by Celeste Montaño

Last time I had dinner with a friend, she laughed as I set down my food. “You’re so funny,” she told me, but didn’t elaborate. I smiled uncertainly. Seeing that I didn’t get it, she gestured to what I was eating. “The mac & cheese, the fries, the soda… it’s all so unhealthy.”

I looked down at my tray, completely taken aback. Healthiness—or lack thereof—hadn’t even crossed my mind when I picked out my food; I’d just chosen stuff that looked good. I laughed off her comment, but it gave me a bad feeling in the pit of my stomach. It made me uneasy that she took note of what I was eating. I don’t pay attention to other people’s food, and it never occurred to me that they might pay attention to mine.

But as I’ve made new friendships in the past few months, I’ve started thinking about food more than usual, and I’ve become more conscious of what I choose at the dining hall. With my new friends, a lot of conversations revolve around weight—how much they’ve gained since starting school, or how often they go to the gym so that they can shed that weight. Sometimes I see them hesitate before picking up a plate. Sometimes they bargain with one another: “I’ll get the pizza if you get the fries.”

I don’t join these conversations. I don’t want to encourage their insecurities, nor do I want to share my own. Sometimes I want to burst out that we should be empowering ourselves, that there’s nothing wrong with being fat anyway, that keeping us worried about being thin is how corporations sell products, and that if you want dessert, you shouldn’t deny yourself that happiness.

But I’m pretty sure they’ve heard it before. We all know that “everyone’s beautiful in their own way” and that “what matters is on the inside.” And while it’s true, reminding people of that fact doesn’t make their insecurities magically fade away. My words are meaningless against 20 years of being told that how much we matter is defined by our appearance.

I feel bad for sitting in silence during weight-related conversations because it feels like it encourages my friends to worry more. I find myself in a dilemma, because I wonder whether being a good friend means going on my feminist rant, reminding them that they’re great just the way they are, and pointing out that an extreme concern with thinness isn’t healthy.

On the other hand, I also think that being a good friend means being supportive and a good listener while others vent. I don’t want to dismiss everything my friends are feeling; their preoccupation with losing weight might be harmful, but their insecurities are still very real. I know there’s comfort in knowing that you’re not the only one who feels self-conscious and who’s constantly worrying. I recognize the need for a place to release your worries and talk about what’s going on in life—and if feeling crappy is what’s going on in life, it feels good to let it out.

But sometimes I worry about myself. Sometimes I want to get away from their conversations instead of being a good listener. Because they’ve also started planting seeds of doubt in me–when everyone else is worrying about what they eat and how much they weigh, it’s difficult not to wonder if you should be worrying about those things as well.

Sometimes they also make comments that make me uncomfortable, like the remark about being unhealthy. But other times they’re meant as compliment, like when they tell me that I don’t eat very much (though I also get comments when I eat more than usual). It makes me uneasy that they’ve scrutinized my eating habits and that they pay more attention to what I eat than I usually do.

Although I am starting to pay attention. Before, I didn’t give much thought to whether I ate a little or a lot; I just ate until I was full. Now I have constant questions running through my head while I pick out food: is this my normal amount? Is it too much?

Ultimately, it’s not so much that I fear getting fat. It’s that I fear getting judged. I’m not trying to eat less, but I do find myself justifying what I eat to my friends. If I think I’m eating more than usual, I’ll tell them that I’m especially hungry that day. Or if I have dessert on top of a meal that wasn’t particularly healthy, I’ll apologetically mention that I’m “just really craving ice cream today.”

I always regret my excuses immediately. I don’t want to be afraid of food, and I don’t want to feel guilty after every meal. I don’t want to apologize for eating and doing what I want.

A couple of people have suggested that I find new friends, ones that don’t make me so self-conscious. But I don’t want to lose these friends, even though I do wish that our friendship were a safe space away from the toxic messages that the world throws at us. And the fact remains that many bonds, especially between women, are formed over insecurities, and in particular insecurities about weight. Even with all the time I’ve spent thinking about my friends and their preoccupation with being thinner, I remember that I was just ten years old when a friend first told me that she was trying to eat less. At the time, it seemed perfectly normal to worry about weight. Now it seems terribly young. Since then, several of my friends have had eating disorders. And it’s starting to hit me that this pattern is not new in my life—it’s been happening forever.