Wendy Sterling cooking in a kitchen

Tips on ‘Body Positivity’ from an Expert in Adolescent Nutrition

HumEc alum Wendy Meyer Sterling ’99 pens a guide for parents on fostering healthy relationships with food and exercise

By Beth Saulnier

Wendy Meyer Sterling ’99 is a California-based nutritionist who specializes in treating adolescents with eating disorders. She also has a specialty in sports nutrition, working with such pro teams as the Oakland A’s, Golden State Warriors, and New York Jets.

In March, the Human Ecology alum and two colleagues published Raising Body Positive Teens: A Parent’s Guide to Diet-Free Living, Exercise, and Body Image. It’s the latest self-help book for Sterling, who previously co-authored How to Nourish Your Child Through an Eating Disorder and No Weigh! A Teen’s Guide to Positive Body Image, Food, and Emotional Wisdom.

Here, she offers insights for Cornellian parents—including how to approach the issue of body image in their own families.

Could you define “body positivity”?

It’s feeling better and more empowered about your body, and developing improved self-esteem. The reality is that body image falls on a spectrum, and often people don’t feel positive right away, or even ever. Some of our clients come to us hating their bodies—so getting them to feel more neutral might be the initial goal.

How much more challenging are these issues today than for past generations?

For sure, social media has made it almost impossible for teens these days. We know that the more you see images of thin bodies, it becomes more difficult to feel good about yourself. Studies show that even looking at those images briefly can cause negative feelings of self-esteem. So it’s very hard.

How can we blunt the damage of all these images?

It’s important to diversify your social media feed. Including things about nature, cooking, and hobbies is important, so you’re not just focusing on food and bodies—plus unfollowing people who might be triggering, or who leave you feeling uneasy or stressed.

the cover of "Raising Body Positive Teens"

Is there an upside to social and mass media, in terms of showing a wider array of bodies—for example, ads using models who reflect the average American?

I think companies are trying to do better. And there are now shows like “Shrill” [the Hulu comedy based on the life of feminist writer and size-acceptance advocate Lindy West]. But there is room for more.

Even though my feed has diverse bodies, and we’re educating about that, there’s such a long way to go before the culture is on board—for example, where movies or TV shows include a fat protagonist, but that’s not the main or most interesting thing about that person.

Is negative body image an issue that mainly impacts girls, or are boys also at risk?

It affects all genders. I have lots of boys in my practice, and eating disorders are on the rise for everyone—all people, bodies, cultures, and ethnicities.

Overall, what do you see as the current relationship to food in our society?

People have lost their way with food, and the world has become a very confusing landscape. There are lots of different messages—from fitness instructors, health advocates, doctors, teachers, PE instructors, the person on the street or in line behind you at the grocery store. Everybody thinks they know about nutrition or has an opinion about it. And as if that weren’t confusing enough, now we’re also seeped in “wellness” culture, which is often a masquerade for diet culture.

People have lost their way with food, and the world has become a very confusing landscape.

One takeaway from your book is that in general, dieting doesn’t achieve lasting weight loss. Why is that?

It’s has to do with our biology; calorie restriction is not behaviorally or biologically sustainable. People try and try, but keep regaining the weight they’ve lost. Weight loss is a $72 billion industry; that shows you that people keep coming back for an alternative solution. It leaves them feeling very frustrated, and often in a cycle of “lose, gain, lose, gain.” Yes, it has been successful for some people—but that margin is incredibly small.

How can parents know if their child has an eating disorder? What should they look out for?

Typically, parents have a sense when something might be off. It could be when their child stops coming to the dinner table, or begins to lose weight or hoard food, or is over-exercising in a way that they didn’t used to. If a teen loses their menstrual period, or their lunch is not being consumed as it used to be, or you hear them secretly going to the bathroom—those things are red flags, as is weight loss during a time of growth and development.

Besides having a healthy relationship with food, what other lifestyle aspects are important for body positivity?

Wendy Sterling signing a book
Sterling at a book signing. (Photo provided)

Sleep is really foundational. If you’re sleep deprived, it’s hard to feel great about anything, or to do well academically or in sports. Without good sleep, it’s almost impossible to have a fighting chance to feel good about yourself.

Where does exercise fit in—not as a tool for weight loss, but for its own sake?

We know from studies that exercise can increase happiness and improve mood. But in writing the book, we didn’t want to impose exercise on anyone; there is often a lot of morality around exercise, and we didn’t want to give that message. We want it to be something that adds joy to your life.

You write that parents should be aware of how they talk about their own bodies—avoiding comments like, “I had cheesecake, now I have to go to the gym.” How can adults model body positivity?

Children watch everything you say and do, and comments like that teach them that food can’t just be enjoyed as is, and that we need to worry about our weight and do something about it. When you compliment somebody’s weight loss, you’re saying, “This matters to me.”

Similarly, if you say, “I need to exercise after eating that piece of cheesecake,” it’s disconnecting joy from movement, and teaching that we have to compensate for the food we eat. The home should be a place of safety, free of discussion about other people’s bodies or your own.

One parenting classic is, “You can’t have dessert until you eat your vegetables.” Is that wise?

When you say that, you’re emphasizing how great dessert is compared to vegetables. You don’t want to have a food hierarchy where desserts are the most desirable. Foods should be on an even playing field.

The home should be a place of safety, free of discussion about other people’s bodies or your own.

Another axiom is “Clean your plate.” Is that out of favor—pressuring a kid to eat beyond satiety?

For the average person—outside the treatment of an eating disorder—we typically don’t recommend that. Kids are remarkable in understanding their hunger and satiety cues. As a parent, it’s been fascinating to watch this play out from infancy. My kids are now elementary age, and it’s amazing to see them turn off and say, “I’m full.”

There are families in which kids are never allowed sugary desserts at home. Is that a good idea?

If you take all the sweets out of the house, the child tends to over-respond when they’re around them. It’s important to build a relationship with these foods, so you can establish a comfort level.

In the book, you even recommend letting kids learn for themselves that over-indulgence in sweets can make you feel lousy.

My daughter once came home from a birthday party with a stomachache from all the dessert. And I thought, “This is great; she has learned that if she has more than her body wants, it doesn’t feel good.”

Top image: Photo by Jenny Pfeifer.

Published May 17, 2022


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