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07/31/2015 09:54 am ET

How Seeing Greta Garbo Naked Shifted Jane Fonda's View Of 'Perfection'

'We are not meant to be perfect. We're meant to be whole.'

When you're a teen, growing up is hard enough. When you're a teen growing up in the public eye, like Jane Fonda was, the pressures of early adulthood can feel like a weight that's too much to bear. A self-described "tomboy," Fonda says she had a difficult time reconciling her feisty, rough-and-tumble personality with society's expectation of the demure young woman -- and it wreaked havoc on her self-esteem.

"Suddenly, you were supposed to have boyfriends and you had to be a certain way. You had to be popular and you had to be thin and you had to be what they wanted you to be," Fonda tells "Oprah's Master Class" in the above video. "That became a very difficult time in my life. Partly, I was suffering for the loss of that wonderful, strong, brave girl that I had been."

Mourning that loss, Fonda slept a lot and developed an eating disorder. "I was on this toxic quest for perfection," she says. "And it is toxic."

Then, an afternoon swim with international film star Greta Garbo shifted Fonda's entire outlook.

Greta Garbo
Getty Images
Greta Garbo

Fonda says she was about 16 years old at the time and was visiting the South of France with her famous father, Henry Fonda, and his jet-setting Italian wife. The trip included a revolving door of celebrities lounging by the water and dining under the Mediterranean sun. One day, Garbo stopped by for lunch.

"[She] looked at me and said, 'Would you like to come swimming with me?'" Fonda recalls. "First of all, none of the people that ever came there ever noticed me or looked at me... I [said], 'Yes! I want to go swimming with you.'"

Garbo disappeared to change out of her clothes and returned wearing a bathrobe and a white rubber swimming cap. The two walked to the water and got ready for their swim.

"She dropped her bathrobe, and she was naked," Fonda says.

That's when Fonda realized something about the beautiful, beloved actress. "She wasn't perfect," Fonda says. "She was an athlete. She was muscular. She was sturdy. It made me so happy that she was just a good, healthy body."

When the two were in the water, Garbo stunned Fonda once more.

"She looked at me right in the eye and said, 'Do you want to be an actress?' And I said, 'No.' She said, 'Well, you're pretty enough,'" Fonda says. "I was so shocked. I think I had a Cheshire grin on my face for the rest of the day."

The entire experience proved to be a life lesson for Fonda. Intellectually, she knew that she could be loved without being "perfect," but her afternoon with Garbo is what really helped Fonda begin to understand in her heart that there is something more worthwhile to strive for: wholeness.

"My more mature, smarter part of my brain knew there were a lot of very beloved, wonderful, fabulous women who weren't perfect," Fonda says. "But it took me a long, long time to realize we are not meant to be perfect. We're meant to be whole."

"Oprah's Master Class" returns for its fifth season on Sunday, Oct. 25, at 8 p.m. ET. Upcoming masters include Ellen DeGeneres, Robert Duvall, Dwayne "the Rock" Johnson, Smokey Robinson, Jeff Bridges, James Taylor and Patti LaBelle.

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