Guilt By Association

“Dime con quién andas y te dire quién eres” (tell me who you walk with and I’ll tell you who you are).  It’s a Mexican saying that I think holds value, mainly since every culture has an expression conveying the same idea.  One of the ones I heard recently that’s less than flattering: “if you lie down with dogs, you’ll get up with fleas.” It’s the same idea: who you hang with influences who you are.  Put simply: it’s peer pressure.  It goes back to the very heart of our species- we are essentially social creatures, whether it’s family bands or tribal or national.  We have ways of bonding with our chosen social group either through language, behavior, or other customs.  Standing out can be a way of choosing to disassociate ourselves, which can lead to us becoming separated from the group, either through our choice or theirs.  We learn it early in life: belonging is good.  Case in point: my uncle was driving home with his grandson, still a toddler in his carseat.  It was Easter and his grandson had a bag of jelly beans and was spitting out the pink ones.  Why? my uncle asked.  Because they’re girl jelly beans! He was only about three years old but he already knew what was associated with girls and he was not a girl, so they didn’t belong with him.

This idea of belonging to or being different from others in a group is reinforced throughout our lives.  As teens, we tend to wear our identities on our sleeves so to speak.  Athletes, musicians, rebels: whoever we are, we dress accordingly.  This is why many organizations and professions wear uniforms, even if they are not as regulated as those for the military.  When was the last time you walked into a legal office or a doctor’s office and saw your attorney in a t shirt, flip-flops and board shorts? Or your doctor for that matter?

The clothes are just one manifestation of how our associations affect our behavior and it’s why peer pressure is so effective and so dangerous.  If everyone else is drinking at the party, we feel the overwhelming pressure to drink as well, even if we don’t like it.  The pressure to be different is intense.  If you think I’m overstating this (or it’s just plain nonsense), ask any teen you know about peer pressure.  Being different can feel like being a man/ woman without a country! Everyone else is eating dessert at the restaurant and you choose not to have any- don’t even taste it!  “What’s up with you?”  It happened to me just the other night: I was out to dinner with my mom and took part of my meal home.  “You hardly ate anything!” Hah! I know what I ate and it was plenty! There’s a big box of the best in town pastries in the break room (thanks to the generous client) and everyone is having some.  “Is she allergic to gluten or something?” Even if they don’t pressure you to eat/ drink what they are, you still somehow end up feeling like you are different.  Recently, I was at a festival with a friend of mine and our meal came with a great big chunk of bread.  I left mine there and after a couple of minutes of confusion it dawned on my friend: “you don’t eat bread anymore!”  She didn’t mean to draw attention to my dietary changes, but it still was a little uncomfortable. Bread is not that big a deal, nor is my leaving it there, but there I was, being different!

Generally, we tend to go with the flow simply because it’s easier.  You are out with your friends and they order a slice of cheesecake with three forks, so a bite or two isn’t the end of the world! Even if you didn’t want any cheesecake at all? You are watching the game and your friend hands you a beer, even though you planned on not drinking, so you just make that one last all day. Those are better choices than eating the whole dessert or having multiple beers, but it’s still more than what you planned on having.  What do you do?  “No thanks, I’m too full!” That’s always an option, but sometimes with peer pressure, it only stokes the fire.

Of course, it works for the positive also!  If everyone else is going to the gym, don’t you feel the pressure to hit the gym as well? I know I feel it on MFP: all my fitness friends are posting their workouts and where’s mine? Well, I didn’t really make it to the gym today…..  Even though they don’t actually ask me about my workout, the fact that they are posting puts pressure on me to be more active.  I feel the need to join in and participate!  This is actually one of the reasons people seek out diet buddies; workout buddies, and the oh-so-cutesy: “accountabilibuddy.”  It works! If you are meeting someone at the gym twice a week and you decide to blow it off, you need to explain it to him/ her.  “Sorry- not going to make it today! Got too much to do!” Repeatedly blowing off the workout is going to get some questions: “hey, man, I thought you were serious about this!”  Now, you need to explain yourself.  You can blah blah excuse whatever to yourself but is your friend going to buy it? Probably not and after awhile, s/he’s not going to be meeting you anymore!

Experts and gurus like to point out that “being overweight is contagious!” If we hang out with “fat people,” we end up fat ourselves! One more reason not to be friends with the fat guy/ girl at the office! Yes, there is a correlation: our friends’ habits tend to rub off on us, but our habits tend to rub off on them too!  In my group of friends, I am now and have always been the biggest of us.  I was overweight when I made friends with them and even though I’ve lost a lot of weight, I still weigh more than they do (and this includes the husbands- yay????) I haven’t gotten fatter by being with them, and while they haven’t gotten fitter by being around me, they are now enjoying their little Fitbit trackers.  The point is that you don’t have to change your entire circle of friends if you want to be healthier or fitter.  If your friends don’t want to jog/ walk/ exercise with you, find some others who will! A few months ago I started taking the classes at my gym and now I see the same group each time I go and we chat and encourage each other.  I joined My Fitness Pal and have friends there that I chat with (it’s like Facebook for fitness/ nutrition).  You don’t have to dump your cheesecake and coffee loving friends; you just have to expand your circle. You also don’t have to eat what they eat: your real friends aren’t going to get in your face about not eating/ drinking what they do.  In fact, I met some of my friends over this past weekend and there was a bit of a delay.  When we did manage to meet, they both knew that I had already been by the coffee shop but they hadn’t and wanted to know if I just wanted to run some errands while they got coffee.  I went with them for coffee: they had some and I didn’t.  It wasn’t a big deal and I wasn’t sitting there feeling deprived over “not having more lattes.” We sat and chatted and waited for our other friend who was on her way.  We had a fun afternoon just the same.  My not having a second cup of coffee wasn’t a big deal: we were there to chat with each other and the coffee, even for them, wasn’t the point.

Experts and ‘those in the know’ are always quick to point out the short-cuts on how to lose weight or be healthier, but really there are none.  There are ways to make it more enjoyable or easier, like gym buddies or diet buddies (I now have more Fitbit friends) but really the heavy lifting is down to you (pun kinda intended). You are the one who needs to go out of your way to make the healthier changes life-long habits.  These may or may not include your present circle of friends.  It may be that you need to make new friends who share your same goals: yowza! that’s a pain in the butt! (sarcasm there!)  If your friends are anything like mine, there will be things you have in common and things you don’t.  One of my friends is a great gardener, another likes to decorate cakes, one is a gourmet and another is a Broadway fan.  I’m not a fan of any of those, but we all have things in common that we enjoy.  My thing now is fitness, and none of them are really into it, so now I have new fitness friends I can share it with.  It is easier when you have friends that you share things with, but really, your friend isn’t going to make you work out or make you say no to the cheesecake and peppermint mocha.  They are going to respect whatever decision you make.  You are the one who makes the decisions: your success does not depend on them, nor can you blame them for your failures (although sometimes, it would be nice!)  So, be a mensch and sit next to the fat guy/ girl at the office holiday party- you aren’t going to catch anything!


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