How does food affect your friendship group's dynamic?
“Tell me your list”, my friend and I would ask each over a few years ago over email, and then most days we would each take great relish in listing everything that we had eaten that day.
It was very cathartic, and could often be quite bolstering. A little like going to confession, one assumes, with the added bonus of hearing someone else’s sins. “Ooh she's had a chocolate bar for lunch dessert today!” I would enthusiastically muse to myself and then reward myself with a free pass to eat whatever chocs I fancied that day.
“Oh, but then she had a salad for dinner”, I would note, gloomily.
"Think about the last time you went to brunch, did your first choice of pancakes get pushed aside when your friend ordered the ‘clean eaters’ delight?” Photo: Getty
The tell me everything you ate game is not the only way that I have bonded with friends over food. There’s my ‘being bad’ friends, where we firmly believe in treating ourselves, and my ‘being good’ friends where green smoothies and sanctimony are a go-go. There’s the friends that I make eat half my chocolate bar so that I can share my guilt around and the ones where we try to out-do each other in the “I’m so bad” stakes.
For those not familiar – likely the kinds of people that can break bread with friends without any kind of subtext – it’s a peculiarly toxic game that comedian Amy Schumer satirised in this gruesome skit on her show Inside Amy Schumer.
"I was cyberbullying my niece on Instagram the other day and I literally ate 15 mini muffins," Schumer announces to her group of friends in the skit. It's okay, they're "the opposite of big" and "basically nothing!" her friends counsel. Things soon escalate, and it’s not pretty.
Food and friendship can be tricky terrain for some people. As this study noted, most people are influenced by what their friends are eating (or not eating).
In setting out to measure what cues we take from our social circles, researchers found that students ate less biscuits on a whole when their friends avoided the biscuits, compared to when their friends indulged in a couple of biscuits. Even when the friends were split up, people continued to eat fewer biscuits alone if they had just watched their friends avoid eating the biscuits.
Think about the last time you went to brunch, did your first choice of pancakes get pushed aside when your friend ordered the ‘clean eaters’ delight?”
And is that really a way to live?
It’s a familiar scenario to Kelsey Miller who is documenting her journey into intuitive eating as part of her Anti-Diet project for Refinery29. In a great piece she wrote of the difficulties her new way of eating – ie listening to her body and eating what she wanted – had created in her social life.
“Food has a way of drawing lines between friends, and it sucks. How many times have you started a diet with a friend in the hopes that you'd support each other and keep each other honest? Sometimes it works, and you spend a few weeks hitting the gym together, reporting every froyo skipped and every cocktail made "skinny." And then, someone starts to deviate,” writes Miller.
For Miller, breaking away from these associations has been hard, just as learning not to think about dieting is learning to forget years of programming.
For Louise Adams, clinical psychologist at Treat Yourself Well in Sydney, the difficulty in breaking the link between food and friendship is one that she sees a lot, and it comes down to the way diets mostly only succeed in making us feel bad about our body.
“Because so many women are unhappy with their bodies, we can start to bond with other women in this dissatisfaction, and then we start to encourage each other to diet or be ‘good’ with food,” says Adams.
Thoughts like this, says Adams, can mean that friendships can become competitive with food as the trigger – whether you’re being ‘good’ or ‘bad’.
“Overall, what’s really going on is that many women are bonding in their body dissatisfaction, and the food behaviour is the result of this dissatisfaction,” says Adams.
So how can we break this dieting dichotomy of "good" and "bad” that has, as The Huffington Post pointed out, “so commonplace that you're essentially forced to comply.”
For Adams it comes down to being more self-aware and compassionate toward ourselves, and others.
“Recognise ‘diet mentality’ for what it is – over-learned ideas about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods that don’t help us to look after ourselves,” she says.
“The truth is, food is just a substance, it is neither good nor bad – that’s an unhelpful judgement. Instead of eating from rules, tune into the body’s natural signals of hunger, fullness and satisfaction. Learn mindful eating as an alternative to diet mentality. Re-claim a relaxed relationship with food. And practice self compassion, being kind and supportive towards yourself rather than judgmental and mean.”
The best part? Eating mindfully, and rejecting the “I’m so bad talk” will only make your friendships – and your brunch catch-ups - better.
As Adams says,
“Love your friends, and yourself, regardless of body size. Spend your life living and experiencing things right now rather than waiting ‘until’ you’re thinner.
And that includes eating as many, or as few, biscuits as you like.