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How to make friends and influence people

There was recently a study that said obesity spreads through social networks. Basically, if you have fat friends, you become more likely to become fat yourself. As with all obesity studies, there has been some debate as to whether the study actually shows what it claims to show. Is it true or not? I have no idea. My ability to interpret statistical data died the same day as my TI-82 calculator, which I used more often to play the skiing game than to calculate standard deviations. I know two different people can look at the same data and come up with wildly different conclusions. Basically, your fat friends may be making you fat or they may not be making you fat. Enlightened, now? I may or may not be a space alien with backward bending knees too. Hope that helps you.

I will share some stories though, and you can analyze them with your slide rule and spreadsheets if you like. At BlogHer I complimented a blogger on her dress and she told me she’d gotten it at Dress Barn. She’d shopped there because Big Fat Deal had done a post about how they were respectful of plus-sized shoppers. I had seen that post too and had read the original entry by Nicole a day earlier. When I was searching for a dress to wear to my brother’s rehearsal dinner, I too went to Dress Barn, a store I’d never entered in my life, and bought a pretty red faux wrap dress that I also wore to BlogHer. So to sum up, Nicole posts about how Dress Barn is not full of cow dung and hay, Big Fat Deal picks it up, and at least two people have gone out and bought dresses there as a result. And those are just the purchases I’m aware of. Dress Barn should send Nicole a free gift card. How many people are going to read this entry on my blog and think, “Hmmm, perhaps I too should consider shopping at Dress Barn?” Tell me if you do.

Story number two: which is not so much a story but several observations. After I started talking about roasting broccoli, I got comments from people saying they were going to try roasting broccoli (but I only did it because another blogger was doing it). After I started doing Pilates, I got e-mails from people asking me what DVDs I would recommend (which I had only started doing because other bloggers were doing it). After I went for a bike tour of Chicago, I got a comment from someone saying they were now convinced they should take a bike tour around Paris this month (this one was all me, so thankfully at least part of my mind does belong to myself). I am somewhat tempted to post a story about how I’ve started eating cockroaches after my morning workout because they are a great source of protein and save me money on the exterminator, just to see if anyone starts floating them in their milk and cereal as a result. But I’ve sworn to use my powers for good and not evil, so I have refrained from posting recipes for sauteed spiders and boiled beetles.

So, does obesity spread through social groups? I don’t know. If it does, it would not surprise me at all, and if it doesn’t Dress Barn might want to find out a way to make sure it does. I do know that when we are born we’ve got fresh, un-programmed brains, no operating system installed. We can’t speak any languages, we don’t have any prejudices or biases, and we can’t control when we poop. All that has to come from somewhere. You learn to speak by listening to the people around you. You learn who to hate by who the people around you hate. When I see a three-year-old girl holding a sign saying “God hates fags” at a protest rally, I doubt she knows what those words even mean, but if she hangs around those people long enough she’s going to learn. You learn to control when you poop because if you don’t you won’t have any friends to influence you.

You can break out of those routines and biases if you try hard enough, if you educate yourself, and if you surround yourself with books and blogs which are all written by…other people, and if you move to a big city where you are surrounded by…other people. We take our cues from other people. If people respond overwhelmingly negatively to something I say, it makes me seriously ponder my perspective on an issue. If people respond overwhelmingly positively it makes me think, “Hey, I’m right! I’ll keep thinking like this because it makes people like me!” If all my friends were to become fat or obese, I doubt I’d give up my running and my Pilates and my cheese sticks. The way I’m living right now has made me very happy. But it would also mean there were less social penalties for being fat, which I cannot honestly say wouldn’t affect me. Maybe I’d grab an extra cookie off the buffet table or I’d take an extra scoop of ice cream. I can’t be sure.

I was somewhat surprised to see many of the fat acceptance sites immediately write off this study, especially considering how many posts I’ve seen about how super-skinny supermodels increase the likelihood of anorexia and bulimia in women. If Kate Moss is driving women to starve themselves, it doesn’t seem like much of a leap to say that our friends influence our body image too. I know I care a lot more about what my best friend thinks of me than what Anna Wintour does. It seems like the findings may even be good for FA because all they have to do is start a campaign to make friends with everyone on the planet, convince them it’s okay to be fat, and 20 years from now they’ll have taken over the world. On the other hand, it’s understandable that they did not like being called “contagious,” as if a fat person could sneeze on you and give you cellulite. I think they are also worried that people will read this study and decide to ditch their fat friends. I solemnly swear not to ditch any of my fat friends. And if someone decides they don’t want to be your friend because you might make them fat, they weren’t really your friend to begin with.

So whether this study proves it or not, I know I personally am affected by my friends. It’s how I learn about new music, where to buy jeans, and how to roast my radishes. Would it necessarily be a bad thing if obesity became more acceptable in our world? It depends. I was certainly in really good shape at this time last year when I was obese. I don’t think you have to weigh 100 pounds to be healthy. But when I weighed 372 pounds I was not a paradigm of health and fitness. Ultimately everyone has to watch out for their own health and make their own decisions about their bodies, but I have to admit that for me those decisions are at least in some way shaped by what other people think. But you also have free will. Which is why I will never, ever buy a Coldplay CD, no matter how many millions of copies they have sold.

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37 Comments

Patricia • August 6, 2007 at 8:05 am

Woo HOO I’m your first comment on this post! :) I would have to agree with the fat friends making you more likely to be fat, or atleast gain weight. If you think of it as a normal weight person that is usually pretty careful about what they eat, then they start spending 2-3 evenings a week hanging out with an overweight friend, they are likely to pick up some of the habits of the overweight friend. Like drinking regular coke instead of diet, because that is all the friend keeps at their house, or eating dessert when at the friends house bc they always have dessert when they have company, and then when that same friend comes to your house for dinner you have dessert too and regular coke and then the normal weight friend is more likely to finish that dessert and coke they brought into their house…… See what I mean?

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Pam • August 6, 2007 at 8:46 am

Big Duh! When you’re around people who indulge in extra cookies you’re going to be more likely to see that as okay, normal behavior so what the heck. One of the first things WW tells you is that if your Friday nights with friends revolve around margaritas and nachos, you’re either going to have to find something else to do with those friends or find some new friends!

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Lesley • August 6, 2007 at 8:49 am

Very thought provoking.

There must be link between friends/society and one’s attitude to food and health. It can’t be as simple as “my mates are fat therefore I’m going to get fat”! If that were the case all of my friends would have been ‘infected’ long ago and then what would have happened when I lost all the weight? Would they have followed or would I not have lost it??

Too hard to work out!

“Do your own thing and don’t be nasty to anyone else for doing theirs” seems to be a decent enough rule for me to follow!!

Enjoy the radishes but there is nothing on earth that would tempt me to follow you there!!

Lesley x

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SB • August 6, 2007 at 8:50 am

There is a pretty easy counterfactual, though, that contradicts this. There are probably just as many people (or more, given our culture’s prejudices) who are trying to diet and or lose weight. So does dieting and losing weight also spread through social networks? Statistical evidence would suggest it doesn’t, that Americans are dieting and exercising more and still getting fatter. This study was pretty well junk science for me, since as a fatty with thin friends, I don’t think I have ever influenced them to become fatter. And I don’t think their influence is making me any thinner!

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fatfu • August 6, 2007 at 8:59 am

There are good studies that I take seriously even when I’m not thrilled with the conclusions. There are also bad studies which I ignore because I don’t think that their impact is all that important.

This was a bad study, its conclusions were incredibly pernicious, and it was heavily marketed to the press. So that’s why most of us took it very seriously.

His results were odd, but it’s actually the highly speculative conclusions he draws from his results that’s most problematic to me. His hypothesis to explain his results was essentially that fat people spread fat just by being visibly fat. Just because people looked at us and decided that fat is “ok.” It had *nothing* to do with encouraging each other in healthy eating or exercising. It was just our presence changes people’s “norms” about what’s “acceptable.”

Think about the downstream effect of reasoning like that – if you believe his hypothesis, is it ok for fat people to be role models – to teach? To be visible professionals? To be on television?

The only conclusion you can draw from that is that the way you fight the obesity epidemic is by discriminating against fat people even more and jacking up the stigmatization as high as possible. A lot of people are already making that argument, and that these people now have a questionable study with dubious conclusion stamped with the imprimatur of the NEJM to point to pisses me off even more.

But I do want to put this study in context. Even if their study was rock solid, they’re only talking about a 5 lb weight gain on average. They’re not talking about taking normal weight people to obese. Or about the kind of weight loss that you’ve had. Even the authors of this study point out that weight as an absolute is largely genetically and physiologically regulated.

By the way I have never argued against thin models. Nor am I convinced that anorexia is purely about social influence. I think there’s a huge genetic component there too.

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Emily • August 6, 2007 at 9:03 am

Well, I think you can certainly hang out with people who will “help” to convince you that nachos and beer are normal. But everyone knows that a better choice would be diet coke and baked lays! In the end I think you make your own choices…but having friends that WANT to go hiking and enjoy a salad will make a healthy lifestyle easier to maintain. Also, I’m going to Dress Barn on my lunch break! :)

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Kalyn • August 6, 2007 at 9:30 am

I did think that study was very interesting. I know that right now I feel very annoyed with a couple of my friends (age 60ish) who have just decided they are “too old to lose weight” and it’s no big deal to be “fat.” I like hanging out with friends who are a bit more pro-active about their weight because it helps me keep on track, so in that way the study seems to be true.

As far as blogs influencing people, no question about it. I bought the Ana Caban pilates DVD from your site. Now if you’d just call me every day and remind me to do it! (Do love her though, and in the winter I’m sure I’ll use it more.)

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Dyan • August 6, 2007 at 9:53 am

Simply put, being fat and having fat friends makes it easier to stay fat because no one judges you. We’ve all been there. As soon as a friend starts to lose weight, she’s out of the circle. Why? Because now they are looking at you in a judging way.

Pastaqueen, besides your mother and brother, we never really heard about your friends and what they thought. I am curious, as your lost the weight, how did your friends react?

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PastaQueen • August 6, 2007 at 10:03 am

Various People – It sounds like this study probably was poorly done and the media helped hype it beyond what it deserved. But even if the study doesn’t prove that fat people spread obesity, just because it’s a bad study doesn’t mean fat people DON’T spread obesity. It just means nothing has been proven one way or the other. I hope someone does a better study about this topic because even though I don’t believe fat people are going to make the whole world obese, I think we all take cues on how to act from the people around us. Some of those cues include what we eat, how much me exercise and how accetable it is to look a certain way.

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LadyT • August 6, 2007 at 10:14 am

so true! so very true!

i have found myself heavily influenced by bloggers and those around me. i ran across your blog about 2 1/2 months ago….reading your archives and seeing you success spurred me into action. i’ve lost 21 lbs. my blog has basically become a weightloss blog….and i’m sticking with it bc i “socialize” primarily with others who are losing weight online.

lol….and yes, i have decided that when i drop some more weight…i’m gonna pick up Pilates…for the sole reason that PQ did, and it worked for you. lol….what a sheep am i!

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Mia • August 6, 2007 at 10:18 am

This discussion reminds me of a similar issue: peer pressure. I agree that we are easily influenced by one another; it’s almost scary. That said, I’m not willing to buy into what this research is suggesting, flawed or not. The alienation and hurt that it would cause is simply not worth it. I think you’re right on, PQ! If someone stops wanting to be your friend because you’re fat, then they weren’t really your friend. And even if we are more likely to eat poorly with some friends (skinny or heavy) we have the last say as to what we decide to eat. Owning up to our own sh*t is never easy. It’s much easier to just blame it on someone else. OK-rant over. :)

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Elizabeth • August 6, 2007 at 10:33 am

Problem is, the people in the study weren’t friends that hang out and eat together. They were people listed as contacts on an intake form for another study (some as far back as the 1970′s). Some of them may have been people that spent time together, but many of them lived a great distance apart (which is pointed out in the initial articles about the study). So the “My friends eat cookies and therefore I eat cookies” argument does not apply here, because the study showed that distance between the “friends” makes no difference.

This is not a scientific study (other researchers have said that the results could not be replicated, which is one of the requirements of scientific studies) and the results contradict many other studies that show a clear genetic component of weight gain. If you take people with a genetic predisposition to weight gain and put them in a situation with unlimited access to calories and limited opportunities to expend calories (yes, we can work out, but I’m talking about 8+ hours a day at a desk rather than doing manual labor), they will gain weight. Some of them will gain a lot, and some of them will only gain some. Environment (including other people) has some effect, but it’s limited, as demonstrated by a number of other studies (the twin studies are particularly compelling).

I’m saddened, but not surprised, at where the mainstream media has gone with this “study.” What angers me, though, is that it was printed by the New England Journal of Medicine despite the questionable methodology used.

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Kat @ The Weigh We Were • August 6, 2007 at 10:47 am

Does anyone have the full text of this study? I’d love to see who financed it, what the intended goal was, and the methodology. I’d also like to see the conclusion AS WRITTEN BY THE STUDY AUTHOR, rather than the headlines written by journlists trying to get readers and viewers. It’s not unusual for the press to totally ‘get it wrong’ when creating headlines from studies (espeically studies relating to weight.)

Kat – I linked to it in the first sentence. Actually, I accidentally linked to a graph from the study, but it’s fixed now. – PQ

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sandy • August 6, 2007 at 12:17 pm

ok – so study schmudy. what i’d like to comment on is the roasting of the broccoli! i wholeheartedly recommend roasted brussels sprouts! seriously – buy fresh ones, cut them in half, spread them out on a baking sheet – sprinkle with a little bit of kosher salt and pepper, lightly sprinkle with olive oil, and then broil ‘em. AWESOME. and i didn’t think i liked them!

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Allison • August 6, 2007 at 12:30 pm

Good luck shopping at Dress Barn if you really do lose your boobs. They claim to go down to size 4, but that seems to be only if you have massive boobs. I tried on their size 4 and 6 dresses a little while back, but they were built for C cups at least. The slender sales lady looked at me when I came out of the dressing room w/o any wins with a look that said, “Yeah, I didn’t think you’d find anything”. After the look she told me she was wearing a padded bra. I think we must have had some unspoken eye conversation about our “A” boobs.

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Theresa • August 6, 2007 at 2:21 pm

I just read your entry from August 7, 2004 “Always the Fat Girl”. I am really curious how you have changed over these past 3 years. I’m still stuck in a mental 3X at 160 pounds (size 12). Have you had better success thinking like a thin person?

Theresa, this entry about how I don’t feel like a fat girl anymore might shed some light on it. I do honestly feel like a thin person now and feel completely comfortable in my body. I don’t know how to do the same for anyone else though. I think everyone has to figure it out for themselves. – PQ

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Keri • August 6, 2007 at 3:11 pm

I just came across your website and really you could plaster my face over your before body and start this process over… I was right at 370, I have lost about 110 lbs over the corse of a year and hope to be at my goal by mid 2008. I am enjoying reading your site – it all is way to comfortable and very warm and fuzzy… like my bizarro life. Thanks for being out there =)

PS… I just tossed all my coldplay cd’s =P /just kidding!

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cheddar • August 6, 2007 at 3:21 pm

I keep seeing these links to junkfoodscience, where supposedly the obesity network study is debunked. As a social science researcher familiar with studies of networks, I don’t think the study is that flawed. Network studies have been used a lot to explain why some people get good jobs and some don’t – the answer is that social networks make a big difference. Why would networks matter for labor market outcomes but not health outcomes? What if the outcome being studied were smoking instead? I don’t think the results would be any different.

PQ, I love your blog.

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Jenny • August 6, 2007 at 4:06 pm

I have to admit that I taught myself how to eat like a thin person by watching a friend who is naturally thin… or at least knew how to eat “normally.” I never told her why we would both put our forks down at the same time.

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Mia • August 6, 2007 at 4:07 pm

I just noticed the very nice comment under “Tasty Reads”. Thank you. You’re so sweet! :)

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Janice Bridge • August 6, 2007 at 8:43 pm

The media made a big deal about the contagious nature of being over weight – but failed to share that losing weight is ALSO contagious. When one or more members of a social group decide to take control of the weight issues in their lives, to diet and/or exercise to become more fit, then others in their social group will do so as well.

Between January and September of 2006, my husband and I each lost more than 110 pounds. As a result of the weight loss, we are able to exercise more vigorously, are walking and biking more, and are definitley looking healthier.

Several of our friends – and most recently our daugher – have followed our decision with decisions of their own. One of the friends recently ask, “How does it feel to be the origin of the weight loss epidemic?”

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starbird • August 6, 2007 at 8:51 pm

These are excellent comments, but I have a slightly different take. I think that often people select friends or employees for their size/shape. Also, I don’t believe the genetic component is as big as some people do.

I do think stress is a big factor, whether on the job or at home. We had a teacher strike at our school a while ago and many of the teachers and administrators put on more than 100 pounds each. After they retired they ALL lost that weight and they said it wasn’t hard!

I emailed the author of the study to discuss my theory of self-like selection in employment, but he didn’t seem to get it. He did answer my note, though, which I thought was very cool and courteous.

My first real job interviewer was dressed almost exactly the way I was: cardigan, blouse and short skirt all the same color! I got the job – working switchboard and doing accounts receivable! [I lied about liking numbers, too!]

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chubette • August 6, 2007 at 11:28 pm

here’s the thing about my obese friends: they do make it more comfortable for me to be fat.

When I am sharing a meal with the group at a friend’s home, we all eat whatever we damn well please with nary a thought about it but when I’m out with them I am acutely aware of what we all order and eat because I know other restaurant patrons are thinking “holy shit, look at what that herd of bison is throwing down.”

I know this because I see the looks. And it pains me to say I am sometimes embarrassed to dine out with my obese gfs. Three are over 300 lbs. and have no intention (that they have verbalized) of losing weight.

I have to be honest and say that as I have begun to change my lifestyle and lose weight, I see them less frequently because it’s easier for me to do what I need to do for me. At least right now. I feel guilty–like I have abandoned them in my attempt to escape fat island. It’s not their fault that I am over 200 lbs but right now I need to not join them for the weekly chicken wings and fried cheese-laden TGIF girls night out.

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hoosiermeeshee • August 6, 2007 at 11:58 pm

As I’ve learned in psychology classes, “correlation does not equal causation.”

Are you more likely to become fat if you have fat friends? Or, are you more likely to have fat friends if you are fat?

You learn how, what, and how much to eat from your family. If you don’t learn correct portions, you are likely to be overweight. Then comes school where the skinny kids are rarely friends with the overweight kids. This lends itself to the having fat friends if you are already fat hypothesis.

However, change is scary. If you are fat, and you’re friends are fat, it’s hard to change your habits. As you lose weight, it becomes harder to remain friends with your fat friends. However, you never know how easy it will be to find new friends. You learn if former rejections were due to weight or personality. This kinda works with both hypotheses, being fat = having fat friends, and having fat friends leads to being (or staying) fat.

I could go into how skinny people with fat friends become fat. However, I’m sure everyone gets the point. There are too many co-variables that cannot be controlled to ever truly answer this question.

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Jenn • August 7, 2007 at 2:26 am

I thought one should have fat friends so that one can *appear* normal-sized, if not lots thinner.

:D

And EVERYONE should have a Coldplay CD. You WANT a Coldplay CD. You NEED it. You know you do…

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Oscar • August 7, 2007 at 3:56 am

I agree that hanging out with fat friends will increase our chance of getting fat. We know that influence plays a huge role here. The more we spend time, the higher the risk.

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NicoleW • August 7, 2007 at 6:26 am

Hey, yeah — where IS my gift card, Dress Barn? I like that idea!

As for the fat friends study … hmm. Most of my friends have been average-sized. On the other hand, my husband and I definitely helped enable each other’s awful eating habits and sedentariness (if that’s even a word) when we were in the process of gaining all our weight, so if that’s how it works with groups of overweight friends, I can see the point of the study.

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Heather • August 7, 2007 at 7:25 am

Dress Barn… what an unfortunate name. :( I’d feel nervous shopping somewhere with “Barn” in it. It makes me think of barnyard animals… cows, pigs…

Hmm..

;)

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lora • August 7, 2007 at 8:12 am

I have a wedding to go to this weekend and am going shopping today. Guess what? I’m going to try Dress Barn! Yep. People ARE influenced by other people. I guess we just have to try to be accountable to our actions and send out positive vibes!

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angstriddengoddess • August 7, 2007 at 9:52 am

Wait a minute… whaddya mean I’m at the end of the blog entries! Oh, surely there’s more? Argh.

Yes, I’ve joined the read-through-the-blog club, and I want to thank you. If your book is half as readable, and it probably will be, then I foresee a great success!

Reading your blog helped me get some perspective on my own situation. I liked it when you wrote about having to lose 200 pounds and comparing your situation to people who bemoaned having to lose 80 pounds (like moi). That helped me see my loss as quite doable.

This is a bit mean of me, but I also rather liked that you found it harder to shift the weight the less of it you had to lose. (Yes, I know it’s mean. It’s just that I could sooo relate to that experience.) Good for you for keeping going when the loss rate slowed down.

It’s not just friends and family that influence your perception of weight. At my last job they thought I was a complete exercise fanatic because I walked to work instead of driving my car. (I lived less than a mile from work. So did my boss, who drove her car and complained that she could never lose weight.) My current job is at a company where everyone is lean (but not mean) and they all work out and eat healthy. Even though I’m so overweight they accept my bicycling to work and walking at lunch as perfectly normal. No one comments if I eat carrots instead of carrot cake.

If I’d stayed at my old job, I could see myself eventually accepting the status quo and staying obese. Even though I don’t fit in, physically, with my current co-workers, it is much, much easier to lose weight when exercise and healthy food are seen as perfectly normal. It’s hard to be the One Who Always Is Different.

Geez, do you think I could have made this comment any longer? A couple years’ worth of comments in one. Yikes.

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BrightAngel • August 7, 2007 at 10:21 am

I very much enjoy reading your Blog.

I’ve made it a regular part of my Maintenance program…So far 18 months at goal weight within my Maintenance Range of 105 – 115…Total of 160 lbs down from my Highest weight. 1992 Bypass surgery—2004 net 80 lb loss; Beginning 2004, plain hard work, daily low-impact exercise, and low-calorie eating down to 110 lbs..another 80 lb loss. Now working Daily at Maintenance.

I’m looking forward to your Book.

I’ve written a great deal as an Attorney, and I once had plans to become an Author. I even wrote two fiction books which were unpublished. What made me stop heading toward that Goal was simple.

I realized I didn’t have anything that I really needed to say….other than basic conversation in the normal course of my daily life.

However, I think you do have things to say, and I like hearing them. Your comments today are a good example.

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Elizabeth • August 7, 2007 at 1:35 pm

If this were actually a study of a social network, I might buy it. But it’s not. It’s a study based on thirty years of contact information dredged from another study. That’s like saying that somebody who was in my address book from fifteen years ago is part of my social network.

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Kyle • August 7, 2007 at 5:46 pm

Hahaha, I’m not a Coldplay fan either :)

Great post, definitely got me thinking!

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Wally • August 7, 2007 at 10:41 pm

I agree with the study. Even without the results, I still think that influence can make a big difference. Most of us probably experienced how influence changed our lifestyle.

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Sandra • August 8, 2007 at 1:49 pm

I think it’s also that we choose friends who are a bit like us.

I was chubby at school and I tended to talk to the other chubbies. Not exclusively, of course, but you tend to gravitate towards people like you.

Sometimes I still feel like that. If I hear someone on the tube speaking in a kiwi accent, I feel closer to them. If I see another redhead, I feel some affinity.

Now – we’ve developed a vast network of bloggers who are losing weight or have lost weight or are still thinking about losing weight. We give each other tips and ideas.

Brilliant eh!

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Sarah • August 8, 2007 at 3:47 pm

I didn’t read all the comments but if it’s true that you are like your friends then for most of my 20′s I should have been a thin, fit, hot, gay male. Seeing that I was an un-thin, non-hot, straight female I’m going to have to disagree. LOL

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wriggles • August 12, 2007 at 8:37 pm

The best thing about this for me, is the sweet way people have shown they can talk civilly about fat. Leaving aside that they’ve suspended the you’re fat you’re responsible, wholly & solely gambit, which undermines these findings and any discussion. I love the way they are so kind, to themselves, aaahh nice, pity that yet again the fattez have to carry the ‘responsibility’.

Also, how did we not catch slimness when, apparently everyone was slim? Or was it our evil fatty voodoo?

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Comments are now closed on all PastaQueen entries. The blog is an archive only so I don't have to deal with spammers. For fresh discussions please visit my new blog JenFul.

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Jennette Fulda tells stories to the Internet about her life as a smartass, writer, weight-loss inspiration, chronic headache sufferer, and overall nice person (who is silently judging you). She does this at JenFul now, but you can still have fun perusing her past here.

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