The Uses of Competition

How useful is competition between friends? Or how to lose weight easily.

Posted May 18, 2014


For several years, I had been running around the reservoir in Central Park each week with a friend. We ran, and then we ate breakfast. We were both writers of around the same age, in our mid sixties, aware that there were not many women of our age running beside us, even at our slow speed. Neither of us was particularly large, though we were not particularly slim either, until recently.

My friend and I often talked about our work, the difficulties of the publishing world, or our families. Marilyn, I will call her here, was a sympathetic, encouraging, and intelligent listener. I looked forward to our early mornings together, the occasion to speak freely and frankly about our lives.

One week, some time ago, my friend telephoned to say she could not run, she was ill. She had been to France and then Morocco, picked up a bug somewhere, perhaps the steak tartare she ate on the airport in Paris, and had been quite sick. When we did start running again, I asked her how she was feeling. “I’m fine now, but I was quite sick,” she said. She added, “The advantage was I lost some weight.” Indeed, she looked thinner. Over breakfast she said she had decided to keep the weight off, to continue to eat less, and to reduce her high cholesterol by eating only fish and vegetables and fruit.

“I just take Lipitor, and eat what I like,” I said grinning and eating my egg and bacon and several pieces of toast with butter.

“I don’t like to take drugs. I’m going to try and do it naturally,” she said in what seemed to me a slightly superior tone.

Each week when we met she told me she had lost more weight. “Another five pounds” she would announce triumphantly. She told me proudly that she had dropped a dress size, that her husband had told her he had not recognized her from afar, that he thought it was some young woman in the crowd.

I began to find my friend’s conversation increasingly annoying. Was she, whom I had always found such a sympathetic listener, a kind and generous sufferer in the difficult world of publishing, becoming rather obsessed with her weight, her diet, her figure? I had not found her in any way a narcissistic person previously. On the contrary, she had joined the Peace Corps as a young woman; had given generously to the political party of her choice, had always been generous with her friends and family. She had often read my work and advised most helpfully. I wondered if I should postpone our next meeting and went home and stepped on the scale.

I had gained a pound or two over the years since menopause and my husband like my running friend had recently lost weight.

When we sat down for breakfast in our kitchen, I noticed that he was eating less than I was, which did not seem quite right. A doctor, I asked him his opinion about the Lipitor. “Certainly, diet and exercise are the best way to control cholesterol. The trick is to step frequently on the scale, and to be the one to get up and do the dishes,” he said, jumping up and doing exactly that.

I decided grimly to do exactly that, too, and went out and bought fish and vegetables for dinner, jumped up before the end of the meal and began washing the dishes vigorously. I cut out bread and starch except for an occasional dish of spaghetti eaten without cheese. For breakfast I ate oatmeal, with a few nuts, for lunch a salad with half a can of tuna and three crackers, followed by a banana. For dinner I grilled fish or chicken and steamed green vegetables followed by fruit and low fat Greek yoghurt. When I felt hungry, sitting at my computer, I would mutter to myself: Hunger is good. Hunger is good. I began to notice that many of my characters ate a lot of rich food.

I gave up the Lipitor, joined an early morning yoga class, ran four times, instead of twice a week, and watched the pounds disappear. It seemed almost miraculous to me. Here was one thing in the chaos of my existence that I could, apparently, control.

“Are you losing weight?” my friend asked me one day, when we had both arrived at the reservoir, looking me up and down. It was summer and I was wearing a tight pink shirt and shorts.

“Yes,” I said and smiled rather superiorly. I had indeed lost ten pounds, dropped a dress size, and had the satisfaction of having to go out and buy some new clothes.

“How much have you lost?” she asked.

“About ten pounds,” I said proudly.

“I’ve lost fifteen,” she told me and smiled.

Today, some years later, having had some back problems—could it have been all the yoga, the running ?-- I no longer run but walk around the reservoir with my friend. We no longer eat breakfast together, and I am taking Lipitor again, prescribed by my doctor. Still, we have remained firm friends over all these years, and neither of us has put on much weight. It seems ultimately that a little competition and above all our friendship has been beneficial to both.