Dear Prudence

Help! My Body-Positive Friends Attack Me for Exercising.

In We’re Prudence, Prudence asks readers for their thoughts on a question that has her stumped. The answer is available only for Slate Plus members.

A woman sitting on an exercise ball, holding a weight above her head.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus.

Every Thursday on Twitter @jdesmondharris, Dear Prudence asks readers for their thoughts on a question that has her stumped. She’ll post her final thoughts on the matter on Fridays. Here’s this week’s dilemma and answer:

Dear Prudence,

I just moved to a new city and joined a gym I’m excited about. I’ve been unhappy with my (lack of) fitness for a few years now—I have trouble keeping up with my fitter friends, and I have some body image issues that have been popping up more and more often. I really like this gym and the community they’ve created. I also absolutely love the workouts—they make me feel powerful and strong in a way I haven’t in years.

The problem is, quite frankly, the old friends in the city I just left. I know basically no one in my new city, so my old friends are a crucial social connection for me. They are very into body positivity/health at every size. This is great! I think everyone should feel comfortable in their bodies! But my closest friends make negative comments whenever I bring up my gym or how happy I am with it. They say I’m “selling out” and make disparaging remarks about how I represent the patriarchy because I’ve internalized messages about thinness. It’s pretty upsetting to feel excited about a new development in my life, only to get shot down by folks who I’ve supported in their own endeavors.

Do you have any thoughts on how I can get my friends to be more supportive, while not coming off as judgey for the choices I’m making that they’re not?

—Fraught Fitness

Dear Fraught,

When I read your question, I had two initial thoughts, which were a tiny bit in tension with each other:

1)    If you don’t want to put non-workout people to sleep or annoy them to death, it’s best to keep gym-talk to yourself. It’s just not interesting. And it can be unsettling to the many people in the world who are struggling with our society’s unrealistic messages about how bodies should look and have understandably stepped back from diet and fitness culture.

2)    Your friends should not make you feel judged and attacked. This is especially true when it comes to things that you’re doing with your own body that don’t harm anyone.

But I felt like there was more to say, so I asked for help. Some of the responses boiled down to the idea that you’re making progress and fixing your body and your friends are jealous. I don’t buy that at all: I think your friends sincerely believe in the “health at every size” (HAES) principle that health is primarily driven by social, economic, and environmental factors that require a social and political response, not by individuals fighting an uphill battle to shrink. It’s deeper than just “everyone should feel comfortable in their bodies.”

Reading your admission that you have body image issues alongside the fact that your friends think you’ve internalized messages about thinness, I wondered whether they are upset because they think what’s really going on with you is that you’re fixated on losing weight in a way that has been unhealthy for you (and probably for them, too) in the past.

I heard you when you said you work out to feel strong and powerful—but I also live in this world. So, sure, I believe there are certainly people who take gym classes for the endorphins and vibes or to get better at carrying their groceries. But I know the fitness industry is built around those who are desperately trying to change the size and shape of their bodies. I also know that talking about dieting and working out in terms of “feeling strong” sounds healthier than saying you’re spending hours on the treadmill and surviving in carrot sticks, which nobody thinks is cool anymore. But in truth, it can sometimes be a cover for similar behavior and a similar mindset.

Christy Harrison (@chr1styharrison), a HAES proponent who describes herself as an “anti-diet dietician” and hosts a podcast about intuitive eating, calls this “the wellness diet” and says it often represents the same old unhealthy diet culture under a different name. “I’d be curious whether the letter-writer might be falling into some Wellness Diet thinking that’s raising alarm bells for her friends,” she said.

Your friends may be attuned to all this. I wasn’t sure if I was reading too much between the lines, but others agreed: “I’m curious as to what she’s said in the past about her body to these friends,” @afrobella wrote to me.

“The friends aren’t expressing it well but may be worried about it because of past things the lw has said/done. I think lw needs to have an open convo w/ them about why this is hurting more than helping, and make sure they hear the genuine happiness exercise brings now” —@grouchybagels

“I’ve re-read it now and it does seem like there may be some concern here for someone who’s struggled with disordered eating patterns.” —@latkenessmonstr

So, let’s say that in your quiet, honest moments with yourself, you know that you are working to try to lose weight, and this is part of a disordered relationship that you and tons of other people have with their bodies because of our messed-up society. Does that make it OK for your friends to attack you? Absolutely not. They are being unkind to you.

They’re also missing the point. I asked Harrison whether your friends are messing up by focusing their wrath on your behavior instead of the larger culture that makes life hard for larger people and encourages us to waste tons of time and energy on what can be a fruitless quest to be smaller: “Totally! And I think sometimes at the individual level it can get really tricky to recognize how those things are separate—like maybe these friends feel that they’re criticizing the system, but the letter-writer feels they’re criticizing her,” she said.

So, what do you do about your friends? First, if you value your relationships with them and feel open to it, it might be worth starting a conversation about what—if anything—they can deal with from you in terms of gym-talk.

“Sucks that it seems to be on OP at this point but starting a conversation about what their friends are ok with hearing about and what they aren’t might help” —@_unsarahble

You should also discuss what you expect from them when it comes to being spoken to with respect. A lot of people had thoughts on this:

“Always the option to say that you don’t appreciate their comments but remember that you can’t control their reactions or responses - all you can do is communicate what you are feeling” —@jmsahakian

“HAES has to include her health+size too, and that she’s not selling out. But she should make sure she 1) doesn’t discuss her newfound fitness in a way that sounds like ‘I’m desperate to not look like you’ & 2) focuses on what her body can do rather than what it looks like” —@AudreLawdAMercy

“I had similar w/ friend who heard I was getting back into running and was mad because she thought it was coming from a dangerous place. We talked through *both* her legitimate concerns for me and my real love of running, and it was helpful for both of us I think” —@Grouchybagles

And perhaps remind them that HAES advocacy is really about making structural changes, not attacking individuals for behaviors that are understandable, given the world we live in.

If you agree that they don’t want to hear about your workouts anymore, @Afrobella had a good tip: “My main advice to her (and in general) is, if you’re concerned about the feedback from these friends and you have thoughts to process, I recommend journaling and therapy instead. You’re less likely to be misunderstood and more likely to gain understanding of yourself.”

And when it comes to the bottom line, I think @rebelpioneer got it right:Either the LW isn’t describing the situation accurately and the friends are worried about her body image issues because of the gym, or they’re not supportive of her & the actual message of HAES. The truth is probably somewhere in between. I’d advise making new friends at the gym.”

So be honest with yourself about why you’re really working out and if it’s good for you, taking your history and your mental health into consideration. If you decide to continue, when it comes between talking about the weather or your recent deadlift max with people who aren’t into fitness, always choose the weather. And be open to transitioning to a new, kinder, and more supportive social group in your new city.