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What Jane Fonda Has to Teach You About Mental Health

Whether or not you’re a fan of Jane Fonda as an actress or an activist, she has a lot to teach us about recovering from bulimia and body image disorder, discovering and expressing one’s authentic self, and achieving self-esteem. At 81, she’s far from past her prime and actually may just be reaching it. Or, so I thought, after watching Jane Fonda in Five Acts (

Growing up in a highly dysfunctional family, she was a sad child. Her father, the actor Henry Fonda, was far from fatherly and she wanted nothing more than to please him. Her mother suffered from depression and died by suicide when Jane was 12. Jane says that her perfectionism began at a very early age, based on the belief that if she did everything right and flawlessly, she would please and get the love she needed from her parents and others. Toward this goal of perfection, she began purging to keep her weight under control (her father chastised her for putting on pounds) because she was  binge-eating. It wasn’t until mid-life that she could recognize the damage that these behaviors was doing to her. Boy, does this late realization resonate with me.

Eating and body image disorders were just part of her problems. She was an approval seeker and people pleaser, especially around men. Her three husbands, director Roger Vadim, activist Tom Hayden, and businessman Ted Turner were strong, powerful men and she tried to mold herself to make them happy and love her. Her desire to be loved by her distant and critical father set the stage for her subsequent marital choices.

Fortunately, she was a superbly talented actress and becoming an activist in the Sixties helped her learn to speak out about causes that were important to her. Learning to put herself behind what she believed in helped empower her personally. This is why it’s so important for people in recovery to find meaning in life beyond what they eat, weigh and look like. Sometimes we simply need to get outside ourselves to learn to live in reality.

However she learned to grow healthier, including through psychotherapy, it’s obvious that she has spent a good deal of time reflecting honestly about her life. She extols deep friendships, is outspoken, and doesn’t blame or shame herself or anyone else for what happened in her life. She regrets that she wasn’t a better parent without feeling sorry for herself. She shows compassion toward her mentally ill mother, understanding that her mother did the best she could based on her own dysfunctional childhood. She made peace with her deceased father. Her most valuable insight is that though her parents couldn’t love her well enough, she now knows that she was lovable all along.