I work in an all-women office, all of whom are OBSESSED with weight loss. It’s so bad, that when they buy cake to celebrate employee birthdays, they literally just throw it away because no one eats it. Everyone comments on how many weight watchers points or carbs are in ANYTHING anyone eats. How do I help myself cope with 8 hours of this fuckery every day?
Dear friend with cake-murdering co-workers,
Let me begin by telling you when I told my friend Michael about today’s column, he advised that you send pieces of b-day cake attached to a memo – written from the cake – to each of your co-workers.
I have a confession to make: I’ve been asked essentially some variation of this exact question about 1000 times, and have been avoiding writing a #DearVirgie about it because work politics are really coooomplicated.
Welcome to negotiating sexism – and not the boss-is-grabbing-asses kind. No, incessant diet talk at work is a different kind of sexism – internalized sexism, which is harder to pinpoint because it’s so embedded in behavior and is largely considered innocuous.
I think of workplace diet talk the way I think of parents with small children. I can hear them screaming, but I can tell from the look on your face that you can’t.
Many (most?) women have learned that diet talk is a “safe” conversation zone in which to convey desires for friendship while still policing each other on behalf of patriarchy. Scholar Sander Gilman says: “Dieting is a process by which the individual claims control over her body and thus shows her ability to understand her role.”
Internalized sexism has another layer that when something like diet talk bothers us, we suffer in silence because we’re so used to the expectations and just take it like a “nice girl.”
Well, I’d like to give you permission to be whoever you want to be in the office.
Since it sounds like you want to resolve this internally right now (rather than stage an intervention), I am going to offer advice with that in mind:
1. Remember: they’re not doing it TO you
Right now, you’re in a feedback loop. You’ve become accustomed to their incessant diet talk, so you anticipate feelings of anger and possibly assign ill-will to their behavior. When we get into a feedback loop, we begin to (inadvertently) become attached to the feeling of disappointment. Maybe your co-workers will never change, but for right now, the only person who matters is you. Don’t spend a bunch of time imagining how awful they are. They are not doing this TO you. They are just doing it.
2. Redirect anger into something that nourishes (or entertains) you
One of my favorite tools for dealing with people’s weird shit is imagining that I’m an anthropologist. Then I write essays about my observations or talk about it with friends. Sometimes when people say weird fatphobic stuff I think to myself “This is what sexism in 2015 looks like; in 1962, this person might be telling me that my uterus makes it difficult to have thinky thoughts. How would I react to a statement like that right now?” Answer: mockery. This thought exercise makes it easier for me to create some distance between my visceral reactions and the reality that this person’s unfortunate outlook is actually hi-LAR-ious.
3. Don’t give away your power
Women are taught to internalize the belief that we have no control over situations that make us unhappy or uncomfortable. But dammit, you’re not a bystander in your own life. Imagine for a second that the diet talk doesn’t have to ruin your day. Your co-workers are just people whose opinions don’t particularly matter to you. Diet talk doesn’t have to break you. It won’t break you because you are strong, smart, resilient and can stand up for yourself when you need to. They will survive should that day come, and so will you. Remember that.
4. Make the anger work for you
What can you learn about yourself from your feelings? Obviously fatphobia can be hurtful, but when your co-workers engage in diet talk, what is the narrative in your head? Write it out and examine the presumptions and fears you’re dealing with. Does their diet talk piss you off because you feel they are hindering your ability to heal? If yes, remind yourself that you are in control of the relationship you have with your body. Does their diet talk remind you just how little things have changed since 1950? If yes, remind yourself that it’s too bad that these ladies haven’t had the access to feminism you’ve had– but remember, you can’t save people from themselves.
5. Have a plan ready for when the diet talk starts
-if you’re not already scrambling to figure out how to get out of awkward situations that leaves a lot more room to take care of yourself. Each time your co-workers see that you’re not playing along, they will learn that you aren’t a good source of validation for their fat fears.
You can excuse yourself once conversations begin to go down the Rue de Fat Shame. Or you can have something you say to co-workers when the diet talk starts, like “I don’t like talking about diets.” If pressed to explain you can say something like “I think dieting leads to disordered thinking and eating, and I feel it’s harmed me and a lot of people.” If it were me I’d probably say, “Can’t spell diet without spelling die, girl!”
6. Develop tools for divestment
It sounds like maybe these co-workers aren’t your new BFFs, and it’s OK to convey to them with your behavior that you’re not invested in chatting. When I worked in an office, I had a co-worker who didn’t like office talk. She ended up talking with our boss about how she gets easily distracted and works better when she’s listening to music. They agreed that this was fine, and so she had headphones on all day at work.
7. Come up with some rituals for decompression throughout and after your day
Try breaking up your day with music, breathing, meditation, or some kind of grounding exercise. Have you heard of mindful meditation apps? I have an anger/anxiety abatement station on my Pandora feed – it’s Brazilian lounge music. Like, I just can’t feel angry when I’m listening to The Girl from Ipanema.
Dear Virgie is a weekly advice column by Virgie Tovar, MA, author, activist and one of the nation’s leading experts and lecturers on fat discrimination and body image. She is the editor of Hot & Heavy: Fierce Fat Girls on Life, Love and Fashion (Seal Press, November 2012), the mastermind behind #LoseHateNotWeight and the creator of BABECAMP. She holds a Master’s degree in Human Sexuality with a focus on the intersections of body size, race and gender. Virgie has been featured by the New York Times, MTV, Al Jazeera, the San Francisco Chronicle, NPR, Huffington Post, Cosmopolitan Magazine Online, and Bust Magazine. Find her at www.virgietovar.com.