Diet Culture. Also: Thin Friends

A grandmotherly figure in my life (not an actual grandmother) once said that people tend to make friends with people of the same height.  I was a teenager at the time, and super idealistic (I’m still idealistic, but perhaps more subtly so), and this seemed just WRONG, so LIMITING, and I had at least one friend who was significantly shorter than me.  I’m not friends with that short girl anymore, and somehow my not-a-grandmother’s words have stuck with me.  While I don’t have any scientific studies to back it up, I think she had a point; while people have the potential to be friends with anyone, there probably is a tendency of people to group themselves by physical similarities.  Obviously, these physical similarities can be related to cultural factors as well (or actually, are they ever NOT related to cultural factors?).  Anyway, I was thinking about this recently when I realized that I am a fat person who has very few fat friends, despite having a pretty diverse set of friends in other ways.  I haven’t always been fat, though of course my mental perception of my body might have been that I was fat, or that I “had extra fat”, but given that I literally didn’t know where you shopped once you didn’t fit in clothing sizes (I’m a US size 18-20 now, by the way), you can safely assume I was never in-your-face fat unless surrounded by straight-sized models (which only happened once).  So I’m wondering if I never made fat friends because I never was fat, and perhaps was naturally drawn towards bodies similar to mine.  I guess what I’m trying to describe is the subconscious playing out of cultural messages; did I internalize the “people who are fat are bad” message and did it subtly lead me to ignore fat people as potential friends?  Or was some evolutionary instinct to “be with your own kind” guiding my choices?  Or both, or more?  I actually find myself talking to more fat people these days, so maybe this will change.  And it’s not totally unconsciously done–I kind of want more fat people in my life, people who can relate to some of my experiences in a way that thin (or straight-sized, at the very least) friends can’t.  I had a conversation with another fat girl last week and I have no idea what her views on fat acceptance are, but we were both lamenting the poor clothing choices for plus-sizes; we had bonded over something that most of my friends probably never even think about (given that I hadn’t when I was closer to their sizes!).  I’m not saying thin friends are horrible people, but they have a level of privilege that allows them to never have to think about fat people’s problems.  I was there, I know.

I spent last weekend with two thin friends, who are both very much immersed in dieting culture.  And I don’t mean that they are actively dieting (if they are they haven’t said so), but just that they participate in all of the typical things that occur in a culture with a clear thin ideal:

Hyper-commentary around food.  Before a meal “I’m SOOOO hungry!”, and then, 5 minutes into the meal “I’m SOOOO stuffed!  I can’t eat another thing!”  (Alternatively: Before a meal “I’m not that hungry, do you just want to share something?”, and then 5 minutes into the meal same as above).  I’m not saying that people don’t get really hungry, or really full, or sometimes aren’t that hungry, just that part of dieting culture is having this hyper-awareness about it all, and a privileging of feelings that supposedly make you thinner (denying yourself food until you feel like you’re starving, translating any eating quickly into a feeling of being full, and deciding to eat only a little to begin with).  My silence during all this talk is a symptom of my current happy relationship with food, but does my silence signify shame to my friends?

Food bartering, with yourself.  After one of the meals when one of my friends become “so full”, she said she was only going to eat vegetables for dinner.  Which, whatever, if she wants to eat only vegetables for dinner, that’s her business, but it was decided and stated in the context of guilt and compensation.

Guilt for not exercising.  Of needing to get in shape for upcoming events.  Also bartering exercise: “Well, I don’t work out, so the least I can do is walk up this hill every day”.

Food existing on a spectrum of healthiness.  We made popcorn, and I mentioned that I hadn’t had popped popcorn in years, only the pre-popped popcorn, and my friend said “yeah, that stuff tastes good, but I guess this is healthier”.  Now that I’m typing this, I’m realizing that this was also a jab at my own choices, though I’m sure that wasn’t my friend’s intent–she was just talking the way our culture teaches you to talk about food.

Fat stereotyping.  My friends are much too PC to be outright assholes, but we were talking about how hot it gets in the south, and one of my friends mentioned that when you go indoors in the south, it’s freezing due over-air-conditioning.  Then she decided to bring up that perhaps it’s related to the fact that there are many “larger” people in the south.  This was the only “diet culture” related thing I commented on all weekend.  I don’t remember what exactly what I said, and I don’t think it was very effective (I thought of better things I could have said later), but I was proud that I’d at least attempted to stand up against stereotyping.  The problem was that she made it so hard!  She skirted around the issue without even saying outright what she was thinking, which was “fat people get hotter than thin people, and there are lots of fat people in the south so that’s probably one of the reasons why they over-air-condition so much.”.

I’m starting to actually feel bad that I haven’t “come out” as fat and into fat acceptance with friends, because I feel like if they knew they might do some of these things less around me, which would probably be better for our friendships.  I guess I just feel like I’m not even giving them a chance to not offend me–I don’t fault them individually for participating in this culture–they just haven’t been forced to confront it in the same way that I have.  But the problem is that I’m not sure how I’d bring it up when I don’t see these people very often.  They’re people I was very close to at some point in my life (as close as a very private person can get to others), but now we don’t live near each other.  And when asked “how are you?”, “I’m having a great inner life partially helped along by an online community called fat acceptance” seems like it would be a weird answer.  I guess I’m just in a very different place from when I was close to these people, and I’m scared that if I show them who I really am now, it’ll be too different and we might drift even farther apart.  And I know that that happens, but I guess I just feel like if we lived in the same place they might acclimate to my “new self”, but since we don’t, they might never get a chance to understand me.

Sometimes I’m a little bit jealous of people who can casually participate in dieting culture, people who haven’t been traumatized by family and eating disorders (as in my case) or bullying and stigma.  “It must be nice to be able to relate to your society’s culture”, I think, but then I quickly snap out of it and realize that, while it might be casual, no one’s participation in dieting culture is pleasant.  And that I’m really grateful that I’m free of it.

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