A few weeks ago, the article “How to Rearrange Your Post-Pandemic ‘Friendscape’” ran in The New York Times. Basically, it’s about how to reevaluate which friends you want to keep now that we’re entering post-pandemic life. That’s not inherently a bad thing (more on that in a moment), but that’s not the part that drew massive amounts of criticism in the article’s comments and on social media.

No, the criticism came because of a part midway through the article where, in one fatal paragraph, author Kate Murphy — who ironically is the author of a book about how to listen to others — essentially suggested cutting ties with any friends who are fat or depressed.

She “backed up” her egregious display of fatphobia and ableism with “facts” that are spurious at best and debunked at worst. She also threw your smoking friends under the bus.

When The New York Times publishes garbage like this, it is simultaneously sad and not surprising. Sad, because they also publish wonderful weight-inclusive writers like Christy Harrison, Aubrey Gordon and Virginia Sole-Smith. Not surprising, because many of their health columnists, including Jane Brody, display fatphobia on the regular because they are fully subscribed to the so-called “obesity epidemic.”

Because, again, this article was horrifying in some ways and helpful in others, let me discuss further.

It was a good article…until it wasn’t

Murphy makes the completely fair point that we might want to be evaluating who we want to stay friends with now that we are re-entering normal life and have the opportunity to engage in in-person socializing. This isn’t a lot different from conversations I’ve had with several of my clients.

For example, some of my clients have realized during the pandemic that they actually prefer to live quieter lives. It was a relief to not have ANY social commitments for a while, and although they are now looking forward to resuming some social activities, they truly want it to be less than what it was in the Before Times.

I also have some clients who realize what a relief it was to have an excuse to NOT spend time with certain people who had been in their “friend” group. Perhaps they really had little in common, or perhaps these friends were manipulative, gaslighting, or relentlessly critical.

Now that pandemic restrictions are easing, Murphy suggests we think more closely about those who we allow back into lives, writing: “The pandemic shook us out of our social ruts, and now we have an opportunity to choose which relationships we wish to resurrect, and which are better left dormant. Ask yourself: ‘Who did I miss? And “Who missed me?’”

There’s some solid food for thought there, but then the article got real dark, real fast.

Sure, let’s make some very real problems even worse

She suggested: “Because they are front and center, foreground friends are the ones who have the most profound impact on your health and well-being, for good or ill…Indeed, depressed friends make it more likely you’ll be depressed, obese friends make it more likely you’ll become obese, and friends who smoke or drink a lot make it more likely you’ll do the same.”

She supported this with links to studies that were pretty problematic. The whole 2007 “being around fat people makes you fat” study that used data from the long-running Framingham Heart Study has been roundly criticized and pretty much debunked. The methods used to reach that “conclusion” were faulty and more speculation than science. Perhaps that’s why editors at NYTimes removed that paragraph following immense backlash.

My favorite response was from New York Times best-selling author Roxane Gay, who tweeted: “This piece really wants y’all to stop hanging out with your fat friends so you don’t catch the fat.”

Ironically (and sadly) Murphy’s article played into some of the fears expressed by some of my clients in larger bodies as we emerge from the pandemic.

The idea of rejecting people simply because they are fat? Hello, discrimination! Given that weight bias, stigma and discrimination have direct impacts on health — raising levels of stress hormones and increasing systemic inflammation, contributing to anxiety and depression, and adding to shame, which in turn makes people less likely to engage in physical activity or other health-supporting behaviors — the author is actively asking her readers to contribute to harm by contributing to stigma and social isolation, which also produces adverse health effects.

As for rejecting your depressed friends? Well, that’s ablism. (“How dare you have a mental illness! You are no longer worthy of my friendship!”) Yes, it can feel depressing to be around people who are depressed, but with appropriate boundaries, it’s possible to maintain a friendship you’ve valued and support them without getting pulled under yourself.

Judge not, unless you want to be judged yourself

I also have issue with her recommendation to cut out friends who smoke. Speaking from my own experience, I find smoking disgusting. It stinks and it makes your clothes stink. Unlike being at a higher body weight, smoking is proven to be unhealthy for you and for anyone who inhales your secondhand smoke or is exposed to residue (thirdhand smoke).

But I’ve had wonderful friends who were smokers and were considerate enough to not smoke around their non-smoking friends. And I didn’t nag them to quit, because they were already perfectly aware that smoking was not in the best interest of their health. If they wanted to quit (and most did eventually) they would do it in their own time, in their own way.

If you, too, find smoking gross, and you didn’t recently quit smoking yourself,* then why throw a smoking friend away if your friendship is nurturing to both parties?

* (That can be a legit reason to avoid not just other smokers as well as places and situations in which you use to habitually smoke at least for a time. The same would be true if you’ve recently recovered from alcohol use disorder—it may be a while before you can be around friends when they are drinking or be in a situation where you always used to drink, without feeling triggered.)

None of us is perfect. We all have our flaws and we all struggle in some way. If someone’s behavior is not hurting anyone else, and that person has other qualities that we admire or enjoy, perhaps accepting them as a whole, complex, messy human is worth it.

Setting boundaries for well-being

Does the thought of suddenly fitting a lot of coffee dates, in-person book clubs and dinner parties into your schedule make you want to lock your doors, silence your phone and curl up with a book? Then taking a serious look at who you spend time with is probably important for your well-being.

I know many people – clients and others – who are taking a serious look at whether they want to continue friendships with people who engage in body shaming, fatphobic talk or use diet talk as a bonding ritual. That will be the topic of next week’s post…and prepare to hold on to your hats, because I will be up on my soapbox, and I will not be mincing words!

Carrie Dennett, MPH, RDN, is a Pacific Northwest-based registered dietitian nutritionist, freelance writer, intuitive eating counselor, author, and speaker. Her superpowers include busting nutrition myths and empowering women to feel better in their bodies and make food choices that support pleasure, nutrition and health. This post is for informational purposes only and does not constitute individualized nutrition or medical advice.

Seeking 1-on-1 nutrition counseling? Carrie offers a 6-month Food & Body program (intuitive eating, body image, mindfulness, self-compassion) and a 4-month IBS management program (low-FODMAP diet coaching with an emphasis on increasing food freedom). Visit the links to learn more and book a free intro call to see if the program is a good fit, and if we’re a good fit!

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