When a client reports difficulties sticking to her food plan for the week, I ask what happened to throw her off track. Sometimes she can identify the problem, but often she cannot. Unfortunately, when this happens, I know just where to look. You see, some upsets don’t quite register, and this is more likely to occur when the source of the upset is someone close to you. Today, I would like to address a phenomenon that you might feel uncomfortable acknowledging. In fact, you might find yourself feeling protective and defensive when you read what I have to say, but nevertheless, it bears careful discussion.
Ladies, I hate to say it, but your sisters and girlfriends are very likely to undermine your efforts to get healthy and fit. Yes, the women in your lives, the very women who love you, often threaten your success. Therefore, it is my unfortunate duty to warn every woman I counsel to watch out for them! None want to believe me, and most don’t want to talk about it, but the head-in-the-sand strategy never works and, in this case, it can get you into real trouble. Silence will not change the regrettable truth.
Before I go on, let me reiterate an important fact. The women in your life do love you, and they are happy for your weight loss success! It’s just that it pushes their buttons. When you are suddenly in a different, wonderful place, they become a bit off balance. They have to shift their long-standing image of you and in the process create a different relationship with the new you. I can already hear the protests: “I’m still the same person I always was, I just lost weight!” No, ladies, you are not. You have worked long and hard, and you are a new person. Admit it and embrace it. You don’t just look different on the outside. Your outer appearance is the physical manifestation of your inner beauty, the beauty you have rediscovered on what you mistakenly believe is merely a weight loss journey.
It is unfortunate, but the enormity of your metamorphosis can cause real anxiety among your friends, and it is important that you understand their feelings so you do not judge them harshly. Let me share a couple of stories to illustrate my point. The first happened many years ago and was my first experience of sisterly sabotage. This is Judy’s story.
A woman in her early 30s, Judy had a bit over 100 pounds to lose to get to her goal of 125 pounds. As the months went by and Judy stayed strong, losing steadily, she and I both heard compliments from everyone! There were many oohs and ahhs and lots of talk about how amazing she looked. At that point, nobody really thought Judy would lose it all. They had been down this road with her many times; however, they were rooting for her, encouraging her, and their praise was entirely sincere. Judy was looking more beautiful every day, enjoying the positive attention, and finally developing the self-esteem and self-confidence she sorely lacked in the past. Then, around the time the scale registered 150 pounds, she began to sense a change in her friends’ attitudes. Their comments started to take on a different tone, one that Judy did not pick up on at first. You see, it began to look as if Judy were actually going to make it, that she would attain her goal for the first time, ever. Instead of words of encouragement, her girlfriends started using words of warning. “Stop it, Judy. You’re wasting away,” they observed with concern.
Wasting away? Were they serious? Oh, yes they were! Quite a few of them even called me, since they knew I was behind this blasphemy! A close girlfriend of Judy’s who weighed 150 pounds and was also seeing me for weight loss called and said, “What is going on with Judy? I just saw her, and she looks like a skeleton! You need to stop it!” She was very angry. Now, I ask you, how could a 150-pound woman, herself working to lose 25 pounds, think that 152-pound Judy looked like a “skeleton”? I honestly couldn’t believe that she was serious, and I saw red when she finished her tirade with, “For goodness’ sake, Berta, you can see her bones. I think she’s becoming anorexic.”
Marshaling every ounce of self-control, I retorted, “We’re seeing her cheekbones because they are not hidden under 75 pounds of fat! We are supposed to see our cheekbones, as well as our collarbones and our knees and ankles. Furthermore, anorexia is a very serious psychological disorder, and it drives me mad when people use it so blithely to denigrate others. Judy is eating healthfully for the first time and finally feeling like an attractive woman. She does not deserve to be put down for doing so, and I would appreciate it if you did not play with her head and share your outrageous thoughts with her!”
I was too late. A few of Judy’s other friends had jumped on the “skeleton” bandwagon, pontificating about the dangers of eating disorders and haranguing her to stop the madness. It didn’t take long before Judy began to wonder if she had, in fact, gone too far and developed anorexia! Needless to say, her food logs began to reflect her wavering commitment to herself. I was new at this, and the audacity of these women made my blood boil! Why were they doing this? What were they actually saying? Were they angry that Judy was finally taking care of herself? Were they indignant that she might reach her goal? Were they unwilling for her to be one of them? Were they incapable of accepting that they no longer had a “fat friend”? It fell to me to help Judy understand what was going on. In truth, her friends were not consciously trying to hurt her. They believed they were sincerely concerned only for Judy’s well being.
I know the friends sound petty and jealous, and you might wonder why Judy wanted to hang onto them. So, let’s think about it. Have you ever reacted in a similar manner to a friend’s unexpected transformation, inner or outer? Have you ever thought or said unkind words about a sister’s newly emerging beauty? My guess is that we have all done it at some point. All of us. And since we have all done it, we should look within, not intent upon self-recrimination, but rather with an eye toward gaining an understanding of our very human nature.
If Judy’s friends had been reflective, they would eventually have come to the realization that their jealousy and resentment was rooted in fear: fear of change. As Judy learned to love and accept herself, her relationship with others gradually changed. This was her choice, but it put her friends into the position of also having to change in order to assimilate the new Judy into their lives. Some of them might have felt “safe” around Judy, who was not the most popular girl on the block. Others were accustomed to calling the shots, since Judy never insisted on getting her way. Others knew they could rely on Judy to do anything because she was a people-pleaser, first and foremost, and she never said “no.” Her inner work allowed Judy to begin changing certain behaviors, and then she lost weight. So you see, Judy’s changed behavior evoked her friends’ fears, but it appeared that the weight loss was to blame for bringing up their jealousy. Happily, Judy was able to get past her friends’ issues. She learned that she could not control their thoughts and feelings, nor did she want to. For the first time in her life, Judy was in control of the only person who mattered: Judy. In the end, she kept her friends and lost the weight and has maintained both for many years.
Donna started with me at 290 pounds. She had spent most of her adult life in one unsuccessful attempt after another to lose weight. Working with me, she finally started eating properly and thinking differently, mostly about herself. By the time she lost 50 pounds, she, too, began to hear odd comments from the women in her life. When she got down to about 240 pounds, her cousin called and said, “You are out of control! You have got to stop losing. You’re wasting away to nothing! You look like a skeleton!” Donna didn’t think much about this conversation, but she had a bad week for the first time in months. It took some probing to jog her memory about the cousin’s warning because Donna got it: “Wasting away” at 240 pounds? A 240-pound “skeleton”? Her cousin could not be serious! So, Donna thought she had put it out of her mind. But it bothered her. Why? Because it was her own cousin and very dear friend, and there was that hint of jealousy. That threw Donna off track and her food log proved it.
I was able to show Donna that her cousin’s skeleton sermon was a symptom of her fear. Donna, you see, had always been the heaviest woman in the family, and now she was closing the gap between her cousin and her for the first time in their lives. Once Donna understood that part, true to form, she was beset by feelings of guilt for causing her cousin’s unhappiness. Clearly, Donna had more inner work to do: she still had to learn that nobody “makes” anybody feel any particular way.
Donna had to endure a few more skeleton sermons on her journey! Down to 220 pounds, she went to see a close friend whom she had not seen in months. When the friend opened the door, the sight of Donna was so upsetting to her that she actually started to cry, and they were clearly not tears of joy! The friend didn’t know how to explain what was happening, and so she put it on Donna. “You’ve gone too far,” she warned. “You’re nothing but a bag of bones.” But Donna could see through this. By now she realized and accepted the truth that she had been playing the safe “fat friend” for a number of women in her life. I hate to use that term, but for Donna, being the “fat friend” was a troubling reality. It’s very hard to look at your closest friends and suspect that you’re in their lives because you’re the “fat friend” who makes them feel good about themselves. Ultimately, Donna mustered the strength to bring this truth to light and address the friend’s issues. She was only able to do so because she had come to see that most people process change by determining what effect it will have on them and only them. Her friend’s reaction to Donna’s new appearance had nothing to do with how she felt about Donna: it had everything to do with how she felt about herself.
Is there anything you can do to change all of this? Sometimes asking why they are no longer supportive can have the effect of holding up a mirror to the green-eyed monsters, showing them someone they don’t want to be. But again, let me say this: they love you! You get that, right? This is not about you; it is about them. They don’t feel good about some part of themselves and here you go taking away the comfort you have provided them in the past. They just want their “fat friend” back! They don’t want to have to confront their own inability to commit to themselves and make much needed changes. Furthermore, if the “fat friend” can become slim, then they can’t rationalize the state of their bodies by thinking only super- models are slender, and real woman are round! You’ve given them a lot to think about, and you know what they’re going through because you started right where they are! Have compassion for both of you.
I apologize for having to bring this distasteful phenomenon into the light; thankfully, I am a woman and can get away with saying all of this. I hope you understand that I am not woman bashing, but rather just stating an unattractive fact of life. My purpose is not to suggest you drop your friends or avoid all women, not to plant seeds of anger and resentment, but rather to warn you of the effect other women’s fears can have on your determination to care for yourself. I know that when it happens you will be surprised and hurt, so try to remember that they do not hate you and do not mean to hurt you; they are just terribly afraid. Armed with this knowledge, perhaps you can face the skeleton sermons and sabotage by honoring the women who have not yet conquered their fears. I know that I hold up all of the women in my life, not in spite of, but because of, all they have gone through. I revere them, and I honor them every day. So please, do not put down your friends, your cousins, your sisters, and your sister friends. Diminish them neither in your heart nor mind; neither with your thoughts nor your words; neither in private nor in public. Wish for them more than you have, and you will be blessed with amazing women in your life. Women just like you.
Berta is a weight loss counselor known for transforming the lives of overweight women who have previously given up on losing weight. She has counseled hundreds of women losing thousands of pounds using emotional support and healthy common sense methods.