Let me tell you about this friend of mine. She lost a lot of weight about a year ago. We have known each other for a long time. We grew up together and we always related on being fat. Right as I started to learn about body positive activism and fat stuff online, she started talking about weight loss surgery. I told her to consider alternatives, but I realized that she was dead set on it and I couldn’t stop her. It was hurtful to have her talking about how awful fat life is meanwhile I was getting ready to wear my first sleeveless shirt in public and showing the world my jiggly arms. She went through with it, and now it’s all we ever talk about. Half the time she’s telling me about pain, fear, confusion. The rest of the time she talks about weight loss like it’s the magic wand she’d been waiting for her whole life. She goes into a lot of detail about sex stuff and shopping with her “new body.” I don’t know if she knows it hurts me. I feel guilty that now that she needs me the most I feel like I don’t want to be around her. I want to support her sometimes, but when things get really bad I just want to run away. What do I do?
You know, interestingly, your story reminds me of one of my own experiences with a friend.
We grew up together in adjoining neighborhoods, both people of color, went to the same high school and ultimately we both ended up living in San Francisco. Her struggle was that she was dead set on dating a white dude. She was convinced that this was the solution to her problems around feeling lonely and feeling less accomplished than she thought she ought to be.
She ended up meeting someone, and she talked about how amazing he was and how he made her feel. She asked for advice, without giving away too many details about this guy. Finally one night she tells me who she’s dating: one of my bullies from my childhood. Someone I had spoken about at length, someone I had named as a boy who stood out not only because of the way he spoke to and treated me but the patronizing way his mother spoke to mine. He was one of the only white kids in my class, and he was the first to ever make me feel inferior for being Mexican.
I went home after the bombshell. I mulled it over, trying to decide whether I was being an unsupportive friend because I felt done with our relationship.
I was worried that I was acting out of judgment rather than acting out of pain, but the truth is that I didn’t care that she was dating a white dude. I cared that she was dating someone who had really hurt me and that she had lied about it, but that his whiteness had made it worth it to her.
I realized that my feelings were valid, and that in fact she was being an unsupportive friend. Her expectation of support from me was inappropriate and thoughtless. So I wrote her an email, telling her that as a result of her decision I was choosing not to be part of her life for the indefinite future. I decided that I would let her do 100 percent of the emotional labor in repairing our friendship because, to me, she had done something pretty awful.
In this story, you can see the same mechanisms at play — though in your story you’re talking about size and in my story I’m talking about race (but they’re hella closely related, AMIRIGHT?). In both stories we are talking about friends who are more committed to the accumulation of privilege (and the callous celebration of that privilege once it’s been acquired) than honoring our respective friendships.
Yes, there are TONS of reasons why people desire privilege. And I personally am no stranger to that desire. Many, many people feel powerless and they deal with it by pursuing opportunities to pass economically or physically. People who experience marginalization observe the world around us and can often see others reaping the benefits of an albeit super-flawed, often violent system. Perhaps your friend had bought the fairy-tale story that diet culture sells to women — that if you’re thin the whole world is your oyster. But, like, we know that isn’t true, right?
We know that sexism is what demands that women’s bodies be small and we know that women cannot actually experience authentic freedom or life on our terms within a system of subjugation; we can only ever reap the benefits that the subjugation has deemed appropriate for our obedience.
I honestly don’t “blame” your friend for making the decision she did. There’s a lot of cultural pressure to conform, but what matters is that just as she has the right to exercise body autonomy you have the right to exercise autonomy, too, as you move forward in deciding how to navigate the friendship.
All that matters is that you deal with this situation in a way that honors you. Trust your instincts about her behavior. Don’t doubt yourself when you feel things.
You don’t need to take on this extra supportive role because now that she’s lost a lot of weight the culture will be offering her more affirmation and support. Furthermore, it’s complicated, because as she “confesses” to you as a thin person, she is now activating a fatphobic paradigm. Your body hasn’t changed, but hers has, and as a result of that, her behavior means something different now, ya know?
It sounds to me like you feel betrayed and hurt, and those things are real and you are allowed to make decisions based on those feelings. Those are not feelings you should have to deal with a whole bunch in meaningful relationships.
You have a plethora of options moving forward. Here are a few:
You can write her a note (no shame in that! I hate when people say I have to have all difficult conversations face to face … no, I don’t, actually) or, if it feels good, ask her out to coffee or something and tell her how you’re feeling. A good friend will be receptive and apologetic. If she’s defensive then maybe it’s time to pursue other options.
You can decide to cut the time you spend with each other in half for a certain amount of time (say, three months) and see how you’re feeling at the end of that time period. Do you feel better spending less time with her?
You can decide to take a break from your friendship for as long as you want.
I will tell you that since writing that letter to my friend, she has not made any meaningful movement toward repairing our friendship. I guess I’m not surprised, but I’m really glad I did what felt right to me. I do miss her. I think of her every day, but I don’t mourn the decision I made.
Hope this helps!
Dear Virgie is a weekly advice column by Virgie Tovar, author, activist and one of the nation’s leading experts and lecturers on fat discrimination and body image. She is the founder of Babecamp, the editor of Hot & Heavy: Fierce Fat Girls on Life, Love and Fashion (Seal Press, November 2012) and the mastermind behind #LoseHateNotWeight. She holds a Master’s degree in Human Sexuality with a focus on the intersections of body size, race, and gender. Virgie has been featured by the New York Times, MTV, Al Jazeera, the San Francisco Chronicle, NPR, Huffington Post, Cosmopolitan Magazine Online, and Bust Magazine. Find her at www.virgietovar.com.