“Lean Stigma”: Why Your Friends And Family May Be Undermining Your Health Efforts

Imagine the following scenario:

You decide to celebrate a friend’s birthday by going over to their house where they plan to have a few friends over. You don’t plan to stay very long, but you recognize that it’s important for you to attend to show your friend some appreciation. While there, everyone celebrates with birthday cake. When offered a slice you politely decline. Your friends, recognizing that you’ve been on a bit of a health-kick lately, heckle you and sarcastically say something like, ‘You’re seriously not going to have a slice of birthday cake? Didn’t you already go to the gym yesterday? When are you going to stop being so boring?”

IMG_7018This situation seems familiar for most people who decide to make fitness a priority in their life. As a result of this re-prioritization, your lifestyle begins to change–including changing your eating habits when you’re out with friends. If your friends and family have become accustom to you always participating in these social-eating activities, when you decide to stop participating it can be a big change on them too. Unfortunately, this heckling and peer pressure to return to old habits does not make your journey any easier, and can sometimes create rifts between friends and family members. These unhappy campers will try to enable you back to your old ways. Why are those closest to you not always supportive when you decide to make a positive change for your health?

The “Black Sheep” Effect

The black sheep effect refers to a group’s tendency to more favorably view unlikable outsiders than unlikable group members. As an insider of the group (your social circle) you are expected to maintain the norms that the group has established. This means if your group’s norms involve going out to eat or having drinks on the weekends, by declining these social activities you are seen as deviating from the group. In other words, your friends will likely view other people who commit to a fitness routine (those not in your social circle) more positively because they are expected to break your group’s norms (hence why they aren’t apart of your friendship circle), while at the same time viewing you more negatively for breaking these norms.

“Saving Face”

Another powerful reason why close friends and family try to sabotage your efforts at being healthy is because it challenges their own views of themselves. If you have friends who want to be healthy, but struggle to give up the bad habits established by your group, they will (either knowingly or unknowingly) try to undermine your success in order to “save face” (avoid the perceived embarrassment of being unsuccessful in their own health attempts).

What can you do to stay the course of your fitness program while also dealing with the negativity from friends and family? The best course of action is to simply ignore the naysayers, and give them time to adjust to your new way of life. Remember, it’s a big change for them as much as it is a change for you. You’ve thrown a curve-ball into their way of life, and as a result there will likely be some push-back—at least in the early stages.FullSizeRender (76)

If ignoring them doesn’t seem to work, or if this undermining of your fitness efforts begins to escalate, another alternative is to pull the person aside and have a real conversation about why you are doing this in the first place. Once your friends know the emotional reason behind your new fitness endeavors, it is likely that they will make a more serious effort to accept your new behavior. Additionally, by making it very clear why you are involved in a fitness program, and that it is purely for your own reasons, you can avoid your friends mistakenly believing that you think you’re better than them.

Aside from the two strategies outlined above, what other things can you do to deal with, or even avoid, this health stigma? A recently published study asked participants to describe how they dealt with unsupportive friends or family.[1] Below is a list of the strategies participants used:

  1. When at a social gathering, eat Smaller amounts of unhealthy foods.
  2. Politely accept food when offered, but do not consume it.
  3. Designate “cheat days” for going out with friends. Note: Cheat days can often be be misleading and lead to over-consumption and binge-like eating behaviors. Normally I wouldn’t advocate for a specific “cheat day,” but rather a controlled indulgence on occasion.
  4. Avoiding social situations that involve food.
  5. Face-saving comments, including: saying they weren’t hungry, or telling their friends that they preferred the taste of healthy food—even if these statements weren’t necessarily true.

While not all of these strategies may be the best form of dealing with the situation (who wants to avoid all social situations that involve food simply because others can’t deal?), understanding why those closest to you feel this way can help you better approach the situation. Regardless of the strategies used to overcome this “lean stigma,” preparing for these situations can help you stick to your fitness program.

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