At thirteen years old, I decided 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.”
Immediately defensive, I bristled, “You’re trying to keep me from growing up!” (My 13 year-old wisdom was quite vast.)
In my eyes, I’d started the journey of adhering to cultural norms. That journey sadly took some difficult turns; by my senior year in college, I was severely anorexic. In my twenties, I’d gained a few pounds and was convinced I was enormous. So, I asked for diet pills, causing my heart to beat erratically while I also felt incredibly pumped up. People who knew what I was doing called that prescriber, “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. But here’s what your own denial can sound like:
“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….)
What remains true, whether you deny it or not. You focus on food. It’s consumption. It’s non-consumption. And you need for feel in control. (Anorexia is much more about control and esteem than food…).
But what if I don’t follow this prescription? What could I face?
It’s almost impossible to live in our culture without picking up this pattern of thinking; it’s literally everywhere. And it’s not only about body image. Twenty-plus years ago, Ellen McGrath wrote a book, “When Feeling Bad is Good.” it was geared toward women; her basic point was that the more you veered away from what advertisers and culture mandated was acceptable, the more likely it was that you’d experience actual rejection — which could easily lead to depression.
What did that mean? If you were gay, single, over the weight of what you were “supposed” to be, in a job traditionally held by men, older than 50, a racial minority, and had somehow enjoyed your life without having kids, there was something “wrong” with you.
Now we hear a similar lament in the Barbie movie…
Things have changed in the intervening years, but not as much as we might like to think. We hear and see it in the new Barbie movie.
Here’s part of what’s been called “The Barbie Monologue” from the new movie Barbie where the inner battle rages on in the “real world” (not Barbie Land…) about body image. It’s spoken by America Ferrera whose a real mom in the real world…
It is literally impossible to be a woman. You are so beautiful, and so smart, and it kills me that you don’t think you’re good enough. Like, we have to always be extraordinary, but somehow we’re always doing it wrong.
You have to be thin, but not too thin. And you can never say you want to be thin. You have to say you want to be healthy, but also you have to be thin.
And it goes on talking about the various cages we can all live in. We all can get stuck in what culture says we’re supposed to be, instead of living out what truly matters to us.
How can you get unstuck, at least from body shaming?
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 children or grandchildren, they can absorb your self-loathing — even if you eat normally. Realize you’re their role model and don’t maintain the myth that perfection is achievable. Express things about yourself that you like – and of course, mean it!
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, CrossFit – or the newest craze, taking Ozempic or other drugs, meant for diabetics, for weight loss. Change the subject — or point out that you’re working on self-acceptance and encourage other kinds of conversations. Talk about what you’re doing or what goals you all have, instead of allowing shame to dominate!
3. Buy products from companies that are trying to confront the myth of perfection.
Increasingly, there are companies that are using real-sized women as models and are preaching the power of self-acceptance. Others choose more mature 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,
4) Realize the power of early messages to you about your body, however well-intentioned.
Far too often, the gymnastics coach or ballet instructor will demand certain body types or weights. It’s very common and does incredible damage. Or a “well-meaning” relative will tell you what you need to look like to be “successful.” Become aware of the power those messages might still have for you and fight their impact – so you don’t pass them on.
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.
Photo by Leeloo Thefirst: https://www.pexels.com/photo/a-woman-in-beige-tank-top-6782097/