Not All Black Girls Know How To Eat #2: An Interview with Jennifer Sterling

Hello Beautiful People,

Welcome to: Not All Black Girls Know How to Eat #2. (For Part One, here ya’ go…)

I’m constantly searching and scrounging around for personal growth stuff, especially in terms of eating. I entered the self-help world mainly through my haphazard, strained relationship with eating and my body.

I wanted a life free from constant body dissatisfaction and eating my feelings through the portal of Cadbury Roasted Almond Chocolate bars.

I found many wellness coaches, eating disorder specialists, health gurus and body positivity warriors. Many of them white women. And while I gained a lot from their level of mastery, I wanted a more culturally nuanced view.

Someone who got why if “eating clean” meant forsaking jollof rice, I was, um, not gonna do it.

Enter Jennifer Sterling. Jennifer is the Holistic Nutritionist and Wellness Coach of my fucking dreams. She’s a former pole dance instructor, went to culinary school, and is well-versed in black girl wellness. Her weekly emails about healing from trauma and learning to nurture ourselves with food instead of numb ourselves, buoy me upwards every time I read them. She doesn’t believe in diets or that health only comes in one size. She is also the founder of the Black Girl Healing Project.

She is amazing and has gracefully agreed to be interviewed here. I hope you enjoy and definitely, definitely check out her site! You won’t regret it.

Jennifer Sterling
Jennifer Sterling

Please tell us all a little about yourself, Jennifer. What are three things we would not know about you just by looking at you (weird, random factoids welcome!)

I am a Holistic Nutritionist, plant-based chef and creative arts therapy candidate. I help women learn to eat intuitively and nourish themselves physically, mentally and emotionally. Three things that no one would know about me by just looking at me? I taught pole dancing for about 8 years, I owned an allergen-free baking business for about 6 years, and I play the alto saxophone.

What led you to become a holistic nutritionist?

My interest in nutrition came from a desire to heal myself. When I was in college, I started experiencing recurrent yeast infections, headaches, and fatigue. I saw several doctors, and everyone swore there was nothing wrong with me – my blood work came back normal and it appeared that everything was fine. After a few years of feeling like I was getting nowhere, I decided to take my health into my own hands and do a little research on my own. As I was researching, I discovered that the way I was eating was contributing to my symptoms. I changed the way I was eating and many of my symptoms disappeared – discovering the power of food for myself, made me want to share it with others, especially since it was never mentioned anytime I saw a doctor. I didn’t want other women to have to suffer for as long as I did.

What issues do you find particularly affecting women of color with eating/body image? Are these issues being addressed in your opinion?

The issues I see affecting women of color have more to do with bigger societal issues – the thought that women of color can’t or don’t suffer from eating disorders, and women of color feeling as though they have to look a certain way based on societal norms.

There are some conversations that are happening around these issues – some acknowledgement that anyone can have an eating disorder, no matter what their shape or size. Sometimes, it is assumed that only a thin person can have an eating disorder, and this is not the case.

I think with the anti-diet movement that’s happening now, a lot of body image issues are being addressed – as more practitioners come to understand the dangers of dieting for weight loss, there is more talk about body kindness, self-love and acceptance. I think these conversations and understandings will be helpful for all women.

B5076D92-228C-4655-BC73-24B8354F0C1F

What is the one piece of wisdom you would offer to a woman wishing to heal her relationship with food?

Let go of dieting and everything that goes with it – counting calories, weigh-ins, etc. – and focus instead on the needs of your body. There is no one size fits all diet and 95% of people who diet end up gaining the weight back plus some within 5 years – learning to eat in a way that makes you feel good physically, mentally, and emotionally is much more sustainable and supportive of your overall health than eating to control the size of your body.

What mainstream nutritionist advice or guidance do you find problematic, especially in regard to women of color?

That you need to be or have to be vegan to be healthy. I see this a lot on social media, especially on accounts run by women of color. Being vegan is great, if it works for your body – if you feel energized, satisfied, and well when you eat that way long-term. It’s not the only way, however. For some, eating high-quality animal protein is helpful.

In general, I find any nutrition advice that only focuses on one way of eating to be problematic. We’re not all the same, and we don’t all have the same needs when it comes to food and eating.

What is your favorite meal? Dessert?

My favorite meal…that’s a tricky one! I love mac and cheese, pizza, and tacos. What can I say, I’m a nutritionist, but I love comfort food. Who doesn’t!?!

My favorite dessert. Hmmm….sweet potato pie!

And a curiosity of mine: can you give us your inspiration behind your sign-off, “hugs and curves”?

For sure! It was inspired by the years I spent as a pole dancing instructor – so much of that work was about helping women to celebrate and appreciate their curves. That sign-off is meant to be an extension of that work – offering support with a hug and a little encouragement to embrace your curves.

So, please remind us again, where can we find you?

You can find me on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook @jennmsterling or visit my website: jennifersterling.com for more info about me and my work.

Thank you so much Jennifer!

I hope this interview has helped some of you out there. Eating does not have to be a struggle and I am learning this along with you. I too have succumbed to notions that there is a “right” way to eat and look, but I am happy to say, that this type of thinking is fading away. I truly hope all of us can find the freedom to be our best selves in our bodies, and that we can learn to treat them with grace and love through the way we eat.

Onward,

Hannah

 

Therapy While Black – Part III – The Stuff to Keep Us Going

“Are you sure, sweetheart, that you want to be well?… Just so’s you’re sure, sweetheart, and ready to be healed, cause wholeness is no trifling matter. A lot of weight when you’re well.”

-Toni Cade Bambara, The Salt Eaters

Image-1 (2)

A friend of mine recently mentioned that she knows of several black people who are attending therapy—they just don’t share it openly.

“Perhaps it’s the new down low,” I replied.

Perhaps.

Obviously, there are reasons why being in therapy makes it harder for black folks to admit.  See Parts I and II of this series.

This post is for those of us who are in the midst of emotional and mental healing. It may be therapy. It could be reading all the self-help books you can find. Services on Sunday. Yoga and meditation. Weekly group coaching.

Maybe even a combo of some or all of the above.

Wherever you are on this path, bra-fucking-v-o. And I mean it.

We live in a world wholly invested in remaining unconscious and isolated 90% of the time. It is not easy to remove yourself from the Matrix of Un-examined Feelings and attempt to do better.

Why keep going though? Why invest in inner healing in a world such as ours that often doesn’t reward it? It’s not like you get to post selfies of your transformed brain on Snapchat.

dark brown tears

Sometimes we need reminders to keep going.

But keep going we must.

Keep going because the world needs more models of black people who are integrated within. Keep going because you matter.

Keep going because the children really are the future (Whitney was right) and they are worthy of adults who can adequately respond to their emotional needs.

Keep going even when it hurts—sometimes pain is the first step towards a true piecing back together.

Keep going because you deserve to wrest yourself away from the voices that declare that your nose is too wide, that you are a Problem To Be Solved, that you don’t deserve to be laughing without worry.

Keep going to heal from a world that would leave your dying body in the street for 48 hours and then ask you why you’re angry or depressed. Keep going to find freedom away from voices that simultaneously declare you too much and nothing at all.

kirz art

Keep going because it is easy for those voices to become your own.

Keep going because authenticity is more than social media buzz word and you deserve to keep it real for reals.

Keep going because stress-related diseases are no joke.

Keep going because you want to usher in a new understanding of holistic health for your church, temple, and home.

Keep going because you need to be heard. Keep going because you have a right to be free from the ghosts of the past.

Keep going even when the world and your family or your friends tell you it is enough to survive. Keep going because you want to thrive while your soul dances upon this earth.

Keep going because it’s okay to do differently than your family. Keep going because it’s okay to do differently than your friends. Keep going even when they do not start going.

Keep going. One small step at a time. Fall back. Start again.

May you keep going. May you respect where you are today and be with it fully as a sunrise.

Keep going.

Because you deserve to be whole.

Onward,

Hannah

 

Therapy While Black – Part II – The Stuff To Consider Before Going

Image-1 (1)

The new therapist specializes in trauma counseling. You have only ever spoken on the phone. Her house has a side gate that leads to a back entrance she uses for patients. You walk down a path bordered on both sides with deer grass and rosemary to the gate, which turns out to be locked.

At the front door the bell is a small round disc that you press firmly. When the door finally opens, the woman standing there yells, at the top of her lungs, Get away from my house. What are you doing in my yard?

It’s as if a wounded Doberman pinscher or a German shepherd has gained the power of speech. And though you back up a few steps, you manage to tell her you have an appointment. You have an appointment? she spits back. Then she pauses. Everything pauses. Oh, she says, followed by, oh, yes, that’s right. I am sorry.

I am so sorry, so, so sorry.

 

Claudia Rankine, Citizen

 dark brown tears

Black people are more likely to experience anxiety and depression in their lifetime but much less likely to seek or receive help than their white counterparts.

I grew up about twenty-five minutes away from Disneyland. I could usually count on two hands the number of black kids in my schools.

And yet.

Whenever I am starting therapy, I request a black female therapist first and then a woman-of-color therapist. Due to my oreo-alternative-black-lady status, this may seem surprising. I (thankfully) have never had an encounter like the one Rankine so skillfully details in Citizen. But, I have experienced my fair share of casual ordinary racism in therapy: There was the white therapist who did this weird ShaNaeNae head toss and finger-snap thing when I told her about being afraid to show anger as a black woman. And the therapist during my last year at the Merchant Marine Academy who flashed me a quizzical glance when I told her of the racist, sexist comments my classmates made.

My friend (a black man) says every time he brings up racism his therapist ignores his input and wants to instead focus on “what is real” versus “what isn’t”.

Le sigh.

White supremacy has very long tentacles and therapy is no exception.

I wish it was better for us out there. I really do.

And so, I forever seek out therapists who look like me. Which isn’t easy. Black and brown people do not dominate mental health professions and getting to work with a black therapist is harder in smaller cities.  To be sure, there are other considerations beside race that one may have to make. Perhaps you really want someone who is queer or you are a dude who really wants to talk another dude. Perhaps you want someone invested in more unconventional approaches to healing. For me, racism and sexism have salient effects on my mental/emotional health. I cannot see a therapist who does not understand this.

Let me be straight–I’ve had uncomfortable interactions with black therapists too—the one who would eat her entire lunch during the session (and not like a granola bar, woman would be heating up rice pilaf and roasted chicken chewing away) or the one who consistently brought up the fact that I was Nigerian even when the point of discussion didn’t warrant the inclusion.

Indeed, there are non-black therapists well-versed and empathetic around oppression, even those oppressions they don’t have to experience directly. The important thing to remember is that you get to choose.

I had the most amazing black woman therapist once. She was spiritual, but not necessarily religious. She was extremely knowledgeable about the effects of trauma and somatic (body-centered) forms of therapy, thoughtful, and had a collection of flower essences she sold in a little wooden cabinet. When I mentioned the casual racism I experienced at work or in the city, she didn’t balk or try to “reason” with me.

kirz art

I have not always had a Dream Therapist. One may have to settle sometimes, decide that dealing with your anxiety or depression is more worth than waiting out the perfect person. I’ve definitely done this once and it was not the end of the world. Word to the wise: 2-3 visits is the MAX time you should give to a therapist when you’re ascertaining whether you want to work with them. If you aren’t feeling it by then, put on your best fuck-boy airs and cut it off. On to the next.

I saw my Dream Therapist though the Coast Guard EAP program, which gives active duty and selected reserve members a specific allowance of mental health counseling appointments each year. When my allowance ran out, we continued our work outside the program. I know I am mighty lucky to have been afforded this opportunity—most people don’t have full health insurance that also covers therapy. (And about a third of therapists don’t accept insurance). Sometimes when I see the hourly rates for therapy my eyes bug out in that cartoony-flashing manner.

Some friends who are in therapy and not attached to school or work insurance meet with therapists on a sliding scale. There are mental health professionals who will do this, but sometimes you have to ask. Some friends save money by seeing their therapists every other week or once a month. Some colleges and universities offer low price sessions to locals. Some friends have invested in free 12-Step groups like Adult Children of Alcoholic/Dysfunctional Families which meet in cities around the nation or other affordable online programs which primarily work through phone/Skype sessions. Some choose to work with life coaches instead of traditional therapy.

So, before going to therapy, ask yourself some questions: What would the ideal therapy relationship look like for you? Who would you feel most comfortable working with? How possible will this be considering the demographics of where you live? Looking at the resources you have access to and your economic reality, what can you take part in? Are you wanting to heal from trauma or would you better benefit from working with a life coach around a specific issue?

You’re the only one who can answer these questions. But, please don’t feel afraid to research and come up with what makes your wellness journey possible. You deserve it.

 

Other Resources:

therapyforblackgirls.com

http://www.ebony.com/life/black-mental-health-resources

Art: Thomas S. Eliot and Kirz Art