Do Friends Make You Fat?
When Sue Parker, a 41-year-old customer-service representative from Lewiston, Maine, went from a size 22 to a size 10, some of her girlfriends were eager to rain on her parade. They dismissed her weight loss as temporary and less of an accomplishment because she's taking an appetite suppressant under her doctor's supervision. "They say I'll just gain the weight back as soon as I stop taking it," says Parker.
Catty? Yes. But also common. The cultural forces that drive us to torture ourselves over our bodies influence our friendships as well. A national survey published in the journal Sex Roles indicates that about half of all American women are dissatisfied with their weight, up from 30 percent in 1985. "We're taught from an early age to monitor our looks, and we estimate our worth by judging where we are compared to others," says Gianine Rosenblum, Ph.D., a psychologist who specializes in body-image research and an assistant professor of pediatrics at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, in New Brunswick, New Jersey. "So, of course body-image issues intrude upon women's friendships. There's commiseration and camaraderie, and often a competitive element."
"With any life change, you'll have a major shift in a friendship -- but it's particularly true with a weight change because appearance is just about the most personal issue for women," adds Kathryn J. Zerbe, M.D., professor of psychiatric education and women's mental health at the Menninger Clinic, in Topeka, Kansas, and author of The Body Betrayed: Women, Eating Disorders and Treatment (American Psychiatric Press, 1994). "For many, it's a source of deep shame." She observes that it's far easier for some women to discuss sexual, marital and child-rearing problems than how their friends' looks make them feel.
"When someone changes her weight, you wonder what else has changed," says Kathy Slade, a 39-year-old technical writer and mother of one from Plaistow, New Hampshire. "Women have pecking orders: 'I'm bigger than this woman, smaller than that one.' And when someone changes that mix, it's unsettling." Slade, who has fluctuated between sizes 6 and 14, would like to shed some of her 175 pounds (she's 5 feet 8 inches tall) but isn't obsessed with her weight. Still, she concedes, "When a friend loses weight and makes a positive transition, it makes me stop and take stock of myself. Sometimes I make a comparison: 'Oh, I've never had such a tiny waist.' Then I might tally up mentally in other areas:'Well, I've got a better job.'"