How would you move and feed your body if you allowed yourself to use intuition in making those daily choices?
Jennifer Sterling is a Holistic Nutritionist and Registered Dance and Movement Psychotherapist who helps women break free from the emotional barriers and rules tied to what they eat, and uses movement as a method for healing. Here’s how she ties it all together, and reconnects to her own wellness.
How does your work as a nutritionist and movement instructor intersect?
In my 8 years as a nutritionist, I’ve found that most food issues have little to do with food. Instead, at the heart, is a disconnection from the body.
This disconnection happens for various reasons, from trauma and oppression, to the constant barrage of information about how our bodies should look and what we should be eating in order to make them look that way. My master’s degree in holistic nutrition comes in handy when I’m helping women figure out the best way to nourish themselves, but I use it in conjunction with my dance/movement psychotherapy training to help them feel safe and connected to their bodies, so they can (re)discover what they need to fuel and nourish themselves. Instead of telling my clients when, what, and how much to eat, I help them connect to their bodies, so they have a better understanding of their own needs and desires when it comes to food and eating.
I find this to be a much more sustainable way of helping women along their healing journey. Understanding, being more connected to their bodies, and having the resources they need to manage triggers and/or strong emotions, are tools that can be applied to things beyond food. They’re helpful in everyday life.
You have a beautiful relationship with movement and exercise. How has that evolved for you, and what along the way are you most proud of?
I have always loved movement, but it’s taken me a bit to get there. My relationship with movement began as a dancer. My mom signed me up for ballet classes when I was young and I remember loving ballet, but feeling like I didn’t quite fit - there were no other black or brown girls in my class and many of my dance teachers along the way made a point to let me know that I didn’t have a dancer’s body. I was short and muscular, not long and lean like all the other girls in my classes. I took this as a sign that I wasn’t meant to be a dancer and turned to sports. I fit in a little better as an athlete, but there was always some feeling that I needed to change myself to perform better, which wreaked havoc on my self-esteem as a teenager.
I chose to leave it all behind the last few years of high school, but I missed it. So when I chose a college, I intentionally chose a place with a dance program that focused more on feeling than appearance. I ended up at Sarah Lawrence College - a small liberal arts school with a dance program that allowed anyone to be part of the dance program. There was a placement class, but no auditions. You could start as a total beginner. In class, there were no mirrors, the focus was more on feeling your body move and finding alignment for yourself (without injury), rather than looking in the mirror and trying to make yourself fit into a more stereotypical mold. This was a game changer for me - there were people in my class of all body types and we were all learning how to connect to our bodies in a way that felt good. That experience shaped the way I view movement and influenced the trajectory of my career.
I’m really proud that I stepped waaaay outside my comfort zone to have that experience and how I am able to help women because of it.
Your nutrition practice is about cultivating sustainably healthy relationships with food over "band-aids" and "miracle cures." What does that work look like?
This is a tough one because my work is so personal and individual, but generally speaking, it involves really digging into one’s relationship with food. I actually begin my work with clients by talking about and/or moving through their relationship with food and their bodies before we start any conversation about nutrition.
We dig into thought and behavior patterns around food, eating, and their bodies, and where they may have come from and then find ways to work through them using words and movement. I find that sometimes words aren’t accessible. During those times, movement and more somatic processes come in handy. We can work through feelings on a body level and sometimes discharge them from the body without actually going into the story behind them.
So...the first step is acknowledging, understanding, and working through one’s relationship with food. The next step would be learning to manage any feelings, emotions, sensations, associated with that relationship. After that, creating some understanding of the needs of one’s unique body and learning how to meet those needs most of the time in a way that’s as free of rules, restrictions, guilt and shame as much as possible.
What are some ways you share messages of positivity and inclusivity with your community?
I share quite a bit on social media. I find it’s one of the places where I can have the greatest impact. I also try to host at least three events each year that combine food and movement. I find that in-person support is really valuable - we learn from each other and can feel more strongly (sometimes) that we’re not alone in our experience.
Can you tell us more about The Black Girl Healing Project? What are its goals, and how can we all support its mission?
Yes, definitely! The Black Girl Healing Project is a new undertaking for me. Its purpose is to provide support for women of color struggling with depression. I focus very heavily on the experience of black women because that’s most familiar to me and the topic of much of my research when I was in graduate school, but I’m hoping other women of color also find it helpful. It’s still very much in its beginning stages, but the greatest support would be sharing the project with other women who may benefit from our social media posts, events, blog posts, and podcast episodes.
Maintaining emotional wellness requires continual recalibration. How do you take care of yourself when you feel like you need a tune-up?
I love this question because I think the need for continual recalibration sometimes gets lost, at least in a lot of the wellness messaging I see regularly.
The ways in which I take care of myself vary depending on when and why I need a tune-up, but most of the time it involves a combination of movement and stillness. Stillness helps me to reconnect with myself, so I have some idea of what I need and movement helps me to feel less stuck. Through movement I can give my emotions a voice and often find a way to work through them physically. I find this to be more helpful than talking about them most times, although I see a therapist regularly and she helps me process everything verbally.
WARRIOR FOR CHANGE