Do Friends Make You Fat?

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The Almighty Pound

The women most likely to play the comparison game are those who exaggerate the importance of their weight, says Rosenblum. "These women believe that if weight is important to them, it's important to everyone, and body image winds up coloring their world."

"Lisa and I gained weight around the same time," says Holly Pilcher-Birge, a 28-year-old Web-site paralegal in Bellevue, Washington, who's 5 feet 10 inches tall and until last September, weighed 238 pounds. (She has now slimmed down to 160 pounds.) "Then, about a year ago, Lisa dropped some weight, and I couldn't deal with that. When she regained the weight, it made me feel much better.

"I feel really guilty for being so competitive," she continues. "Lisa's actually been the most supportive person with my diet. She always helps me find low-fat items on the menu. And if we're at her house playing cards, she'll offer me fruit because I can't eat some of the things the others are snacking on."

Weight loss can cause a rift even when friends aren't competitive. Donna Rubin, 40, a day-care provider and married mother of four in Lakewood, New Jersey, understands this firsthand. At 5 feet 5 inches and 220 pounds, she dropped almost 70 pounds in the last year. Her pal Chloe, who is 5 feet tall and weighs 220 pounds, is less than thrilled. "I think she used to feel she was safe with me because we were in the same boat," says Rubin. "When I lost weight, she became more distant and stopped talking about her own weight battles." But Chloe might have been reacting to the fact that Rubin had less time for her because she returned to school to get a degree in computer programming. "When you lose weight, you feel you can do other things, too," explains Rubin. "Some friends are put off by that."

"A weight loss is generally associated with an improvement in self-confidence, so the friend who counts on you to be dependent on her may feel threatened," says Shari Lusskin, M.D., an assistant professor of psychiatry at New York University, in New York City. "And the friend may not applaud your taking care of yourself because it makes her feel bad about herself. So she might become critical instead of supportive."

Even when friends help each other in trying to reach their weight-loss goals, hard feelings may surface when they learn that "we don't have total control over our bodies," says Kathryn Zerbe. "Two women may achieve different results on the same diet and exercise program. When one loses weight, her friend may feel, 'We were in this together, and now I've been surpassed and even abandoned.' It can feel like a betrayal, and that can hurt a friendship."

Not long ago, Amy Keroack and her friend Meg were partners in diet crime. "It was typical for us to pick up a video, and on the way home Meg would say, 'Let's get some Ben & Jerry's,'" says Keroack. "So we'd each get a pint and finish it by the end of the movie. You tell yourself, 'It's okay that I'm eating a pint because she is, too.'" Thanks to their conspiratorial consumption, the women were packing on two or three pounds each month.

But Keroack began shunning sweets to avoid gaining weight. Her subsequent weight loss of about 20 pounds alienated Meg, who is 5 feet 11 inches and at the time weighed 220 pounds. On a shopping expedition for jeans, Keroack recalls, "The store didn't have any relaxed fit, only classic fit, which is tighter -- and in a size smaller than I usually wear. But I tried them on anyway, and they fit. I came out of the dressing room cheering, 'Woo-hoo!' and Meg just walked away. She'd been on a diet, so she was sad that she'd been working hard to lose weight but it hadn't happened. So I couldn't really enjoy the moment."

Some women find that their friendships are strained when one person simply changes her eating habits. Maria Connor, a 36-year-old mother of three in Fort Belvoir, Virginia, experienced this recently. She and her friend Sheila used to go "sinning" -- out for ice cream or pizza on Sunday nights. While Connor, who is 5 feet 4 inches and weighs 220 pounds, has grown heavier, Sheila's marriage to a fitness buff has strengthened her discipline. Not only are the nights of sinning history, but Sheila now bans junk food from her house. Her self-control intimidates Connor. "It makes me too uncomfortable to order dessert if we're out to dinner," says Connor. "And she always asks me if I'm exercising. It makes me want to avoid seeing her."

Continued on page 4:  Partners in Healthy Eating


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