What Do Perfectionism and Eating Disorders Have in Common? (Part 2)

Perfectionism and Eating Disorders 2

Regarding my eating behavior, Perfectionism didn’t lead to results. It led to peanut butter. – Brene Brown

A recent advertisement for the women’s lingerie company, Victoria’s Secret, is labeled “The Perfect Body.” A group of extremely tall, unbelievably thin, (and probably airbrushed), young, underwear-clad women pose provocatively with their ribs clearly showing. Is there any woman who doesn’t look at that ad and longingly wish, “If only I could look that perfect?”

But wait!! Over 5600 women in a burst of dissent and disapproval signed a petition protesting this ad! With creative hashtags, such as #noonebodytypeisperfect, they complained that the advertisement “promotes low self-esteem among women who are made to feel that their bodies are inadequate and unattractive because they do not fit into this narrow standard of beauty.”  Victoria’s Secret — admitting their miscalculation — promptly changed their campaign to a more neutral slogan, “A Body for Everybody.” It is hopeful and heartening that women are fighting back against the impossible demands of perfection that our culture has fed us for so many decades.

For many women, self-acceptance is hard to come by, but a wonderful example of self-acceptance comes from the beautiful iconic actress, Sophia Loren. Ms. Loren recently discussed how she was pressured early in her career to get plastic surgery to “soften her features.” But she protested, “I didn’t want a small, turned-up nose. I knew perfectly well that my beauty was the result of a lot of irregularities all blended together in one face, my face. Whether I won or lost [my career], it was going to be in the original version.”

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Perfectionism, body image, and eating disorders go hand in hand. Women often strive to be “a perfect size 4,” “a perfect girlfriend,” “a perfect wife,” “a perfect hostess.” But it is mostly in the realm of weight and body image that insecurity rears its head for many females.

In The New York Daily News, journalist Linda Stasi writes, “99% of women have always fallen short of the ‘ideal’ because that ideal has always been unattainable; a fake reality created by women’s magazines and driven by perverse fashion photographers who created ideal images of women, except these models looked like overgrown pubescent boys.” (11/16/14)

What is Perfectionism?

Perfectionism is defined as a tendency to set extremely high standards for oneself and being unhappy with anything less. Perfectionism is not about striving for healthy self-improvement. It is about harsh and rigid self-judgment: either I’m an ideal weight or I’m worthless; either I’m a size 4 or I’m fat; either I exercise two hours every day or I’m a failure. This is black or white thinking at its most corrosive.

Perfectionism, however, is not always bad. In its most positive form, it can fuel our drive for excellence and achievement in life and help us strive for goals that are important for our self-satisfaction. And we certainly hope that all our doctors are nothing less than perfect!

But when our goals are unrealistic and are fueled by anxiety, then perfectionism turns sour and destructive. We become obsessive, dissatisfied and compelled to work constantly harder to strive for that elusive goal of thinness. We develop a punishing attitude to ourselves with self-critical and chronic frustration. We lose sight of what is good about our life and our efforts.

To be a perfectionist can be truly painful because we lose our loving, accepting relationship with ourselves.

Many women are attached to one number: their ideal weight or their ideal size. Since weight fluctuates over one’s life span – and even during the course of one day! – you can never achieve that one ideal number. The tragedy is that perfection is always impossible to reach, and the perfectionist can never succeed in her quest. Accepting a weight range is a more realistic and self accepting position, but not always easy. But by learning to cultivate self acceptance, you begin to break the chains of perfectionism. As author Anna Quindlen adds, “The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself.”

Further Reading: What Do Perfectionism and Eating Disorders Have in Common (Part 1)

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