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"Women are amazingly accurate at knowing how much other women around them eat," says Patricia Pliner, a psychology professor at the University of Toronto at Mississauga.
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updated 4/6/2008 1:21:25 PM ET 2008-04-06T17:21:25

Dinner among female friends can often play out like a game of Texas Hold 'em. One woman places an order — grilled chicken salad, dressing on the side. There is a pause. All eyes shift to the woman next to her, suspense building as she carefully weighs her next move. Will she see her? Will she raise her? Another grilled chicken salad it is! And so it goes around the rest of the table until it's clear they are four of a kind.

A group of women ordering the same meal seems innocent enough — unremarkable, even — but there's often something far more complicated lurking beneath the surface. "Women are amazingly accurate at knowing how much other women around them eat," says Patricia Pliner, a psychology professor at the University of Toronto at Mississauga. "Whether their friends polish off their plates has a powerful effect on what they eat." This need to consume no less or no more than the next girl is almost visceral — and many who experience it would sooner admit to a cocaine habit than a competitive-eating one.

As with many female insecurities, cultural standards are at least partly to blame. Eating a lot alone is one thing, but doing so in public, in the presence of thin friends, can make you feel as if you've fallen down on the job of being an American woman, somehow punking out on the part of the social contract that suggests dieting makes you ladylike. One of Pliner's studies actually proved this: Test subjects read phony food diaries — some depicted women who ate small meals, while others were about women who ate larger meals. The small eaters were perceived to be more feminine, more concerned about appearance, and better-looking than the larger eaters.

On the one hand, this is pretty maddening information (can't a woman order a double cheeseburger with impunity?). But on the other, given these findings, can women really be blamed for not wanting to eat a lot in public? Consider, for instance, two recent side-by-side entries on the "Gawker Stalker" celebrity sightings section of gawker.com, a media Web site: On the left was a caption about "Saturday Night Live's" Will Forte, "looking all scruffy (and dare I say hot?) with his brother eating lunch at Chino's." What was he eating? How was he eating it? Not germane. And on the right was an entry about publicist Lizzie Grubman dining at Da Silvano: "She didn't order any appetizer and was picking at her seared tuna, wouldn't touch the potatoes on the plate."

But maybe the best — albeit a little arcane — anecdotal evidence of why women might be justified in not eating a lot when in a group setting is the idiomatic expression "old maid's portion" — meaning that last slice of birthday cake, the final scoop of ice cream in the carton — suggesting that she who dares to help herself is damned to a life alone. (But hey, if you're really hankering for that remaining handful of French fries, by all means, go ahead...and have yourself a long life cozying up to your Sudoku activity books, a dozen or so rescue cats, and, as your eyesight fails, a stray raccoon.)

Image over hunger pangs
Intrigued by this phenomenon, Pliner recently turned her attention to the rivalry that seeps into social dining. The research showed that people tend to match their intake to that of whomever they're eating with, and women in particular tend to eat the least when around other women — especially when they want to make a good impression. Evidently, image control trumps hunger pangs, since yet another study showed that even after being deprived of food for more than 24 hours, people consumed only as much as a "minimally eating" friend, because external and social influences have more impact than the body's internal signals to eat. "I have two friends I meet for brunch sometimes," says Kim*, a 24-year-old stylist. "I always walk into the restaurant starving, ready to order pancakes. But as soon as they order their egg whites, I sell out and order egg whites, too. I don't want to seem like the fatty."

The exception to the rule is when people are dining with six or more close friends or family members. A study found that people consume 75 percent more in those situations — and it's no coincidence that it happens when they're in the presence of those they feel completely comfortable around and don't believe will judge them.

Not surprising, since eating in public tends to be as much an exercise in saving face as in saving waist. "Some women want to give the impression that they are 'in charge' of their diets or 'in control' of their eating," says Susan Bowerman, assistant director of the Center for Human Nutrition at UCLA. (Admit it: How many blame-the-victim snap judgments have you made when you've spotted a heavy woman digging in to an ice-cream sundae at a restaurant?)

A funny thing happens, though, when you deny your hunger while out with friends: You might come home and ransack the cupboards, empty a bag of tortilla chips, and, still hungry, polish off a square of semisweet baker's chocolate. "When my clients restrict their food intake to appear strong in front of a dining partner, they often admit to raiding the kitchen later," says Bowerman. Dollars to doughnuts, "they end up eating more calories than if they'd ordered what they really wanted." As common as this might be, it's detrimental nonetheless: "Even though some women think the two [eating styles] 'balance' one another, it's a disorganized pattern of eating and isn't likely to lead to long-term weight maintenance."

Even the thin and glamorous can get sucked into this kind of behavior. Sarah*, a stunning 32-year-old fashion editor, boarded an overnight flight to Milan and found herself seated next to a woman she knew, "a gorgeous public relations director at a fashion house." When their food arrived — bear in mind, this was an airline meal, not exactly Grendel's feast — "even though I was hungry, I went into complete paranoia and didn't touch my plate, because she wasn't eating and I didn't want to stuff my face in front of her," Sarah says. Only later did she find out that her seatmate skipped dinner because she had been following Sarah's cues. "We were both conscious of each other," Sarah says now.

Food rivals
Women who are competitive about things unrelated to food often bring their issues to the table. In one of her studies, Pliner discovered that when she paired up women to compete against each other in a variety of skills, the women who thought they were behind in the competition chose lighter entrées than their rivals at lunchtime. "It was their way of controlling an area where they could succeed," she says. "It was as if they were thinking, If I can’t compete with her in these other areas, at least I can eat healthier than she does." Or, even more than that, be thinner.

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Elizabeth*, a 31-year-old interior designer, can relate. She and her best friend from childhood have always been competitive about everything — who has the better job, who has the better boyfriend, who dresses better. "So when we have dinner together and she orders penne with meatballs, I feel this small sense of accomplishment when I tell the waiter that I'll just have a salad. It's like I have more willpower and I'm thinner. That's two points for me."

It's easy to get drawn into the rivalry, however unwittingly. Last fall, Melanie Chisholm, a.k.a. Sporty Spice, expressed fears that the Spice Girls reunion would reignite the various eating disorders and competitive dieting that the women suffered from a decade ago. Lauren Greenfield, photographer, author, and documentary filmmaker of "Thin," an unflinching portrait of an eating disorder treatment center, points out that several of its female eating disorder patients have effectively had to create boundaries due to competitiveness. "There's a social contagion to eating disorders, and the women can get very jealous," Greenfield says. "At the treatment center, the cafeteria had a huge window looking out into the reception area, so the women could see all the new girls coming in. They would be so thin, and some would have feeding tubes, and everyone would be so jealous of them. Two of the women knew that they were not good for each other. One of them said, 'For my own health, I can't talk to you for a while.'"

Granted, eating disorders are the extreme. But Ellie Krieger, a former adjunct professor of nutrition at New York University and author of "The Food You Crave" (Taunton Press), points out that "social pressure has a huge role in your eating behavior and your perception of your body. And there definitely is a clear link between the propensity of eating disorders and groups where thinness is highly valued." As to whether your friend's annoying competitive-eating habits — as well as her ideas about body image — are eventually going to wear off on you: "You can be negatively influenced by her insane, neurotic behavior, but only if you yourself have a competitive streak of your own," she says. "Another way to handle it is to think, You want to compete with me? Good luck with that." It takes two to turn dinner into a showdown.

Friends bond over weight
Last summer, a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine got a lot of attention: It found that when people had a friend who was obese — even one who lived clear across the country whom they rarely saw face to face — their own chances of becoming obese shot up by 57 percent. In fact, having an obese friend might make a bigger difference than having an obese spouse or sibling.

A crucial aspect of the same study that didn’t get a lot of press, though, was the fact that the scenario held true for the opposite: Your friends can also make you thin.

"We had the same results for weight loss as for weight gain," says Nicholas Christakis, an internist and professor of medical sociology at Harvard University School of Medicine and lead researcher on the study.

Apparently, mind-set matters much more than habits and exposure: We're drawn to become friends with people who share our values. "Even though as a society, we still have ideals about [body size], you're more affected personally by the people you know," says Christakis. Thus, when a friend becomes overweight — even if you see her just a few times a year and only communicate via e-mail — you become more accepting of extra pounds, which can, in turn, revise your ideas about your own size if your weight creeps up. Or just the opposite. "I had a friend who moved to Cape Cod for three months," says Caitlyn*, a 35-year-old marketing executive. "We were about the same size before she left, but when she got back, I noticed she had lost a ton of weight. She was so skinny, which made me feel fat. I freaked out and immediately went on a diet and started losing weight, too."

Visit any high school or watch any episode of "The Real Housewives of Deranged County," and it's obvious that groups of like-minded friends often look quite a bit alike. Body weight and eating habits are components of this kind of tribal beauty, in a way that's more subtle and subconscious than overt and competitive. "Your norms are created by the people you know — the law of social networks is that they tend to magnify whatever characteristics the group shares," says Christakis. Krieger agrees. "Humans are social creatures, and it's also our nature to look around and compare," she says.

It bears remembering, though, when you feel yourself getting all crazy and stressed out about your friends … and their weight ... and your weight: Spending time with friends over a shared meal is truly one of life's most reliable pleasures. It should be a time to relax, not add more stress to your life — and certainly not a time to self-consciously scrape away béchamel sauce under the scrutinizing gaze of a competitive-eating friend. (Who needs enemies when you have dinner companions like that?) It's entirely likely, too, that for all her gimlet-eyed glaring at everyone else's plates, she's really more worried about how people are viewing what she's eating. And the only person affected by how much you eat is you.

* Not their real names

Copyright © 2012 CondéNet. All rights reserved.

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