What Does A Friend Do?

A friend and coworker of mine has been, for as long as I’ve known her, struggling with accepting her body. She diets all the time and is obsessed with the numbers associated with that; she counts calories, counts pounds, and micromanages every ounce of her diet.

Now, I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with being aware of the things that you’re putting into your body; to the contrary, that’s something I’ve got to start paying more attention to myself. But I have never really felt comfortable with the idea of purposefully withholding food from oneself when one is hungry. I understand why people do it (and we can thank the intersecting axes of sexism, ableism, and probably a whole hank of other oppressions for it), but when the people around me talk about forcing hunger onto themselves as if such behavior is desirable…I tend to tune them out, because nothing I have to say about it is anything close to what they want to hear.

Last week this friend told me about a new diet she was considering, called the hCG diet. For those of you who don’t know, hCG, or human chorionic gonadotropin, is a hormone that is produced by a person when xie is pregnant. The hype is that if you take hCG and limit your daily caloric intake to no more than 500 calories per day, then the hormone will [supposedly] cause the fat to practically fall off of you while allowing your muscle tissue to remain intact.

My reaction to the news that she was considering this diet was pure horror. Even now, a week later, I can barely wrap my mind around the fact that “eat less than 500 calories a day and take this hormone extracted from the pee of pregnant folks” registers as a reasonable course of action for her. She told me a few days later at lunch that she has decided to do it, and I went quiet. She and another coworker went on to talk about diets and hormones and pregnancy, and I just quietly ate my lunch until it was time to get back to work.

After lunch, we talked. She thought that I was mad at her because she was “giving into society’s expectations” or something. I told her that I wasn’t mad at her, nor was I disappointed in her for “giving in” (which is something that we ALL do, anyway, so I’d be a hypocrite if I was). I told her that I just didn’t know what to say, and that I didn’t want to disrespect her by giving my unsolicited opinion on the subject.

Then I proceeded to give her my unsolicited opinion. I kept it short and sweet, and just said, “It’s your body and you have the right to do what you want. But this diet is dangerous, and you’re beautiful, and I wish you wouldn’t do it.”

She said, “My clothes don’t fit” and I responded, “Because your clothes are too small. There’s nothing wrong with your body. Your body is not too big. Your clothes are too small.”

The conversation ended with me looking sad and troubled, and with her looking apologetic. I wished that she wouldn’t look so guilty about it; I don’t want her to feel guilty. I want her to feel love for her body, for her figure. I want her to stop feeling inadequate about her body and to start feeling angry about the inadequacy of her clothing and rage towards the axes of oppression that have intersected to convince her that her body is “wrong” unless she starves herself.

But I can’t force that on anyone, and I can’t control what and how much she eats, and I can’t make her change her mind about anything. I’m not sure that I handled this situation the right way, in a way that respected her agency as a woman but still addressed the problematic nature of the diet she intends to follow.

I love her and I want her to be happy and unhurt. I just don’t know how to make that happen. What does a friend do in a situation like this?


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9 Responses to “What Does A Friend Do?”

  1. IrishUp Says:

    Oh, how I feel for your friend, and for you. I know there isn’t a right way, but I think what you said sounded supportive and positive. You didn’t judge, and respected hir autonomy.

    (Disclosure, I have a fat & eating disorder activist hat that I wear a lot). What I do when confronted with something similar is I will either find out if there are emotional needs I can help with right then – like if the set up is an “I feel fat” or “I’m so bad, I ate X”, then I will “Why do you feel that way ” or “how is a donut bad, it’s not a bank robbery?”. If someone is fat shaming or diet talking, I bring up how much my mind has been changed because of my experiences, and how much I’ve learned about what’s wrong with the cultural messages about dieting and body size. But if someone says something that could be physically dangerous for them, I will say “Wow, based on what I’ve read, that sounds risky. Have you talked to a good (dr, nutritionist, etc)?” or “What do you know about the risks involved, because …”

    Are you the kind of friends where you could/would say something if she were about to do something dangerous – like “You’ve had too much to drive home, lemme get your keys and give you a ride” close? Because what you described has the potential to enter that realm of not good for you. That level of caloric intake is so damned dangerous. It scares the crap outta me anyway, bc my daughter has been fighting an eatng disorder for almost 5 years, and I know how sick she gets from eating that little – like a stint in cardiac ICU because her heart rate was critically low & she could have spontaneously arrested at any moment. This is not a level of calorie intake that can be tolerated in health for any length of time.*

    Do you think it would be helpful to point her to some Fat Activism / Healthy at Every Size stuff?

    Kate Harding / Shapely Prose Archives
    http://kateharding.net/ (The BMI project, and the Fantasy of Being Thin are great starters)

    Linda Bacon, PhD / Healthy at Every Size

    There is also a wonderful body positive, fat positive nutritionist – The Fat Nutritionist. She has a great blog, and some very good, scientifically sound data posted. If the warning approach is not the right tack to take, perhaps a better option or choice would be good to offer.

    I don’t know if this was useful, but I hope your friend can find a way to be both happy and hurt less, as you say. We can’t change other people, but we can support their emotional health, and voice our concerns when we’re worried. Best wishes..

    *The WHO standard for starvation/famine is <800cal/d for an adult- meaning that increased morbidity and mortality are associated with daily intakes at this level, if sustained over time.

    • August Says:

      Wow! Thank you so much for this comment, it’s so full of great resources and advice! My friend actually told me today that she changed her mind about the hCG diet (because she did some reading and is no longer convinced that she’d get the results that she wants), but that she still intends to keep dieting in general. I am going to try to introduce her to HAES and I hope that eventually she will be receptive to it.

      As for how close we are, I would say that we are perhaps on the brink of being close enough that I would feel comfortable taking her keys if necessary. We have been work friends for years, but it’s only in the last few months that we’ve really started to get to know each other on a deeper level.

      That’s a REALLY good idea about asking if she’s consulted her doctor or nutritionist. She might not take me seriously because I’ve gotten the impression in this whole ordeal that she thinks that I’m anti-diet just to be anti-establishment (or something), but she would (hopefully) take her doctor a little more seriously.

      Thank you so much Irish, this comment was wonderful.

      • IrishUp Says:

        I am glad that your friend has reconsidered! Of course, a worth-while question for her to ask herself might be “what *are* the results I want, and is what I want a good thing to want?” – that Fantasy of Being Thin post is most awesome in that respect!

        But I am not suggesting that you “shrink her up” over that – as you so rightly point out, this is her journey for herself. I think and hope that if she CAN make the steps to start examining her understanding of her “body habitus”, and her feelings of self-regard, she will wind up being both happier and healthier in the long run. Personally, until ED* entered my life and I had to get all Yoda and unlearn what I had learned, I had never linked body policing and diet culture with womanism/feminism/abelism and other oppressions. I’d never realized how much hurtful and hateful shit I had internalized about myself – even having had thin privilege most of my life. It has been like leaving an abusive partner, letting that go. Not that it has been easy, or that I’m done with that work.

        I also get that “you’re anti-dieting, anti-fat hate b/c you’re a HUMORLESSFEMINIST” thing from my female friends, lol. It is a fine line (or as Melissa McEwan has posted, a Terrible Bargain) between fighting a toxic culture and “being a pill”, at times. Tone arguments aside, approach can be crucial to actually effecting the changes you’d like to see in the world. I say to my friends “hey you’re wonderful, beautiful and precious to me, and I won’t listen to you talk that way about yourself anymore than I would let someone else talk that way about you” or “you know, a comment like that is what set my daughter to dieting, which is what triggered her ED, so don’t do that around me”. Lather, rinse, repeat.

        I look at it this way – if I enforce a safe-space around me, by shutting down (gently or otherwise) noxious crap, I am at least providing a space where those scripts have to stop. If my friends know they have to stop that isht around me, it interrupts those behaviors, which is the first step to changing them for good.

        And speaking of approach and humorless feminists, the so awesome Tasha Fierce, also a FA writer, has yet a different take on body-positive activism. She also writes from within a complicated intersectionality, and her voice is very different from those above, and may also be compelling. She just did a fabu series over at Bitch Magazine called “Size Matters”, the first post of which is here:

        USian culture privileges disordered behaviors; people brag about not eating and sleeping enough, and people who feel the NEED to eat and sleep in healthy amounts are weak. Working too much good – prioritizing family weak. Buying and having stuffs good – nurturing your friends and family weak. The Diet Industrial Complex (no seriously, the diet industry is a HUGE part of USian Big Pharma profits, and Big Pharma is a HUGE part of the corporate usurption of USian govt and culture) actively works this angle to maintain oppressions. Without it, we’d be spending our cashmonies eating and drinking with the people we love!

        *A shorthand for eating disorders that is common amongst caregivers and recovering people. Reflects the therapeutic approach to seperate the disease from the person who has it.

        • August Says:

          I have read some of Tasha Fierce’s stuff and I LOVE her!

          Do you have a blog? I really am enjoying reading your comments! I’m definitely still learning about FA/HAES and I’m also struggling with my own body issues (I used to have thin privilege until I had my baby). Would you ever be interested in writing a guest post for my blog? I don’t feel qualified or knowledgeable enough to tackle this issue myself, but I do think it’s a VERY important subject that deserves some time and space here.

        • August Says:

          I also want to add that it’s kind of sick how we’ve been socialized to feel guilty over doing things such as focusing on our families and self-care in general. Guilt is such a powerful tool, and it’s hard to shake off its effect even when you KNOW better.

          I’ve got to get better at being that humorless womanist with my friends in meatspace. I’ve stopped being nice online, but I find myself shying away from confrontation (however mild) in real life with the people that I love. I feel guilty for saying something (am I being a bad friend by making this joking moment into a tense one?) and I feel guilty for not saying something (am I being a bad womanist by not making it clear that this joke is not funny and is in fact harmful?). I really REALLY have to work on it. I’d like to think that it will be easier for me to draw the line when Eve is actually old enough to absorb/comprehend/internalize what the people around her are saying…but that day is not very far away at all.

          Thank you again, Irish.

  2. theroamingnaturalist Says:

    This is really a great topic and one that I struggle with too. I had a roommate that never admitted to having an eating disorder, but I never saw her eat and she was always working out twice as hard as anyone else I know. She would also comment that winter was her favorite time of year because she could “wear bulky clothing.” These were all pretty clear signs to me. I called her out on it one day and told her I was worried about her, and she promptly changed the subject. Discussion closed.

    My most current roommate, soon after we met, told me straight up that she had/s eating disorders and has always struggled. She asks me questions about food constantly (I have a relatively healthy lifestyle when it comes to food, I tend towards being conscious of what I’m eating and what the hidden ingredients are in common foods) – I’m never sure if she’s just trying to look interested or if she really is. With her, my approach is always much more supportive. I acknowledge that she has a problem, encourage her not to skip meals, and try to relate to her. I don’t know if that’s the completely wrong angle, but I tell her that when I’m struggling with weight gain (which is pretty much always), I try to force myself to change my perspective from “what my body looks like” to “having a healthy relationship with food.”

    It probably is doing nothing of any good to her as I have zero experience dealing with folks with EDs but I try to come at it from an angle of learning about self love, and learning to love and appreciate food in a different way. Instead of focusing on her body, maybe you could encourage your friend to focus on eating really healthily so that her body maintains its natural state without putting up a fight?

    The other factor to starvation is that it’s completely counteractive. When we eat regular, small meals/snacks throughout the day (4-5, rather than three giant meals with nothing in between), we keep our metabolism up and signal to our bodies that we’re well fed, which the body responds to by not packing away a lot of calories. It doesn’t need to because we’re in a time of “feast.” (This assuming your meals are healthy and full of good protein, not hamburgers and milkshakes.) When we skip meals, or eat small meals far apart from each other, or restrict ourselves to 500 calories a day, the body goes into starvation – or famine – mode. It doesn’t matter what we THINK we’re doing – the body is sensing that it’s not getting enough food, and responds by clinging to every calorie that comes into your mouth. Your body actually ends up holding on to those calories much more readily in a starvation state than it would in a state of being constantly fed small, healthy meals. So even when starving yourself, you can pack on pounds – but you’re not receiving nutrition.

    I don’t know if that would help her at all because it doesn’t appear that many women afflicted with the need to be skinny are using logic about it, but that sure as hell deterred me from wanting to skip meals and go without food when I want to lose weight. I really just shifted my focus from “I need to lose weight” to “I need to feel good about food” and it’s made a world of difference. But then, I don’t have an eating disorder, so I could totally be talking out of my ass. :-/

    • August Says:

      Whether you’re talking out of your ass or not, I really appreciate this comment. Part of me feels like I should mind my own business and not give her unsolicited advice/information, but the other part of me feels like she is putting herself out there (and making the topic fair game) by constantly talking about dieting and complaining about her body to me.

  3. IrishUp Says:

    *blushes furiously* Seriously, I adore your writing, and I am very very flattered.

    Thank you for your kind comments, very much! I don’t have my own blog – I comment on the blogs of writers I like. That said, I do write a lot about ED at a parent support forum called Around the Dinner Table, and I write (dry scientific stuff) IRL. Yes, I *would* be interested in a guest post. Please feel free to email me, and let’s chat.

    @TRN – the behaviors you describe do not surprise me, and are very very common in people with EDs. I am not at all surprised that if your former roomie WAS anorectic, she shut you out once you brought it up. For your comfort of mind, it may help to understand that one of the physiological symptoms of AN is a state called “anosognosia” – it’s a state of brain malfunction that causes the person not to experience hirself as ill. Stroke patients and certain kinds of brain tumors also can have this symptom. Another common symptom are cognitive distortions. Simply put, a starving person with AN physiology does not experience how severely sick they are, and has very distorted interpersonal interactions. They have difficulty maintaining healthy relationships, and really are UNABLE to engage in rational discussions of their disease behaviors. It’s why so many AN patients do not present for care or stay in treatment, and how the mortality rate for this disease is so high (1%/year, 10% if un or under-treated after 10yrs, 20%+ lifetime). The odds were very much against her being able to hear that from anybody.

    While there might not be much logic to any of our “Fantasies of Thin”, for AN people it REALLY is something they cannot logic without first obtaining healthy weight restoration, and adequate nutrition for an extended period – usually ~year after weight restoration.

    Bulima can be very different. It’s not much less deadly, but the cognitive deficits usually aren’t as much of a barrier to “reality perception”. Bulimics generally feel great shame and self-loathing, and often can benefit from friends and loved ones showing support and encouraging treatment. The behaviors themselves do take lots of work and therapy and support and time to overcome, but there are lots of effective therapies out there – cognitive behavior therapy in particular has shown promise.


    • theroamingnaturalist Says:

      Thanks Irish! It’s interesting living with my current roommate, who is very open about it and tries to talk things out when I ask questions. She says she has body dysmorphia, which means she literally, physically sees her body as different than it is. I’ve never researched it, to be totally honest, because it doesn’t matter to me – what matters is that I can be loving and supportive of her. I was surprised at myself when I met her and found out about her ED because honestly I thought my reaction to anyone with an ED would be to become aloof about it, since I don’t know how to deal with it.

      With my roommate, I’m able to gently remind her when she’s fixating on her own or someone else’s weight (she almost sounded apologetic upon showing me a pic of someone she’s still in love with because he was a little chunky) – and I try to point out when she’s looking exceptionally nice. I never say skinny, or thin, or anything like that – just that she’s a total hottie, which she is.

      Thanks for the encouraging words. 🙂 I really need to do some research so I’m sure to always reply to her in a healthy way.

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