Typically, when you start your own business, three things go out the window: your social life, your sense of stability, and your self-care practice. At least, that was the case for me as I threw myself into freelance life, spending every waking hour figuring out how to promote my work, going a million extra miles for the tiny client base I was establishing, and, er, figuring out how to actually do my job. Seeing friends, grounding myself and those little things like getting dressed and eating well were way down the list and didn’t make it back up for quite some time.
Which is why I find Elizabeth Cooper’s business story so inspiring and encouraging. Whilst her coaching practice — Queer Body Love — is still in its founding stages, with Elizabeth working from her bedroom, putting in all the hours and taking those slow early steps towards a sustainable income, her approach to self-care is proudly non-negotiable. Rightly so, as her business is founded on principles of loving ourselves and centering our lives on practices that are compassionate and caring towards ourselves and our communities.
In this interview, Elizabeth tells the story of how her body love coaching business began by accident, what inspires and motivates her to do this work, and how she incorporates social engagement, grounding and self-care into her busy week.
Also! Throughout Pride month, Elizabeth is hosting a series of inspiring, encouraging talks available for free via The Queer Body Love Series. You can join in any time from June 15 – July 15.
Elizabeth Cooper, Coach and Founder of Queer Body Love
Age 27, San Francisco, CA
Hi Elizabeth! Can you introduce your business? What’s your mission? Who do you serve?
I’m a coach, community-builder and champion. I am the founder and builder of Queer Body Love, my full-time coaching business, and I continue to work on other projects, paid, and unpaid, to support my work and goals.
In the broadest sense, my mission is about acceptance and love. Specifically, I support queer and trans folks who are fed up with obsessing about food or not feeling good in their bodies come to a place of peace and confidence within themselves. I do that primarily through live workshops, one-on-one coaching, a weekly newsletter, and the Queer Body Love Speaker Series, my biggest project to date.
I’ve led most of my workshops in various awesome Bay Area venues (the Embodiment Arts Collective, Qulture Collective and the Center for Transformative Change, to name a few). One-on-one coaching happens mostly virtually, by phone and email. I’m recording the Queer Body Love Speaker Series interviews via Zoom (an awesome video conferencing platform) and they’ll be viewable online for people all across the country (and world, hopefully!) who sign up. I also have a crew of folks from the awesome Bay Area Queer Exchange FB group transcribing the video interviews to make them accessible to hearing-impaired folks.
One question I get a lot is “Why do you work with queer and trans people?” Mostly just because you all are my community and I love us! I think everybody could benefit from my work, and there are plenty of people already serving straight people by default. Also, within queer and trans community there’s a lot of activism and talk on the intellectual level and I don’t see as much support of actually shifting our relationship to ourselves. Of course there are ways that we’re supporting each other on a community level, which is really beautiful. And there aren’t as many queer coaches visibly working on these issues of body image and eating for queer people as there are for straight folks. I’ve had many people come to my workshops specifically because they wanted to be in queer space to explore these issues, and/or because they had bad experiences in predominantly straight spaces. It’s helpful to have a space where naming pronouns at the beginning of a workshop is common practice, for example, and you don’t feel like you have to explain your gender identity or relationship status on top of the challenges you feel around your relationship to food or your body. I’m keenly aware of my own identities I bring to the table, and how they impact the space. This is a constant area of focus for me, as it reflects my perspective that everyone’s identity matters.
How would you describe your approach to business? What personal qualities inform your approach?
I aim to approach every aspect of my business with care and consideration, and at the same time, as a recovering perfectionist, it has been very freeing to be in the mindset of taking imperfect action and figuring things out through action. I will make mistakes and will continue to shift as I go along. What I’ve been realizing is that freezing up based on fear of not doing it right or making mistakes doesn’t serve anybody. I aim to create a positive feedback loop between acting and contemplating, having those two elements continuously inform each other on micro and macro levels, both within myself and in community. I believe you can’t think your way to perfection but you can act your way to excellence. So that’s my goal.
I care very much and work very hard. I aim to infuse that work ethic with heart. I show up as fully as I can. I continue to connect with my underlying vision and view all the small actions I have to take as a mostly solo entrepreneur as important aspects to imbue with the same love and intention I bring to my sessions with clients.
I really care about people and am a very relationally-oriented person, so an integral part of my business is to create and cultivate positive, meaningful, supportive relationships with everybody from my clients to my colleagues, people I’m renting space from, potential clients, etc. It’s important to me that my actions demonstrate my values that every person and every body deserves love, respect, and care.
What does a typical day look like for you? Do you have a routine? What is your workspace like?
Having certain rocks in my routine is really important to me, maybe partially because what happens can vary so much day-to-day. The one thing I have found very important is allowing myself two hours in the morning before I get on the computer. During this time I meditate for a half hour, eat breakfast, tidy my space, read, reflect and get ready for the day. Sometimes I do some work-related writing / thinking / reading, but it feels completely different than once I’ve gotten into “work mode” for the day. Part of why sometimes even forcing myself to keep those first two hours to be just mine is so important because otherwise it can feel like I’m working 24/7 since I’m working out of my bedroom… or rather the room that houses my bed that is also then my office.
There are definitely perks about working from home, like not needing to commute, being able to take a quick shower during a five minute break from work, and making my lunch in my San Francisco 13-person queer coop kitchen, sometimes running into a housemate or guest who can provide some lovely company. And sometimes I go totally stir crazy! So I also have tried out various co-working spaces, and currently am part of a feminist hacker collective called Double Union, which I adore. I’ve also worked out of Makespace, Impact Hub SF & Oakland, the Qulture Collective, and at friends’ homes. I don’t really like working out of coffeeshops.
What I actually do: sessions with clients, planning workshops, writing newsletters, admin stuff, promotion, and networking (yay for spending time with queers for work!). Right now most of my time is spent on the Queer Body Love Speaker Series where I’m interviewing 30 people as a free resource for folks — researching & talking with potential speakers, organizing logistics, doing the actual interviews, and thinking of larger issues of content and strategy. It’s an enormous amount of work. I also continue to hone my own skills and be reflective of my own process.
When did you know that this was what you wanted to do? And what were your early goals, your first steps?
I’ve known that I wanted to do something like this since about 2008, but I didn’t know what it looked like. I had impulses to share what I had been learning and receiving on my own healing journey around food and my body, and I also knew that I was not ready for many years. I knew I was too triggered around many of the topics and needed to do my own work to come to a stronger place within myself before supporting others.
I began my own healing process through practicing yoga and learning critical theory about feminism and diet culture through classes freshman year of college (an anthropology cultural politics of the body was one of my favorites). My mind and body felt like it was broken open, and I simultaneously felt like shaking people to wake them up to the hurt caused by the dominant cultural paradigms and also hugging them, telling them that it’s all already okay and they are loved. Those two impulses and threads remain in the work that I do.
I started my business kind of accidentally, although also very intentionally. I had joined a business mastermind thinking that I would gain tools to make my arts administration work in the performance art world more financially sustainable. However, in the beginning of the program when instructed to define our niche I realized that I had this other calling and completely shifted gears. That program gave me the step-by-step to get started, as well as holding the larger vision for it being possible. Some of the first steps were interviewing people in our ideal market to find out what their challenges and dreams were, facilitating a workshop, creating a free gift for our website and starting a weekly newsletter. Workshops and my newsletters are still two of my foundational business offerings. It took quite a bit of time to transition out of some of my other responsibilities to focus more on my business, but once I started I knew so clearly that this was my path and where I wanted to devote my energy, which felt really good.
Why do you do this? What’s the best thing about the work you do?
I do this because I care deeply about being of benefit to other people and this particular path that I’ve chosen feels like a good expression of my background and skills and passions to serve to the world. It’s also a way to personally and spiritually grow and continue to challenge myself.
I love the moments of hearing that a workshop or session made a difference in someone’s life. I love the celebrations my clients share with me. I love that I can hold a space of love and empowerment where people can find that within themselves.
And the worst?
The fear, insecurity and vulnerability that come up. But that’s just part of the process. The most annoying worst part is the ridiculous number of hours I currently spend promoting workshops to to get ten or twelve people in the room. I wish there was an easier way to get the people who want to know about my work to know about it.
What are the key challenges you face in your work? And what are your tactics for overcoming these?
Anxiety and overwhelm. It can feel like it’s lurking underneath the surface and then suddenly it hits and I feel paralyzed. It’s so ironic, the paralysis that comes from overwhelm. “Oh my god, I’m so behind, I can never do all of these things!” And then it can become increasingly difficult to do anything!
To prevent this, I try the best I can do make plans and to keep my boundaries around my routines (like taking time to myself in the morning and doing my non-negotiable self-care things). Even when it feels when things are intense and busy, I focus on taking time at the beginning of the day to focus on myself and getting present, calm and grounded. That’s such an important part of the work. If I get in a state of overwhelm, I can’t provide my service.
When the going gets rough, I reach out for support and lean on community. I also just pick, sometimes randomly, the next thing to do, as opposed to putting pressure on myself to do the next “best thing.” One thing at a time. The power of that practice is amazing.
How do you approach time management?
I use two productivity habits that are really my lifeboats:
1) I pick the three most important things for my to do list. I get overwhelmed by long to do lists. So I try to keep it at three. Then when I start to get lost in my day I can just come back to that list.
2) I use a technique called pomodoros where I work for 25 minutes on one task and then take a five minute break. Focus and breaks are the key components here. I am a bit of a cult follower of this technique. Ask any of my friends and I guarantee that I’ve proselytized it to them. I “parallel-pomodoro” with friends sometimes, in person and virtually. I could geek out on this for hours, so I’ll stop here!
And what about work-life balance? Has your social life been impacted by your business?
Right now, since I’m working all of the time, my favorite way to hang out with people is to cowork with them! Socializing and relationships are very important and I don’t have a lot of time aside from work and self care, so I try to incorporate socializing into my work and self care. The other day I invited three friends of mine to cowork at a coworking space called Makespace and it was wonderful — I got to give a massage to one, ended up hiring another one to do the graphics for my speaker series, and we all chatted about enneagrams and business plans in the hot tub at the end of the day. Or my favorite way to do luxurious self care and socializing — going to the Korean spa where you can spend as many hours as you’d like in all of the tubs, sauna and steam room for $25.
My business is my lover and my baby. I don’t have responsibility to any one person, which frees up most of my time, energy and money to go towards my vision. I also have a responsibility to my collective house, and I try to be deliberate about when I’m working on my business and when I’m working on house stuff, which can be challenging since I mostly do it all from my room/house. Re work-life balance: for me, I’m so grateful to be able to really integrate life and work.
Can you tell us about your financial situation when you started out?
Money is so charged and tricky. It’s something I’m really working with myself right now. I actually recently hired a queer radical anti-capitalist money coach to help me sort through what is my personal shit in regards to money and what are actual helpful critiques, because I think they were getting mixed up and the amount of triggers I had around money weren’t helping anybody. When I moved to the Bay Area about four years ago, I lived within the mindset that the less I spent the better a person I was. Now I am trying to understand how to harness the power of money in service of my visions in the world.
When starting out, I hired a business coach with my savings, and she gave me foundational strategy and support to make my first moves. I still worked my many other jobs (from nannying to arts administration to bookkeeping for my house). This year I’ve decided to focus most of my time, energy and money into my business because I feel it is of service and I have the resources to do so. I know that I am so incredibly privileged to be able to invest in myself and my business, and I am committed to be aware and to channel resources to communities, people and organizations doing work in alignment with my values, both now and even more so when I have a more profitable business cash flow.
Is your business sustainable now? How do you feel about the money side of ‘following your arrow’?
The money that is coming in from my business and a couple of other side gigs is almost enough to make ends meet in terms of my basic living expenses. At the same time I’m also investing money beyond that into trainings and projects so that I can have a bigger impact. That money is from my family and I’m thinking of it as a loan that I will pay forward.
Where would you like to see yourself in five, ten years’ time?
I would love to see myself as a leader in the movements I care about, having a powerful impact on queer and trans community in relation to how we feel about and relate to our bodies and ourselves. I’d also love to have an amazing team of people working with me on my projects.
Lastly, I’d love to have my own retreat space. Even as I write that I cringe thinking of the logistical difficulty of that, but… we’ll see!
How do you market your business?
That’s a good question. Currently, my main strategy for putting myself out there is through Queer Body Love Speaker Series, where I’m interviewing 30 amazing humans on subjects related to my business vision. It’s completely free and I really hope it will be useful to folks.
I have promoted my workshops through meetup.com, Facebook, newsletters, word of mouth, and sometimes some flyers. I also have a (simple, relatively unbranded) website where I offer a free body love meditation. I write a weekly newsletter to provide valuable content and to continue to nurture relationships with people.
What’s the most valuable tool in your kit?
Community. I need support and people to cheer me on, recognize my successes, see me, hug me, ask me questions, help me see my blind spots, believe me and and help me when things are rough.
How does being LGBTQ impact on your business (if at all)?
It’s what makes my business! My own queer identity is really important to me. Queerness is partially about my sexual orientation and who I’ve been attracted to, and a celebration of a culture of vibrant expression and freedom. And for me, the word and community of queers also points to a critical engagement with the world which is foundational to the work that I’m doing.
What three websites, blogs, books or people do you rate for business advice or ideas about your work?
The Body is Not an Apology is an amazing movement and incredibly rich website about body-based intersectional liberation on both the personal and collective level that inspires me in terms of the content of the work I do.
Many Buddhist and meditation books really inspire my work. One in particular that I read recently that felt like a guide to how I want to approach my life and business: Loving Kindness by Sharon Salzburg.
In terms of business strategy, I’ve been getting a lot of nourishment recently from a Facebook group, “How To Sell to Women Without Selling Them Out,” moderated by Kelly Diehls, which supports entrepreneurs who seek to not replicate systems of oppression in business. I’ve been seeking to do business in a way that is actually feminist and empowering, and while I’ve only just found this group, it feels like a glimmer that it’s possible.
What’s your hot tip for queer women who want to start their own business?
Take action from your heart and figure it out as you go along. Get support from community. Listen to yourself and others. Be gentle with yourself. (Let’s face it, that’s my core message all the time anyway.)
Catch Elizabeth’s Queer Body Love series (June 15 – July 15 2016), or find out more about her work at elizabethjcooper.com. You can also follow Elizabeth on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter!
Are you following your arrow? Do you run your own business, charity or side-hustle? I’d love to hear from you! Drop a line to beth at autostraddle dot com and tell me all about your awesome project. Stories from women of colour are especially welcome!
Haven’t read this article yet (but I will, this series is really interesting), but that is one of the loveliest photos of ladies with armpit hair I have ever seen! Beautiful and sexy and human <3
Seriously. Can Straddlestock photography please take over the world?
Now there’s a great business idea :D
+10 werewolf points.
I’m really enjoying the Queer Body Love series so far, and loved learning about its creator. Your work and way of doing business is so inspiring!
Elizabeth said she’s working with a “queer radical anti-capitalist money coach” and that sat me right up. I want this person in my life, too.
I agree. Elizabeth, if you’re reading this, could you let us know who the coach was and tell us a bit about what you learned?