At thirteen years old, I decided I was going to shave my legs, all the way up to 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’re 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. That journey ended 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. In my twenties, I’d gained a few pounds and was convinced I was enormous. So, I took physician-prescribed diet pills in order to lose that weight,,, I can remember my heart beating erratically and feeling incredibly pumped up. People who cared about me called him, “Dr. Death.” And for good reason.
Even after I no longer met the criteria for actual anorexia, I was left with what I term “eating-disordered thinking.” Maybe you struggle as well.
“I’m not thin enough to have anorexia.”
“I’ve never purged in my life.That’s gross. I just watch what I eat and work out hard.”
“I eat healthy.” (Often a euphemism for severe calorie restriction….)
Being stuck in eating disordered thinking..
Eating-disordered thinking means that you never get those critical voices out of your head that you’re overweight. Your body is an object that needs to be 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 and culture in general told you you should be as a woman, the more likely you were to experience rejection — and become depressed. What did that mean? If you were gay, single, overweight, in a job traditionally held by men, older than 50, a racial minority or had somehow enjoyed your 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’s very obvious bias against being significantly overweight.
How can you get unstuck, and help your daughter or sister, aunt or best friend?
1. Challenge your own body image distortions so as to not pass them on.
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. Realize you are a role model and don’t maintain the myth that perfection is achievable. Express things about yourself that you like. Absorb the nice things people say to you; don’t shrug or laugh them off. If you really struggle with this, find some help from a therapist.
2. Surround yourself with friends (or find them) that don’t body bash themselves or others.
When you and your friends get together, gently challenge the time that’s spent talking about the Keto diet or CrossFit. Change the subject — or point out that you’re working on self-acceptance and would prefer not to have those kinds of conversations. Talk about what you’re doing or what goals you all have, instead of body shaming. If one particular group can’t or won’t change, then find friends that are trying to find fulfillment in who they are, who don’t body bash or need support for frantic efforts to be thin.
3. 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 even aging products. Support them and ask local boutiques to do the same as you widen your own sphere of influence – and even feel empowered. By acting on your belief that your body is not just acceptable, but beautiful, you can actively challenge what you were told to believe by advertisers, or even by the well-intentioned dance or gymnastics coach, ballet instructor, mother or grandmother who held up a far too harsh standard so you’d be “successful.”
You can hear more about mental health and many other topics by listening to my podcast, SelfWork with Dr. Margaret Rutherford. Subscribe to my website and receive one weekly newsletter including my weekly blog post and podcast! If you’d like to join my FaceBook closed group, then click here and answer the membership questions! Welcome!
My new book entitled Perfectly Hidden Depression has arrived and you can order here! Its message is specifically for those with a struggle with strong perfectionism which acts to mask underlying emotional pain. But the many self-help techniques described can be used by everyone who chooses to begin to address emotions long hidden away that are clouding and sabotaging your current life.
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Originally published on April 12, 2014 and updated on October 20, 2018 and then again on April 3, 2021.