Project BFF sat down with author, activist, and founder of the #LoseHateNotWeight campaign to talk about the friendships in her life.
Project BFF: Do you feel like you have a best friend(s)?
Virgie: Yes. I do; I feel like I have multiple best friends at this point. This question made me think about the different ways my best friendships have looked like over the years. I remember as a kid, I had a new best friend every school year. I don’t know how common that is, but it felt like it was normal in my school to do that. And I remember figuring out within the first week of school who that person was. I can’t quite recall if I was the aggressive one, but considering my personality, I probably was, I’ve always been a friendship initiator type.
At that time, a best friend was somebody I spent every minute of my free time with, and we were weird in the same way. When you’re a kid, everybody’s kind of weird because you haven’t entirely been socialized, and so I feel like there’s this kind of fun that kids are able to have, even with people they don’t necessarily have a lot in common with.
My best friends over time in childhood were all such different people. As I graduated from high school and was in college in my early adulthood, I was definitely attempting to navigate having boundaries for the first time. Not really having language around boundaries, but still wanting that really intense intimacy, which is a very hard dance, actually.
It’s really incredible that adults can navigate all these things really intuitively, because I think it’s actually really difficult to have a very close friendship as an adult.
For me, I’m somebody who had a really traumatic childhood. So, I was very eager to leave my neighborhood and leave my past. Just run away. And I don’t have any of those friendships that got grandfathered in as I developed and as I grew boundaries. And I really am sad about that. I ended my last friendship from my childhood a few years ago, and it was the end of that lifelong sense of someone who knew me.
There was freedom in that, being best friends since childhood. It’s really beautiful. There’s a latitude that’s different from when you become friends in adulthood. And I think that latitude has two sides – it creates a lot of comfort, but it also can create a lot of problems if you’re trying to create boundaries.
Now I’m very clear about who I am, I’m very clear about the people I relate to, and I’m very curatorial about who’s around me.
Project BFF: What does best friend really mean to you?
Virgie: For me, at this point, best friend is a feeling. When I think about the phrase best friend, I think about one particular friend. It’s funny because I spend much more time with other friends, but there’s just an affinity I have with this person. I know she’s my best friend because I really respect and admire her, and that’s big. I think another component is that I turn to her for counsel when I need help, and she’s someone who can, with a lot of agility, help me out.
She has personality traits that sometimes really frustrate me, and yet I’m able to approach them with grace consistently. I just accept her, and there’s something really magic about that. Friendship and my past are so connected – the fact that I grew up in a household where I didn’t feel like I could trust anybody, and the fact that I largely see trust as a liability, those things are really connected to how I do friendship as an adult. For someone with my past, it’s been really challenging to have friends who are normal, flawed human beings.
Most of my friends are these quite stellar people, above average, like gold-medal winning friends. They’re just the kind of human beings where you realize: You’re just a solid, all around great person, and everybody would say so. If we polled 100 people, 100 people would say this is a stand-up human being. I feel like most of my friends are in that category.
With this woman I just feel like I know that I love her immensely and she’s my best friend because I can just see the totality of her and accept every part of her and love every part of her, and that’s really special for me.
Project BFF: How do your friends feel about your mission/career?
Virgie: Unlike many people who maybe work in an office or something like that, my career and my life are really connected, because my life mission is my career mission in a lot of ways. When I decided to become a social entrepreneur focusing on ending diet culture, it asked a lot of my community. Because I went from having a community of people who largely had the same attitude, the dominant cultural attitude towards diet culture – which is that there’s nothing wrong with it.
That was a big ask from my community: “This is no longer acceptable, and is something that actively harms me and people like me. I need people to stop talking about it, to stop promoting this idea that a thin body is a better body. I can’t have intimate friendships with people who are actively attempting to lose weight.” At that time, it was such a monumental task to essentially disengage from this major part of the culture and to actively reject it. When you’re attempting to do something really big like that in your life, you need to have support from most of your community.
Different people do it differently, but for me, I needed to feel like I wasn’t at risk of being triggered by my friends. It felt like an organic process that now I don’t really have friends who are actively engaging in diet culture. It’s this interesting chicken/egg thing. I’m not sure if I set that boundary and I began to pull into my circle people who respect that because they were already on the same page. Or if I began to distance myself, or others began to distance themselves from me, who were engaging in that culture. But the friends I have now are extraordinarily supportive, in an amazing holistic way.
They’re not only engaged in the same mission that I am, they’re also people I can commiserate with. That kind of mirroring is so important to me in a friendship. There are plenty of people who love the devil’s advocate, but I’m not somebody who enjoys that somewhat adversarial type of communication and friendship.
I feel very supported in all of these ways that are unexpected, like this ability to commiserate, this ability to go to someone and ask for and get really good advice. Even work itself, the ability to talk to almost any of my friends about a product that I’m thinking about launching, a campaign I’m thinking about, or a brand I’m thinking about collaborating with. I can get measured input from them and they’re going to ask the right questions. It’s just extraordinary.
Project BFF: Have you ever struggled with friendships?
Virgie: This is a big one for me. I deal with a lot of shame and, frankly, confusion around whether or not I am doing friendship right. I was raised to essentially believe that I couldn’t trust anyone but myself – this was being actively told to me by my caregivers, and also they were modeling this behavior by not following through on things. For somebody like me with that kind of past, intimacy of all kinds is a challenge.
For instance, a good friend is someone who can actively individuate. They’re not co-dependent toward me. And because of my background, I’ve had to do a lot of work to understand what individuation is. There was a period in my life, transitioning from living at my parents’ house to living alone in college, where I felt completely alone because I was basically existentially drowning. I did not know how to individuate, I did not know what boundaries were, I didn’t understand that it wasn’t other people’s job to comfort me constantly. I didn’t understand any of that. It was just this overwhelming misery, crying and being alone and not understanding why or how to fix it.
Project BFF: What is the most surprising thing a friend ever said to you?
Virgie: In college I had a friend who had a lot of grace. She was someone who saw my best self and was not completely repudiated by my cloying neediness. She also has a strong personality. And if you think about it, for someone who doesn’t understand boundaries, that’s the ideal kind of relationship. Where someone is actively telling you, “No, I’m not doing something.” Those kinds of boundaries were really important to me.
One day, she sat me down and said, “I’m gonna explain to you why you’re so lonely and people don’t want to be your friend. You’re needy. You’re sad all the time. You don’t let people leave when they want to.”
She just read me the riot act. And frankly, it changed my life. I felt like she gave me the road map to the beginning of my healing process, honestly. At that time, I didn’t have a lot of tools. I just knew I was doing something wrong.
So, I faked being normal. I faked having boundaries. I faked doing all the stuff that she talked about. It didn’t feel authentic at that time yet. It was very methodical, because I just hadn’t done any of the healing that’s required for that kind of behavior shift to be authentic.
For a long time, I would think, “Okay, what do normal people do? Alright, I’m gonna do that.” That included a lot of that external checking and looking for affirmation from others. That became the basis of how I did friendships. On the one hand, I was able to have more friends because I was not cloyingly needy. On the other hand, those friendships were kind of shallow, because I was faking a lot of what I thought of as normal behavior. I just didn’t have tools to deal when conflict arose; the only tool I had was to leave. That’s still my reflexive tool whenever something is hurtful or I don’t know how to deal with something. I’ll often lean on that, even just in ideation. I’ve learned how to stop acting on that, but in the ideation, I go there first.
But when I was younger the idea that I could be angry or upset and then navigate it without being a horrible person was just unthinkable. I was afraid they would see who I really was, and then they’d think I was a monster, and then leave me ultimately. So, I would leave first whenever there was conflict. At that time, the ideal scenario was never having conflict, literally never. That’s not a realistic basis for any relationship.
I started out being cloyingly needy, not having boundaries and having trouble regulating my anger, which are things I grew up with . Then, I over-corrected and ended up thinking zero conflict is the ideal, it’s normal and what I need to strive for.
The shame part comes from knowing that there’ve been friendships I felt at the time that I needed to end that I know now I didn’t have the tools to deal with. They didn’t have to end, but they were friendships I didn’t know how to navigate. That’s an ongoing source of frustration, and in retrospect, I wonder, if we could have worked through it.
Project BFF: How have your friendships changed?
Virgie: They’ve changed as I’ve undertaken this extraordinary journey of healing myself. My friendships have deepened, and I’m able to hold complexity in a way that I was not able to before. Earlier on, in the very beginning of my healing process, I needed to have rules in order to be able to have boundaries. I didn’t understand boundaries as something that could be intrinsic or inside of me. I understood boundaries as rules to help keep me safe. Rules like: “Okay, I’ll meet somebody and the first six months are the probationary period, and they can make three mistakes, things that I consider mistakes, like being very late or cancelling chronically. And then if they hit a third mistake before the six-month period, then they’re automatically terminated.” And I had rules for months six through 12, for instance.
It was very formulaic. And I found that this was kind of brutal, but ultimately, did end up creating friendships that were qualitatively way better than when I had no rules. Now the balancing act is: “What does work from that period where I wasn’t really in a great place? And what can I let go of?” Because ultimately, this highly regimented, highly controlled reality, is very bad for humans, and it ultimately will lead to isolation. If every single person is subject to the same rule, you will end up utterly alone, right?
It’s been interesting and really beautiful watching the boundaries go from rules outside of me that others are subject to, to things that feel like they’re inside of me. That I could judge or trust myself around, like when I want to lean into conflict or lean into meaningful feedback, or whatever, instead of just letting things go and leaving friendships chronically.
Project BFF: What advice would you give your 12-year old self about making friends throughout your life?
Virgie: Actually, I think there were things in childhood I wish my younger self could tell me now. Because there was spontaneity and curiosity and desire, really the desire for knowing another person, being close to another person, that I feel like I feel quite distant from in adulthood. Certainly, when I think about new friendships, there absolutely is a curiosity and a desire to understand and know this person. But there’s definitely this very large layer of guardedness.
A lot of it comes from the fear of being seen that I didn’t have in my childhood, because I didn’t have any understanding of my personality as something that maybe had flaws. In adulthood, the guardedness, it’s just as much about the fear of being hurt as the fear of hurting others. There’s a part of it where I want to protect people from these less ideal parts of myself. There was just none of that self-consciousness in childhood, and I really miss that. That’s what I want – the secret of that lack of self-consciousness, and that trust that other people can see you in your complexity and still love you.
Note: Conversation was lightly edited for clarity.
Virgie Tovar is an author, activist and one of the nation’s leading experts and lecturers on weight-based discrimination and body image. She is the founder of Babecamp, a 4-week online course designed to help people who are ready to break up with diet culture. She started the hashtag campaign #LoseHateNotWeight and in 2018 gave a TedX talk on the origins of the campaign. She is editor of the anthology Hot & Heavy: Fierce Fat Girls on Life, Love and Fashion, and author of You Have the Right to Remain Fat.
Virgie’s new book, The Self-Love Revolution: Radical Body Positivity for Girls of Color (now available for pre-order!) comes out May 2020.
Her new podcast, Rebel Eaters Club, is an original production of Transmitter Media and comes out February 24, 2020 on all major pod platforms.