At thirteen years old, I decided I was going to shave my legs, all the way up to my mid-thigh. I felt quite adult and dangerously risqué. My mother was mortified and told me, “You’ll regret it forever.”

At the time, I took her comment quite superficially. “You are just trying to keep me from growing up,” I bristled. (My 13 year-old wisdom was quite vast.)

In my eyes, I’d started the journey of becoming what our culture mandated a woman should look like, a trip my mom regretted me beginning. The journey certainly ended up taking some difficult turns.

By my senior year in college, I was anorexic, severely restricting my food intake so that I weighed little more than 100 pounds.

Later in my twenties I had gained a few pounds and resolutely believed I was enormous. I took physician-prescribed diet pills in order to lose that weight.  I can remember my heart beating erratically and feeling incredibly pumped up. Many years later, I feel fortunate I didn’t have a stroke or heart attack. I had a good guy friend who called that doctor, “Dr. Death,” because he hated the fact I was taking those pills. How much weight did I believe I needed to lose? Five pounds? Ten? 

Even after I no longer met the criteria for actual anorexia, I was left with what I  term “eating-disordered thinking.” Maybe you’re one of the many girls or women who deny  “eating disorders” because you don’t strictly fit the criteria. Maybe you don’t binge (or not often). You don’t regularly purge or maybe not at all. You still have your periods. You may not over-exercise, although that might be up for debate. Maybe you eat “healthy,” which is often a euphemism for severe calorie restriction.

Eating-disordered thinking means that you never get the critical voice out of your head that you’re overweight. Your body is an object that needs to be changed and whittled down before it’s acceptable.

It’s almost impossible to be a woman in our culture without picking up this pattern of thinking. It’s literally everywhere.  Twenty-plus years ago, Ellen McGrath wrote a book, “When Feeling Bad is Good.” Her basic point was that the further away you were from what advertisers told you you should be, the more likely you were to experience rejection — and become depressed. What does that mean? If you are gay, single, overweight, in a job traditionally worked by men, older than 50, a racial minority or had somehow enjoyed her life without having kids, there was something “wrong” with you.

Things have changed in the intervening years, but not as much as we might like to think and certainly, the struggle continues in the body image department. There is obvious bias against being significantly overweight.

And all too often, women over-correct by negatively obsessing about their bodies.

What can you do?

1. You can choose to challenge your own body image distortions and not pass them on to the next generation.

Every time you say something negative about yourself and your body in front of your daughters (or sons I might add) your nieces or grandchildren, they will absorb your self-loathing — even if you eat normally. Don’t maintain the myth of that perfection is achievable; realize you are a role model. They will do as you do, not as you say.  Start finding and verbalizing things about yourself that you can like. Absorb the nice things people say to you; don’t shrug them off. If you really struggle, find some help from a therapist.

2. You can choose not to reinforce self-criticism and make friends (or find them) that don’t body bash themselves or others. 

When you and your friends get together and too much time is spent talking about the Keto diet or CrossFit, change the subject — or maybe even gently point out that those kinds of conversations may sustain an ideal that your daughters and granddaughters will feel the need to reach. Talk about what you’re doing or what goals you have, instead of body shaming.  In this way, you can build a network of friends who are about the business of liking and accepting themselves, and who hopefully will continue to spread this message to their friends and family. If they can’t or won’t change, then find friends that have better things to do that body bash or intentionally or unintentionally support a frantic need to be thin. 

3. Your can buy products from companies that are trying to confront the myth of perfection.

There are finally companies that are using real-sized women as models and are preaching the power of self-acceptance. Others choose older models rather than fifteen year-olds to sell cosmetics, or aging products. Support them and ask local boutiques to do the same. This will widen the sphere of influence you have to help eliminate the misconception that physical perfection is an achievable goal. By acting on your belief that your body is not just acceptable, but beautiful, you can actively challenge being told what you’re to believe by advertisers — and not feed what some inner critic is trying to say to you.

We’re headed into the holiday season! Please think of Dr. Margaret’s book as a fun stocking stuffer for the person you love! Click here for “Marriage Is Not For Chickens.”

You can hear more about depression and many other topics by listening to Dr. Margaret’s podcast, SelfWork with Dr. Margaret Rutherford. Subscribe to this website and receive her weekly posts as well as her podcasts, plus Dr. Margaret’s eBook, “Seven Commandments of Good Therapy.”

Originally published on April 12, 2014 and updated on October 20, 2018.