"It's totally uncool in L.A. to talk about your diet -- that makes you a bitchy, bratty, vain woman," says Julie, a 33-year-old television writer. "It's an impossible standard: We're not supposed to think, talk or worry about it, but we're still supposed to look perfect all the time." After trying low-carb diets, South Beach and "anything Oprah told me to do," Julie (who is 5 feet 7 inches and weighs 138 pounds) finally settled on veganism after reading the diet bible Skinny Bitch, which advocates veganism as an eco-friendly way to shed pounds. "In television writing, which is such a male-dominated industry, women have to be liked and respected by men in order to get and keep jobs," she says. "So you can't seem like a frivolous, stupid, typical girl, the kind who's obsessed with her weight."
Packaging a new restrictive diet as a health regime also keeps concerned friends from meddling. As Carly Milne, a 33-year-old journalist in L.A. and former master cleanser, puts it, "If I were to tell my girlfriends I was going on a diet to lose weight, they'd all say, 'Love yourself for who you are; you look fabulous!' But if I say I'm on a quest to get healthy, everyone is really supportive. It's like you're taking care of yourself, instead of beating up on yourself for not being perfect."
The disconnect between this New Age rhetoric and the truth of what many women are actually doing -- often, using socially acceptable quasi-anorexia to starve themselves skinny -- can wreak psychological havoc. "My outside message was 'I'm cleansing; I'm detoxing; I'm getting healthy,'" Milne says. "Inside it was, 'I'm fat; I need to be prettier and fit into a smaller size.' At the time, I was totally able to self-justify. I was working in PR and dealing with a lot of media, and I felt I had to have a particular look in order to be accepted or listened to. So I made it all about work, that I wouldn't be successful unless I was skinnier, and that I had to do the cleanse. Looking back, I realize how destructive I was being."