Feeling fat Blame your friends! You may be 'catching' worries about your body from the weight-obsessed women around you
00:41 GMT, 12 November 2012
Standing at a party with a female friend, we watched from a distance as two other friends enjoyed the attention of a group of men at the bar.
'It gets you down, doesn't it, the way they get all the attention' she said.
Perhaps she saw the dismay flicker over my face at this point, as she tried to insert a hasty caveat.
'I mean, I'm not saying you're not pretty. Just. Well, you know.'
Researchers found not only a close link between a woman's weight and body confidence and that of her closest friends, but also that her actual shape and size had less bearing on how she felt than the comments and attitudes of the women surrounding her
The implication was clear: our friends were the attractive ones, while we were the last turkeys on the shelf. Little wonder I spent the rest of the evening feeling faintly dejected – even though my rational brain knew, on some level, that this was her issue, not mine.
The irony was that until that point the good looks of those particular friends hadn't got me down. I'd never thought of myself as a looker, but by my 30s I'd learned to make the most of what I had and tried not to compare myself too much with others.
Yet there, in a single moment, those hard fought-for feelings of self-worth were undermined. And not for the last time either. Alas, over the years my self-esteem has risen and fallen in accordance with the most throwaway comments from other women and their own obsessions.
Therefore, I wasn't surprised to read last week about a new study suggesting we can effectively 'catch' neuroses from our friends.
People with friends who persistently complain about being fat are more likely to report feeling bad about themselves, no matter what their shape
Researchers found not only a close link between a woman's weight and body confidence and that of her closest friends, but also that her actual shape and size had less bearing on how she felt than the comments and attitudes of the women surrounding her.
So people with friends who persistently complained about being fat were more likely to report feeling bad about themselves, no matter what their shape.
This certainly chimes with an old school friend Angela, a 38-year-old stay-at-home mum to two toddlers, who confides that her body image frequently takes a battering when she goes out with her friends in the same situation. It surprised me because she was always so confident in her teens.
'A lot of them have struggled to shed the baby weight and they spend a lot of time moaning about it,' she says.
'It was never a particular preoccupation of mine – I'm losing the weight bit by bit as I planned – but I've found that over time that their negative attitude has rubbed off on me.
'Sometimes I will get home from a night out and, even if I've had a good time, I find myself standing in front of the mirror pinching my muffin top. Part of me thinks: “This is mad!” But I still do it.'
Meanwhile, Lily, 31, who works in advertising, found a month long 'chill-out' trip to India with two body-conscious friends last year saw her returning home to Britain feeling infinitely worse about herself than when she had left.
'The two of them spent the whole time obsessing about one issue or another, whether it was their skin or their weight,' she says.
'I swear it was catching. I'm normally pretty relaxed about the way I look – I'm a size 12 to 14, and fine with that – but by the time I got back home I felt as if I was looking in the mirror ten times more than I usually would. The irony was that the trip was meant to be about getting away from all the usual pressures of home.'
Of course, on one level this is no immediate surprise. Spending a long time with people invariably means you tend to pick up aspects of their behaviour and attitudes without realising it.
At the same time, much as we love our
female friends, most of us also use them as yardsticks by which we
judge our own appearance, consciously or otherwise
In my case, it sometimes feels as if I and my two closest friends have effectively absorbed each other's idiosyncrasies through a process of osmosis.
We use identical phrase-ology as well as miming aspects of each other's behaviour (under the influence of one, I turned from being a last-minute Lizzie at the airport to a person who rocks up for a flight at least four hours early).
At the same time, much as we love our female friends, most of us also use them as yardsticks by which we judge our own appearance, consciously or otherwise.
Like mental meter readings, we process how our girlfriends are looking – fat, thin, old, tired, glowing – the moment they walk through the door, and the process rumbles along behind many of our female interactions like a competition that none of us has officially entered, but are participating in all the same.
'It's in our teenage years when our body image and love of self is formed and we are more vulnerable to negative comment – and these stay with you so they have a power disproportionate to your rational grown-up brain'
Psychologist Jacqui Marson, author of the forthcoming The Curse Of Lovely, argues that this is instinctive.
'As social animals we're hard-wired to copy people around us and fit in the group. It starts from the moment we're born, when we learn to copy our parents' expressions,' she says.
Perhaps we should all heed the words of
former American First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who once astutely pointed
out: 'No one can make you feel inferior without your own consent'
'Then, as we get older, the powerful sub-conscious desire of humans to conform means we take this behaviour forward into all our social interactions, particularly our friendship groups.
'It's a strong urge – in a hierarchy of behaviours, conformity is near the top. So even as we get older, a desire to conform will triumph over our most private thoughts.'
Hence our astonishing ability to absorb unhelpful ideas from our friends – effectively to 'catch' their negative thought patterns and process them as our own.
Then, of course, there are the messages people deliberately convey – subtly and not so subtly.
Not long ago, a friend told me I had lost 'a ton of weight' – when, in fact, for the past five years I have remained at almost exactly the same point on the scales. Who exactly, I wondered, was the gargantuan Kathryn she had met before
'Of course, size and shape have developed a potent currency in our culture, so it's little wonder that we unwittingly absorb social undercurrents and take even throwaway comments to heart'
This resonates with 30-year-old lawyer Natasha, who recalls how she was forced to drop a friend from whom, she realised, she was absorbing unhelpful body-image obsessions.
'I used to meet her regularly and I always left feeling a bit rubbish about myself,' she says. 'I remember meeting her one day and she said to me: “Wow, look at you, back to a size ten you look so much better” – which left me perplexed because I've been a size ten my whole adult life.
'But though my weight might fluctuate by a few pounds like everyone else, she made me feel as if I'd been some huge beast before. And it played on my mind because being slim, fit and healthy is really important to me and suddenly I had a different image of myself in my head.'
For publicist Eleanor, 35, a chance remark on a girlie day out left her reeling.
'Of my three friends, two are naturally skinny and boyish, straight up and down with no hips, and the other is a size 14 because she's always out drinking and does no exercise, though she moans about being overweight all the time,' she says.
'I made a comment about how the other two were looking so slim and she said: 'I know, what are we going to do, hey” I spent the rest of the day feeling fat (which I know I'm not) and it bothered me for weeks afterwards.'
Jacqui Marson isn't surprised that these kinds of comments can resonate so deeply.
'It's because they have historical power, in that they take us back to when we were young and trying to find our place in the world, a time of huge insecurity.
'It's in our teenage years when our body image and love of self is formed and we are more vulnerable to negative comments.
'These stay with you so they have a power disproportionate to your rational grown-up brain because we're all ruled to a degree by our inner teenage demon.'
This no doubt explains why one skinny friend reveals how an equally slender colleague has passed on an obsession with 'face or figure'.
'She has gone on so often about how being too thin can be ageing on your face that I realised it has gone from something I hadn't thought about to something I worry about.
'I've found myself studying my face in the mirror, wondering if it looks gaunt. It's only now I stop to think about it that I realise it is entirely her preoccupation.'
Of course, size and shape have developed a potent currency in our culture, so it's little wonder that we unwittingly absorb social undercurrents and take even throwaway comments to heart.
As Jacqui Marson says, we've learned to 'prioritise the visual'.
What the new research shows, though, is that all too often we absorb messages from our environment without being conscious we're doing so – and they're not always helpful to our feeling of self-worth.
Perhaps we should all heed the words of former American First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who once astutely pointed out: 'No one can make you feel inferior without your own consent.'