How To Win Friends And Influence Their Body Image; Our Friends Determine How We See Our Bodies

Guess what! Your friends' attitudes about their bodies influence your own attitude about your body!

Nov 8, 2012 at 10:30am | Leave a comment

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My friends have influenced me to try a pompador. Verdict: undecided.

One of these days I'm going to stop expecting to learn new things when I read the Daily Mail. Today is not that day. (And, really, the Daily Mail provides me with LOLs a-plenty so I'm not going to stop reading any time soon.) And, really, today's dose of "we already knew that" isn't their fault -- if science keeps churning out studies confirming things we already know, well, someone has to report it.

Guess what! Your friends' attitudes about their bodies influence your own attitude about your body!

It's a total shocker, I know. (Pinky finger up the butt and everything.)

Seriously though, it's good when research confirms this stuff. We get to find out particular details that we might otherwise have missed out on. Things like, "Our research demonstrates that friends influence each other through at least three processes: perceived pressure to be thin; body-related talk; and perceptions. Although these perceptions are somewhat grounded in reality, i.e., they are close to the truth, they are more influential than reality."

That's the money quote, right there. Perceptions are more influential than reality. What we think our friends think is more important than how things actually are.

I'm sure there are some naysayers who think this is a good thing -- who will say that increased pressure to be thin will only be good for those miserable fatties who are using up all the health care. (Which isn't even true.) But even if I were the type to be swayed by that kind of argument, the amount of harm this kind of thing is doing, especially to women, far outweighs (heh, pun) a few people deciding to exercise more because their friends talk about it all the time.

Because we do live in a body-hating culture and that is true for people regardless of their body size. There's an ever-decreasing window of acceptability when it comes to bodies. They must be a certain size, a certain shape. They must be white. Alternately, they must be "exotic" (or both white-looking AND "exotic" if at all possible). They must be able-bodied and at least middle class. They must be fuckable.

At it doesn't matter if you're a US size 4, a 14, a 24, a 34 and so on -- you're going to be subjected to the pressure to conform.

A lot of women actually bond through self-scrutiny and body hate. It's the classic "Oh, you're so much prettier than me" line and the never-to-be-answered-if-you're-smart "Does this make me look fat?"

Part of me really wants to quote myself. I mean there's two whole chapters in Lessons from the Fat-o-sphere on this very subject. (My not-so-humble-brag: They're great chapters. You should read them.)

But despite my urge to reduce/reuse/recycle, I will say this fresh: We're often fairly easily influenced by the people we spend our time with. Sometimes this can be a good thing, sure. But a lot of the time, especially in the context of our honestly toxic diet-obsessed culture, it can leave us feeling worse about our own bodies and picking at metaphorical scabs we've never even noticed before.

An example: A friend of mine -- and I love her very much -- went through a phase where she was constantly saying how AWFUL she looked every time we went makeup shopping. Instead of being a good time playing with makeup, every trip became a ritual of her examining her face for perceived flaws. I started looking at my own face for all the things she was mentioning, wondering if I actually SHOULD be worried about the slightly enlarged pores on my cheeks or my smile lines.

A fun shopping trip turned into little more than another opportunity to critique and criticize myself over things that, quite honestly, I'm happier not obsessing over. Yes, I have slightly enlarged pores on my cheeks. No, that doesn't actually ruin my face.

Eventually, in an attempt to set stronger boundaries, I got rude about it. And it strained our friendship. But the routine of her self-denigration was straining my own self-confidence and self-esteem.

So, you know. In a perfect world, she'd have realized that she's beautiful, with or without dry patches. But you take care of yourself. You do what you need to do. Which in this case meant cutting back on the shopping with this particular friend.

At this point in my life, the list of friends with whom I will discuss food and exercise is pretty carefully curated. Not because I think it's bad for friends to encourage each other to exercise but because it's so easy for it to turn into body loathing. If someone makes you hate your body, I'm not so sure they're your friend. If someone makes you question your own value as a person based on your levels of activity, I'm definitely not sure they're your friend.

Hopefully, we've all got one of those friend circles that leaves us feeling envigorated and empowered and great about ourselves, no matter if we're starting a new fitness activity or choosing not to because it's the right thing for us to do.

This is one of those moments where my brain rings with the classic phrase, "With great power comes great responsibility." I'm not saying you need to be some kind of radioactive spider biting your friend's sense of self-worth, but if we're going to acknowledge that peer pressure (because I think that's really what we're talking about) is a thing, maybe we can also keep in mind that, yeah, talking about our own bodies can have an impact on those around us.

Maybe we can keep in mind that we have this influence over our friends (and, seriously, over the kids around us). And maybe we can start using that influence to have honest conversations about the constant pressure to look a certain way and how it makes us feel and our struggles to find some sense of balance. Maybe we can start talking about the way our actual health has become secondary to arbitrary aesthetics.

It's totally possible. Science says that we influence our friends. So let's get to that.