Guide to Surviving Diet Culture in the Office

I’ve been working from home since January. And it has been absolute bliss. I wake up at 8:30 a.m., brew myself some coffee, toast a bagel, and sit down to start my day in yoga pants. Throughout the day, I can take short breaks to walk my dog, pet my cat, wash the dishes. I have even baked cookies while working. I can do laundry while I work. It’s incredible. Here is a picture of me, in my home office, in my comfy Princess Leia shirt, loving that WFH life.

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I savor working from home so much because I have spent most of my career working in offices. Because I worked in the nonprofit sector, these offices have primarily been populated by women.

And I love women. I am a feminist. I support women, I want to see other women succeed, I admire the badass women I’ve met in my career. But, oh my god, an office full of women makes it nearly impossible to escape diet talk. I have worked in offices full of powerful, educated, brilliant women. And they all want to talk about their diets.

Diet culture is all around you. In the break room, at the vending machine, at the water cooler, at the coffee station, at happy hour, at a staff birthday lunch. It can feel overwhelming and oppressive. It can make you second-guess your lunch, or get a salad instead of a sub because you don’t want people to see you wolfing down a five dollar footlong at your desk, or cut off a tiny piece of a donut when someone brings in a box instead of grabbing a whole, intact donut because none of the other women took a whole donut and you don’t want to be the office fatty, even if you are in fact the office fatty. It can even infect your inbox — invitations to go for healthy walks during your lunch breaks, emails from HR about your “wellness program.” It’s basically inescapable.

I developed some solid techniques for navigating diet culture in the office over the years. (Though, full disclosure, there was a point where I was part of the problem back when I was doing Weight Watchers. Hey, we all have a past.) While I’m in a good place now (at home), I know a lot of women struggle with the office in particular when adopting Intuitive Eating (IE) and Health At Every Size (HAES), so here are my tips for staying sane at the office.

1. Don’t bring food to work unless it’s for yourself

This is a rule I’ve followed for years, and I initially adopted it for reasons totally unrelated to HAES or IE. When I was a fledgling young professional, I read the book Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office. And while it’s not a perfect book, one of the tips that stuck with me was about feeding your coworkers. Bringing food in for everyone sets a particular tone — namely, that you’re a mother or wife figure. And I’ve found that to be true. Back when I thought bringing bagels or donuts to the office was just a friendly gesture sure to impress my coworkers, it backfired on me. It made me the sort of employee that people asked to do admin tasks for them, even if they were technically my equals. It meant that people thought I’d clean out the fridge, even if it wasn’t my old lunch getting moldy in there. When people left their coffee mugs in the sink, I was one of the kitchen fairies that was expected to clean them. Printer low on toner? No worries, Linda will take care of it! Need a few reams of printer paper? Ask Linda. Oh, and while you’re down there, Linda, can you grab some other supplies I need? And can you distribute the mail? It seemed like such a small thing, but by feeding my coworkers, I had painted myself into a corner and got roped into serving my colleagues in so many other ways.

I stopped feeding people. I stopped bringing in donuts and bagels and getting cups of coffee for people when I was getting one for myself. I stopped keeping candy and snacks for others to enjoy at my desk. It felt weird at first. It felt rude. But, sure enough, the way people treated me started to shift as well.

And one major unintended benefit? Food became less and less a part of my life at the office. I had fewer conversations about food and diets. I eventually no longer knew who was doing Weight Watchers or keto or Whole30 or who was on an elimination diet. I never cared about that, but at long last I didn’t have to hear about it. Because I wasn’t feeding them and I was not eating with them. I was no longer creating moments where being face-to-face with food moralizing and diet talk and food guilt were highly probable.

It was such a simple change but it was stunningly effective. And if your knee-jerk reaction is that you’d never want to be the sort of employee who has a rule about never bringing in donuts or snacks for the office, ask yourself: Is it your job to feed your coworkers? I presume they’re all grown adults who are fully capable of feeding themselves. Feeding your coworkers is not your responsibilityYou do not have to do it. And when you stop doing it, you’re a step closer to never having to hear about Susan’s diet ever again.

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While not purchasing donuts, you can wear this amazing sweatshirt from Fat Mermaids.

2. Call out fatphobic and body-shaming comments. Every single time.

I’m not going to lie: This one is uncomfortable at first. Sometimes it’s the Queen Bee of the office blathering on about how so-and-so shouldn’t be wearing that dress. Sometimes it’s your boss or HR talking about the “obesity epidemic.” And sometimes you might even overhear some fucked up, fatphobic comments in conversations you aren’t actively involved in. But it’s essential for people to speak up and shut it down in order to change an office culture.

You wouldn’t sit by idly while a colleague was making awful, homophobic remarks, would you? Or nod your head in agreement if your boss was on a racist tirade? Or if you overheard a nasty water cooler conversation about a trans coworker using the bathroom that matches their gender? I sure hope not. Discrimination and hate in the workplace shouldn’t be tolerated. And while weight discrimination in the workplace is still perfectly legal, that does not mean you have to sit down and shut up when you encounter it. You should call it out.

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I am not saying you should get up and shout at someone making snide remarks about someone’s weight. Obviously, that could get you sent to HR. Approach and tone are everything. Here are a few techniques I have used successfully:

  1. Pull the ol’ “this is inappropriate to discuss in the workplace” trick. Stated calmly and in a friendly tone, this shuts most conversations right the fuck down. Sure, you look like a party pooper, but you don’t want to attend a Fatphobic Jerkwad Party anyway, so who cares?
  2. Look the offensive colleague dead in the eyes and ask, “Why would you think it’s okay to say something hurtful and fatphobic like that?” Or, “Why do you think it’s okay to discuss ______’s body?” Direct, to the point, and puts the onus back on the person being a jerk to explain their jerky behavior.
  3. “That’s really mean and hurtful and I’m surprised to hear you say something like that about another person.” Works even if it’s not a surprise at all to learn your colleague is a dick.
  4. “I’m really not interested in discussing other people’s bodies and weight because it’s none of our business and their bodies belong to them.”

You may want to start off with a softer approach at first, and work your way up to being blunt as a spoon. You may need to let idle conversations you overhear slide as you focus on dealing with fatphobia and body-shaming in conversations you’re actually involved in. It’s okay: no one becomes a badass body warrior all at once. And even the smallest interaction can stick in someone’s mind and make them rethink their loose lips about the large hips of a celebrity or coworker.

A real-world example of when I’ve had to employ some of these techniques: I used to work in a vegan workplace, and there was a gang of vegan gym bros running one of our departments. Ultimately, their explicit goal was to get more men to be vegan, and one of the ways they did this was tying it to physical fitness, and in turn, masculinity and virility. (I could write a novel about how much I hate this tactic, which seems to be growing in popularity.) One day, they brought a guy to our office who had written a book about being a vegan athlete. I decided not to go because I’m not an athlete and had other stuff to do and anticipated a lot of fatphobic bullshit. It was decidedly not my thing. And in the break room, on the day of this guy’s talk, a lady I barely knew stopped me while I was getting my coffee and asked me if I was going. “Nope!” I said cheerily. “I’m too busy and it’s not really my thing.” This lady’s eyes got very big with concern and she started to tell me why I should go, all but saying that my fat ass would drop dead if I did not attend this guy’s talk. So I called her on it. “Why are you trying to convince me to go?” She said it would be good for me. “Why?” Because it’s important to learn about veganism and nutrition. “Why do you think I don’t know anything about that?” She started to get the point. I delivered this in a friendly, direct tone that made it clear a) I was not going to stop interrogating her until she stopped interrogating me, b) I thought she was being inappropriate as hell, and c) I really wanted her to think about all the fucked up things she was implying here. Eventually we parted ways. She never pulled that shit with me again. Thank god.

At the end of the day, though, this technique is all about managing what you have to deal with at the office. Body-shamers gonna shame, and they may just find another captive audience who is less likely to clap back, but when you call someone out and put them on the spot, you can be certain of one thing: they are never, ever going to try to talk to you about that shit again.

3. Model a positive, healthy relationship with food

This one is a little more complicated, especially if you’re actively working on your relationship with food and adopting HAES. But it can actually be easier than you think, since you don’t need to be 100% there (who is?!) to model basic HAES and IE principles for others. And you will probably find that changing out how you talk about and behave around food in front of others changes how you feel about it internally as well. “Fake it ’til you make it” is sometimes a solid approach to adopting real transformational change in life.

These are the basic rules I try to apply to myself when dealing with food, eating, and other people:

  • It’s okay to be hungry. You can say when you’re hungry, and you can eat when you’re hungry.
  • It’s okay to not be hungry too. You don’t have to eat just because food is there and everyone else is eating. You can turn down a staff lunch or happy hour because you’re not hungry or don’t want to go. Even if it’s your boss’ birthday, you don’t need to eat cake if you don’t want to eat cake. You are in charge of your own decisions about food.
  • You can eat whatever you’re hungry for, without shame.
  • Do not apologize for:
    • Being hungry
    • Eating
    • Not being hungry
    • Not eating
    • What you are eating
    • When you are eating
    • How you are eating
    • Why you are eating
    • Where you are eating (see: at your desk)
  • Food is neutral; do not refer to certain food as “good” and others as “bad.” A person is not being “good” for eating a salad or being “bad” for eating a cupcake. Or even three cupcakes. Just eat whatever the fuck you want and refrain from food moralizing.
  • Do not comment on what anyone else is eating (unless you’re asking them where they got it so you can get one of your own)
  • Do not engage in conversation about what you’re eating (unless you legitimately want to)
  • Do not engage in weird, disordered behavior around food

I feel like that last one needs some explanation. You may encounter some odd food situations that are not openly fatphobic but are still problematic. For example, one of my favorite bosses I have ever worked for had a stash of “emergency chocolate.” It was a jar of fun-size candy bars in a jar on her desk. Everyone was welcome to the “emergency chocolate,” should they find themselves in urgent need of chocolate for some reason. (Dementor attack? I’m not sure what a chocolate emergency entails, even now.) This was charming and kind, but also, sort of weird, right? The implication was that in a stressful moment, shoveling a Snickers bar into your mouth would help. Which, hey, it might! Food can bring comfort. A sugary candy bar can also provide enough of a boost to power through the post-lunch doldrums. But, to me, the stash of emergency chocolate represented a disordered groupthink about “junk food.” In case of emergency, break open emergency chocolate bar and eat your feelings. As if one should only eat a Snickers if they are experiencing emotional distress. There was all kinds of food weirdness in that emergency chocolate jar, man.

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So my solution was just to refrain from engaging with it. I knew it was there, I knew what its purpose was, I knew it was something my lovely boss wanted to have on her desk and offer to colleagues. I did not judge anyone who went by to procure an emergency fun-size Twix. I just opted out of the whole thing.

And it is simply a fact that women mirror each other when it comes to food. If you’re out with a friend and you order a salad? She’ll probably order a salad too, even if she wants a great big bloody burger with fries. If you want dessert but everyone else is opting out because they’re full, you’ll probably skip dessert, or encourage other women to “be bad” with you. (I’ve done it. We all have.) So even though a lot of these things seem small, they matter. The most stunning thing I’ve noticed in my own life since adopting these rules for myself is how quick people are to mirror it back to me, especially women. Somehow, me having the courage to say, “Dude, I’m so hungry right now,” or grab a full bagel with regular cream cheese if I want one, seems to empower others to do whatever they want and not shy away from things like eating when they are hungry or eating whatever they want. It doesn’t seem like saying you’re hungry when you are hungry should be a radical act, but it is.

4. Never talk about anyone’s bodies in the workplace, including your own.

This is something that should go without saying, but in offices all over the world, people’s bodies are a hot topic. “Have you lost weight?” so often replaces “It’s been awhile since I’ve seen you and you look well!” People talk about other people’s bodies, their own bodies’, celebrity bodies, their family members’ bodies, bodies in general. And nothing positive ever comes from it. Horror stories about people complimenting the weight loss of a coworker who is battling a life-threatening illness are real, and they happen all the time.

So, don’t do it. Don’t engage in talk about bodies with your coworkers. Even if it comes up earnestly, with no ill intent. There are so many other things to talk about! Here is a list of things you could talk about that are not related to anyone else’s weight, appearance or body:

  • Game of Thrones
  • Westworld
  • Movies
  • Your pets
  • Your family, spouse, or friends
  • Sportsball
  • A fun thing you did this weekend
  • A funny cat video you saw online
  • How you don’t like Mondays
  • How you wish it was Friday
  • Yay, it’s Friday!
  • YOUR JOB

The list is endless, really.

And it doesn’t stop with other people’s bodies. Don’t talk about your own, either. Unless you’re telling someone you twisted your ankle, or have a cold, or are calling out sick and there is an actual tangible reason why you’re talking about it. If you want to avoid diet culture in the workplace, you’ll need to avoid engaging in it yourself. Don’t put yourself down, don’t put others down, don’t stand for other people putting themselves down, and don’t stand for people putting others down. You’re there to work, not talk about your own body or anyone else’s.

This is, again, about modeling behavior for others. Compliment people without bringing their weight or bodies into it. Find ways to bond, connect and have conversations with people in the workplace that do not involve food, bodies, or weight loss. Do your job, do it well, and opt out of diet talk at work.

The other thing here is to gently remind people that it’s not appropriate to discuss bodies in the workplace, a concept people are becoming more familiar with because of #MeToo-inspired conversations about sexual harassment in the workplace. Remind people that they don’t know what’s going on with another person when they’re complimenting their weight loss, or telling them that they look like they’ve lost a little weight. Remind people that other people’s bodies are not public property and not appropriate conversation fodder. Redirect them. Change the topic. Call out problematic shit when you see or hear it.

5. Don’t be afraid to guard your lunch break and time off the clock like a lion guarding her cub.

This can also be tricky to pull off as well, with office politics being what they are. But here’s a general rule I follow: I am at work during certain hours. During that time, I have an HR-mandated break, either 30 minutes or an hour. My break and any time where I am not expected to be in the office actively working are my fucking time.

That means I reserve the right to say no to a happy hour. That means I do not have to join coworkers for lunch, unless I want to. That means I do not have to attend an after-work dinner for a visiting remote colleague or someone’s birthday, unless I want to. None of these events are required. 

For me, surviving an office environment rife with diet talk and food weirdness involved saying no to a lot of things. Sometimes I’m happy to go to a restaurant to celebrate a birthday after work, but sometimes, I’d rather stab myself in the eyeball with a fork than sit around a table with a bunch of ladies being weird about food. Attending food-centric work events outside of work hours was my nightmare. So, often, I just didn’t do it. This was for my own survival and sanity.

And, beyond just keeping me away from negative food situations, it was something I felt was important for my work/life balance. The office gets me 40+ hours per week. That’s the majority of my waking hours. (And that doesn’t even include the amount of time I would spend getting ready for work, commuting, and scheduling around work.) They get to be the master of my time for much of the week; during breaks, and after work, I briefly get to be the master before I go to bed. So, I can say no to demands on my time if I want to.

There’s no reason you need to tell your coworkers, “Look, I don’t want to go to your dumb happy hour because y’all are nuts about food and I will literally light myself on fire if I have to hear about keto one more time this week.” You can tell white lies. You have an appointment after work. You already have plans. You’re not feeling well. You’re just really tired. If you have pets, needing to get home to walk the dog or feed the cat are always solid excuses. It’s fine to lie because what you do with your life outside of the office is none of their business. You have the right to say no. 

And to avoid looking like the office grump, you can get involved in non-food ways. If it’s someone’s birthday, or you’re celebrating a promotion, or you’re sending off a colleague who is leaving, take the lead in purchasing a card and getting it signed by your department. If you’re having a lunch to welcome a new employee, just stop by their desk and give them a warm in-person welcome. If it’s a team happy hour and you feel like you should go just for the sake of team spirit, just be a kind, thoughtful, creative and capable employee and member of the team and it probably won’t ever be held against you that you didn’t have beers with them one night.


 

Do you have any tips or techniques from combating fatphobia and diet culture in the workplace? Let me know! I’d love to hear what works for others!

 

 

2 thoughts on “Guide to Surviving Diet Culture in the Office

  1. Love, love, love this article!
    I only wish I had your confidence.
    I’ve jumped off the diet train (finally, after 40 years), yes 40!!!
    Gals at work think I’ve just simply given up on having a thin body. It’s not about that I explain to them. They don’t get it.
    I thank you for this read!!
    Regards, Lorie B.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Lorie! So glad you liked it. And, yeah, it’s so hard to communicate to people in deep with diet culture that, no, you haven’t “given up,” you’ve just decided the whole thing is BULLSHIT and have opted out of an endless treadmill of pain and degradation so you can live your life. Congrats on getting to that point! Especially after 40 years, it’s incredible.

      Liked by 1 person

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