifestyle changes revolving around her autoimmune disease would drastically alter the way she was living. As a young woman, she wanted to remain independent while continuing to eat the foods she grew up loving. “I knew that diet was highly correlated with autoimmune disease, but I just never wanted to commit because I love food so much," says Hoover. “I was afraid of giving up gluten and giving up dairy because I was so set in my mind that I could not live a life that was fun and spontaneous and social if I wasn't able to walk into a party and eat pizza."
Her turning point came when she was faced with the threat of emergency surgery. Years of constant inflammation was wearing her body down, so she decided to do whatever she could to experience a full life. “That shift in mindset is what really helped me to be able to experience better health, that's what led me to start my blog," she says.
Unbound Wellness came to life in 2015. At first, it was a doubt-filled personal hobby that mirrored the limited mindset Hoover experienced when she was first diagnosed with Hashimoto's.
Her doubts started to shed nine months in, when she created a post about weight gain, a Hashimoto's symptom that challenges many women with the condition. “It wasn't until I saw hundreds of people sharing on commenting on it that I thought, my story does mean something to people and I can contribute something valuable to the conversation, even if I'm not the only person who has gone through this," says Hoover.
“I think nailing down your brand and making it really personal no matter what you're doing is key. Your customers are people, and people relate to a story." Photo by Karla Janneth
Around the same time, she created a recipe that now has over 111K shares on Facebook and Pinterest: Healing turmeric AIP balls. “The concept of making healing food fun and easy and being real, I saw those things really resonating with people. I started to run with it.
At my core, that's what I really wanted to do, I just didn't know anyone wanted to hear it."
Today, Hoover's recipes and blog posts garner over 2.6M monthly viewers on Pinterest. But more than that, she engages with her community in a way that inspires them to heal themselves through food.
“You need to have that core of a personal brand and constantly keep your eyes and ears on what is working and what you can improve on," says Hoover. “I always ask myself, how can I serve people in a way that is easy for people to consume?"
To scale her brand, Hoover launched other business initiatives outside the traditional blog outlet. She became a certified nutritional consultant and saw clients one-on-one, wrote an e-book and began a nutrition podcast. “I feel like to make in in this online content world, you can't depend on just one platform," she says. “If you want to build a brand where people really connect with you, you have to meet them on multiple levels."
Hoover says it wasn't until the second year of Unbound Wellness that she realized she could make a full-time salary from it. She was already doing sponsored posts from smaller brands who sought her out, but wasn't taking Unbound Wellness to its full potential.
“I decided that I was getting enough traffic to where I can seek out sponsorship opportunities and work with premium ad networks," says Hoover. “Once I started seeing those numbers I thought, oh, I can actually do this."
There are a lot of steps that need to be taken to captivate an audience and turn it into a monetization strategy. For Hoover, that has involved staying true to her niche of serving the autoimmune community and putting herself at the forefront. It has also meant being proactive about brand relations.
Hoover is about to launch a second e-book and hoping to expand it into group coaching. She is also coaching other nutritional therapy practitioners and bloggers about developing and expanding their business.
Some advice for those getting serious about the blogging business: It takes time to get noticed. Time and creativity, especially within the food and nutrition space, says Hoover.
“You have to get crazy creative. Which is hard. I was nightshade free for months and months, so I figured out how to make a nightshade free marinara sauce. I just made a recipe today on zucchini enchiladas. There's always a way."
Women have come a long way in redefining beauty to be more inclusive of different body types, skin colors and hair styles, but society's beauty standards still remain as high as we have always known them to be. In the workplace, professionalism is directly linked to the appearance of both men and women, but for women, the expectations and requirements needed to fit the part are far stricter. Unlike men, there exists a direct correlation between beauty and respect that women are forced to acknowledge, and in turn comply with, in order to succeed.
Before stepping foot into the workforce, women who choose to opt out of conventional beauty and grooming regiments are immediately at a disadvantage. A recent Forbes article analyzing the attractiveness bias at work cited a comprehensive academic review for its study on the benefits attractive adults receive in the labor market. A summary of the review stated, "'Physically attractive individuals are more likely to be interviewed for jobs and hired, they are more likely to advance rapidly in their careers through frequent promotions, and they earn higher wages than unattractive individuals.'" With attractiveness and success so tightly woven together, women often find themselves adhering to beauty standards they don't agree with in order to secure their careers.
Complying with modern beauty standards may be what gets your foot in the door in the corporate world, but once you're in, you are expected to maintain your appearance or risk being perceived as unprofessional. While it may not seem like a big deal, this double standard has become a hurdle for businesswomen who are forced to fit this mold in order to earn respect that men receive regardless of their grooming habits. Liz Elting, Founder and CEO of the Elizabeth Elting Foundation, is all too familiar with conforming to the beauty culture in order to command respect, and has fought throughout the course of her entrepreneurial journey to override this gender bias.
As an internationally-recognized women's advocate, Elting has made it her mission to help women succeed on their own, but she admits that little progress can be made until women reclaim their power and change the narrative surrounding beauty and success. In 2016, sociologists Jaclyn Wong and Andrew Penner conducted a study on the positive association between physical attractiveness and income. Their results concluded that "attractive individuals earn roughly 20 percent more than people of average attractiveness," not including controlling for grooming. The data also proves that grooming accounts entirely for the attractiveness premium for women as opposed to only half for men. With empirical proof that financial success in directly linked to women's' appearance, Elting's desire to have women regain control and put an end to beauty standards in the workplace is necessary now more than ever.
Although the concepts of beauty and attractiveness are subjective, the consensus as to what is deemed beautiful, for women, is heavily dependent upon how much effort she makes towards looking her best. According to Elting, men do not need to strive to maintain their appearance in order to earn respect like women do, because while we appreciate a sharp-dressed man in an Armani suit who exudes power and influence, that same man can show up to at a casual office in a t-shirt and jeans and still be perceived in the same light, whereas women will not. "Men don't have to demonstrate that they're allowed to be in public the way women do. It's a running joke; show up to work without makeup, and everyone asks if you're sick or have insomnia," says Elting. The pressure to look our best in order to be treated better has also seeped into other areas of women's lives in which we sometimes feel pressured to make ourselves up in situations where it isn't required such as running out to the supermarket.
So, how do women begin the process of overriding this bias? Based on personal experience, Elting believes that women must step up and be forceful. With sexism so rampant in workplace, respect for women is sometimes hard to come across and even harder to earn. "I was frequently assumed to be my co-founder's secretary or assistant instead of the person who owned the other half of the company. And even in business meetings where everyone knew that, I would still be asked to be the one to take notes or get coffee," she recalls. In effort to change this dynamic, Elting was left to claim her authority through self-assertion and powering over her peers when her contributions were being ignored. What she was then faced with was the alternate stereotype of the bitchy executive. She admits that teetering between the caregiver role or the bitch boss on a power trip is frustrating and offensive that these are the two options businesswomen are left with.
Despite the challenges that come with standing your ground, women need to reclaim their power for themselves and each other. "I decided early on that I wanted to focus on being respected rather than being liked. As a boss, as a CEO, and in my personal life, I stuck my feet in the ground, said what I wanted to say, and demanded what I needed – to hell with what people think," said Elting. In order for women to opt out of ridiculous beauty standards, we have to own all the negative responses that come with it and let it make us stronger– and we don't have to do it alone. For men who support our fight, much can be achieved by pushing back and policing themselves and each other when women are being disrespected. It isn't about chivalry, but respecting women's right to advocate for ourselves and take up space.
For Elting, her hope is to see makeup and grooming standards become an optional choice each individual makes rather than a rule imposed on us as a form of control. While she states she would never tell anyone to stop wearing makeup or dressing in a way that makes them feel confident, the slumping shoulders of a woman resigned to being belittled looks far worse than going without under-eye concealer. Her advice to women is, "If you want to navigate beauty culture as an entrepreneur, the best thing you can be is strong in the face of it. It's exactly the thing they don't want you to do. That means not being afraid to be a bossy, bitchy, abrasive, difficult woman – because that's what a leader is."