"Perfectionism attaches to what is valued in the culture," said Gloria Steinem in a recent keynote address. In our culture, perfection means a thin body shape for women. Our societal value holds that "if I can attain the perfect body, i.e. the thin body, then I am OK. If I am heavier than the cultural ideal, I am in danger of not being good enough." The scale announces more than poundage; it measures the distance to perfection and is then the legislator of self-esteem. When the number on the scale goes up, self-esteem goes down. When the number on the scale goes down, self-esteem goes up.
Perfectionism is a contemporary menace for women on many fronts. In the midst of our confusing world, the perfect woman is supposed to attain it all -- have a career, look good on the job, be available to their kids by 6 p.m., make healthy, homemade meals, have connecting family conversation at dinner, and pay attention to adult intimate relationships. This is tremendous pressure. In my clinical office I hear how many women think they "should" not have gone to work so early and "should" have stayed home with their kids, and then from the ones who stayed home, I hear how they regret not having had a career. The pressure is topped off by the requirement that having it all goes with attaining the thin body ideal. For too many women, whatever success they can claim is wiped out by their inner critic if they are not "thin enough."
As a therapist I think a lot about how people have developed their inner critic and how they diminish their self-esteem. While most people have some form of an inner critic, we must pay attention to the fact that for girls and women, this inner critic focuses intensively on what they consider flaws in their body and their quest for achieving the perfect body ideal. Girls as young as five years old are concerned about their weight. According the NMIH, 42 percent of first-third grade girls want to be thinner; 81 percent of 10 year olds are afraid of being fat, and 51 percent of 9-10 year olds feel better about themselves if they are on a diet. Some sources say that 8 million Americans have an eating disorder -- seven million women and one million men.
While we know that obesity is also a national concern, it is frightening to acknowledge the degree to which girls and women are discontent with the body they have, want a body that is unattainably thin for 98 percent of natural body shapes, are angry at their body imperfections, and are obsessed with fixing their shape.
The thin ideal holds a myth that life's problems will be managed when the ideal is achieved. When life gets confusing for girls and women, whether is it from their day-to-day choices, or from challenging career, family or social dynamics, females believe that the way to fix themselves, and their circumstances, is to diet. The belief has potency, in part, because it falsely gives a person something to do that limits the world to what they think can be controlled -- their body and their weight. The quest for being thin as a solution to life's problems camouflages the fact that life is full of complex challenges and disappointments that need emotionally honest attention, not control over calories.
Gloria Steinem was the featured speaker at the 20th Annual Renfrew Center Foundation Conference. The Renfrew Center was the country's first residential treatment program for women with eating disorders and has been a voice for women healing from fierce body criticism. It was therefore fitting that Steinem, founder of Ms. magazine in 1972, and icon of feminism, was the lead speaker. Alive and well, Steinem continues to speak out about social injustice and the need to fight contemporary anti-feminism in its various forms.
Steinem inspired me to reengage my public voice against oppressions of all kinds. In my professional role this means to keep talking to girls and women about empowering themselves to be more of who they are, not to match some ideal that has been sold to them. It means teaching them to quiet their inner critic and follow an internal positive coach that can lead them to greater self-esteem and towards body acceptance. I look forward to when our culture is genuinely supportive of the many forms in which we all come and the diverse choices that women can make in how they organize their lives. As Steinem said, "Perfect is boring: Beauty is irregular." Let's hold onto this truth and spread the word.
For more on quieting the inner critic, read Beth Weinstock at www.SelfMatters.org.