Dear Aunt Fattie,
I have a bit of a conundrum. One of my friends used to be slightly overweight, now she’s quite thin. I’ve been concerned about her body image (she looked fantastic with a bit of extra weight but she never believed me when I told her so) and worried that she might take it too far and become underweight, or worse, develop (or already have) an eating disorder. I think her mother was part of the problem, as she has forced diets on her in the past.
I’ve tried talking to her, telling her she was beautiful the way she was, but all she says is “I was fat, and I didn’t like it.” She seems as happy as she was before, so should I leave it alone? I don’t want her to be unhappy with the way she looks. Is there anything else I could say to her to convince her that she is amazing no matter what her weight is? I don’t want to sound like a nag either or to preach statistics. I need help!
Love from A Concerned Friend.
Dear Concerned Friend,
It sounds like you want the best for your friend, but be wary of overreaching your boundaries. You can’t decide what will make her healthy or happy, any more than you could if she were still fat and you were downright convinced she’d be better off thin. Treating her with compassion also means stepping back and allowing her to decide what she thinks is best for her, even if you don’t agree.
If you think she’s engaging in behaviors that are putting her in immediate danger — purging, for instance, or taking pills, or eating at starvation levels — then you should have a calm, quiet talk with her about your worries. As far as dieting and disliking her body, though, you have to respect the fact that she’s an adult. She gets to choose what makes her happy, or even choose to be unhappy. You show her that you think she’s amazing no matter what size she is by continuing to be a friend to her no matter what size she is — which means telling her she’s beautiful when she’s fatter, but also means backing off the lectures when she’s not.
Here’s what you can do: model mentally and physically healthy behaviors. Don’t restrict what you eat around her — it can be very tempting to deny your own hunger around dieting friends because it’s uncomfortable to have someone sit around and watch you eat a sandwich, but that serves neither of you. Enjoy your food, and turn conversations about fat and calories into conversations about tastiness and energy. Subvert exercise talk from a retribution mindset (“I have to go to the gym to burn off that cookie”) to a celebration mindset (“I just started a pilates class and I feel amazing”). Be there for her if she starts to have doubts; be open and willing to listen if she chooses to talk about her body image. And if she can’t break out of the cycle, be there for her then, too. (Though if things get bad, you are perfectly within your rights to say “I can’t listen to you dog on yourself like this.” You’re her friend, not her therapist.)
Do we all wish that everyone could come to the fat acceptance movement, and experience the profound freedom that comes with casting off the dieting and body-hatred shackles? Of course we do. Aunt Fattie in particular also wishes that everyone could be pro-choice, feminist, well-read, and grammatically savvy. But we can’t force our friends into those positions, beneficial and sensible as they may be. All we can do is live according to our beliefs, as joyously as we can, and hope those we love see the wisdom in them. And love them anyway if they don’t.
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