97% of women have body-hating thoughts during the day.

Our “training” begins early. In a University of Central Florida study of three- to six-year-old girls, nearly half were already worried about being fat—and roughly a third said they wanted to change something about their body. “There are only so many times you can be hit with the message that your body isn’t right’—whether you see it on TV, hear it from your mom or just feel it in the ether—before you internalize it and start beating yourself up for not being as perfect as you should’ be,” says Nichole Wood—Barcalow, Ph.D., a psychologist at the Laureate Eating Disorders Program in Tulsa, Oklahoma. As Maureen Dorsett, 28, of Washington, D.C., who counted 11 negative thoughts the day she did our experiment, puts it: “I always saw my negative thoughts as a way of improving myself—of calling attention to what I need to work on. If a guy said to me, Wow, your belly looks flabby today,’ that would be really offensive. Somehow, these thoughts never seemed as degrading coming from my own mind. Maybe I had just gotten so used to having them.”

To make matters worse, negative talk has become part of the way women bond. “Friends getting together and tearing themselves down is such a common thing that it’s hard to avoid,” says Kearney-Cooke. The chatter happens on Facebook and among coworkers, and is broadcast with surprising viciousness on shows like Real Housewives and Bridalplasty (on which one perfectly cute contestant declared, “I want this butt face fixed!”). And all that public bashing makes the internal insult-athon seem normal. As one woman told us, “When others make comments about their bodies, it makes me think about mine more.”

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