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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.'"
Clearly, being slim is wrapped up with status. "We have a belief system that says thinness means we're virtuous, smart or successful -- any number of 'good' things," says Rosenblum.
"People equate being thin with being in control of everything in your life," says Paula Sussman, 44, a social worker in Old Bethpage, New York, who's 5 feet 3 inches tall and weighs 103 pounds. Sussman is a single mother of two children and recalls times when she's been in dire need of assistance, or at least empathy, from friends but received little. "They've actually said to me, 'You look like you're so together' even as I'm telling them I'm having a hard time."
At 5 feet 4 inches tall and 103 pounds, Natalie Driver, 29, feels her slimness is the first thing people notice about her. "I've been the same weight since high school, even though I haven't been inside a gym in years," says the human-resources executive from New York City. "When I was a kid, I was called names like Toothpick, so when friends say, 'You're so skinny,' it makes me feel unattractive. No one ever says, 'You've got a really cool job' or even 'You've got pretty eyes' when they first meet me. It's always about weight." As Rosenblum notes, "We've put weight, shape and appearance on such a pedestal that we devalue the other successes women can have."
Interestingly, "studies show women have a thinner ideal for themselves and one another than men have for us," says Kathryn Zerbe. Indeed, Amy Keroack, 28, a former pastry chef in Redmond, Washington, says that while her husband always makes her feel beautiful, she avoids being seen by friends in a bathing suit. She's 5 feet 9 inches tall and weighs 215 pounds. "I don't want them to say, 'Oh, I didn't know she had that much cellulite.' I think it would change their idea of me. I'm afraid they'd pity me."
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."
The good news is, friends can do much to support each other in their weight battles. Amy Keroack's jealous friend Meg recently lost weight (she's now 175 pounds) and is smaller than Keroack, who has regained the weight she lost, but both women have become cognizant of their formerly catty behavior. "Meg tried to push her diet on me, with all good intentions," says Keroack. "But when I said, 'That's nice of you, but it's not for me,' she backed off." These days, the women research low-cal recipes and make the meals together. "It's fun. It's a way to eat healthy without having to diet, and it keeps us close," says Keroack. "We wind up talking about everything in our lives other than our bodies."