By Nora Brunner
Originally published in Body Sense magazine, Autumn/Winter 2006.
When Rachel lost more than 150 pounds on her diet, she thought her husband would be ecstatic. At 46, she felt better physically, gained confidence, and enjoyed her slimmer size-12 figure. Imagine her surprise and dismay when her husband rewarded her progress at Christmas with a four-pound box of chocolates and a size 4X blouse. She divorced him.
Making healthy choices takes backbone. Whether we’ve resolved to become vegetarians, exercise more, go green, or take a fitness vacation instead of an all-you-can-eat cruise, we may face challenges from those who are used to our status-quo selves. While mastering ourselves and our habits, we face a dragon we perhaps hadn’t counted on—social pressure to eat, drink, and
be miserable. While more of us are swimming against the social current, it’s still a mighty cultural river that can sink us in a more-is-more, get-all-you-can, charge-now-pay-later way of life.
Traditions and Traps
Some of the worst health busters can be the most well-intentioned people who simply don’t know how to react with grace or skill to our new habits and choices.
“Most of the time people just don’t know what to say,” says Linda Spangle, RN, a Denver-based weight-loss coach and author of 100 Days of Weight Loss. “To them, ‘I made it just for you,’ is truly a compliment. Dishing up special food can be a way of expressing love and gaining accolades. Family celebrations are often strongly tied to traditions and not participating in them can be seen as an affront.”
The pairing of food and drink with certain activities can create deep bonds and rituals. Watching football with a mess of hamburgers and fries might be deeply embedded in how a family sees itself and enjoys its time together, according to Spangle, because “this is what we’ve always done.”
Jumping to Conclusions
Robert, 37, an accountant in Denver, struggled with how to enjoy a basketball tournament at a local sports bar with friends, while still observing his diet. He was off guard for the first few games. “Once he caught himself and realized the weight-gain path he was on, he made a decision to take a different approach,” Spangle says.
Nachos went by the wayside as Robert chose veggies and dip, and alcohol was interspersed with diet soda. He started to arrive at the bar later every evening to cut down on calorie and liquor consumption. While he didn’t continue his weight loss during the hoopfest, Robert considered it a win he didn’t gain any weight either.
Brian, a Wisconsin graduate student, never acquired a taste for alcohol, though he drank as an undergraduate to fit in. When the peer pressures of college had long faded, Robert still found drinking alcohol expensive and unrewarding. He decided to lose the booze.
“I finally found the nerve to confront peer pressure and explain to people—in the face of scorn, pity, and even rejection—that I just don’t drink,” Brian says. “The most frustrating (response) was the assumption that I am a recovering alcoholic … often met with a condescending, ‘Oh … I understand. Good for you for getting help.’”
While that response might seem polite and compassionate to some, it still implies something must be seriously wrong for you to pass on this social convention.
Having some insight into how social pressure operates can make resistance easier. According to Michael Haines, director of the Social Norms Resource Center in Dekalb, Illinois, research reveals most people have an exaggerated perception that “everyone’s doing it,” whether binge-drinking, cheating on taxes, or skipping seat-belt use. This is a danger because what we believe others are doing, or others would approve of, is a major influence on our behavior. So if it sometimes seems everyone else is leading a life of merriment and indulgence, know your perception is likely distorted.
As the nation slowly moves from a disease model to a wellness model in healthcare, new educational techniques and tactics are being tried. Haines cites a study showing scare-tactic advertising in Montana did little to inspire more seat-belt use. Yet, another Montana advertising campaign emphasizing most people did in fact wear seat belts, proved far more effective in changing behavior.
“The focus has really shifted in the last decade from trying to scare people into good behavior, which doesn’t work, to discovering how people who successfully manage social pressure are able to do so,” Haines says.
“We studied college kids who moderated their drinking and let them teach us how they did it,” Haines says. “We discovered a large and fruitful range of protective behaviors they had devised—attending parties, but skipping drinking games or taking a limited amount of cash to a bar and leaving when it was gone.”
What that might mean to the health-minded is knowing and trying out refusal and moderation tactics that have worked for others. “I tell people they can sip a glass of club soda all evening, as long as they have the server put it in a wine glass,” Spangle says. “The right-shaped glass seems to make the difference. No one notices what’s in the glass.”
When it comes to repeated offers for second helpings or dessert, Spangle says the magic lines are: “Not just yet. I’m going to wait a while.”
It’s been known to work all night. “For some reason, that response seems to be foolproof,” she says. “You can use it all evening without anyone really noticing or being offended.”
Playing it Straight
It’s smart to have some responses in mind before you encounter a potential pressure situation. It may be tempting to fudge (okay, how about fruit?), but experts suggest fibbing about your reasons for declining certain behaviors contributes to the larger problem. Haines and Spangle agree there is power in speaking up.
“Our research showed students preferred not to lie about why they limited their drinking. It didn’t feel as good to them,” Haines says. “Not being truthful also supports the misperception that everyone drinks, or drinks a lot, unless there’s a problem. Being forthright helps reduce that perception.”
Under extreme pressure from a determined saboteur, it helps to know you truly owe no one an explanation. A firm “no thank you” for as many times as it takes is perfectly polite and sends a message that becomes stronger and more pointed with each repetition.
Living a Healthy Life
Inevitably there will be friendships with such ingrained patterns (read ruts) they may not survive your new lifestyle. It only makes sense, as this often happens when friendships change or fade with other lifestyle events like graduation, having children, and changing careers. Being told you are no fun anymore is a tipoff a relationship has run its course.
“It’s time to end a friendship when it is draining you, when your friend is a negative force rather than a positive one,” says Jan Yager, PhD, relationship expert and author of When Friendship Hurts. “It’s time to end—or at least consider putting less time and energy into a particular friendship—as you spend more time with healthier and more positive friends.” Spangle echoes that sentiment: “A lot of us say ‘I will, if you will’ when the dessert tray comes around. What you want is someone who says ‘I won’t, if you won’t.’”