I work in an office with cubicles so I am surrounded by coworkers for the entirety of my 40 hours a week at work. It’s normal for there to be a certain amount of cubicle talk. People talk about football, their kids, weekend plans, current events. Inane chatter. I couldn’t care less, sometimes I participate in the conversation, sometimes I tune it out. With one exception, I can’t tune out the daily conversations about weight loss. A colleague returned from maternity leave and is doing hot yoga every day for a month to lose the baby weight. Other times they will issue an office challenge to lose weight. Comments about how good people look after they’ve lost a few pounds are constant. Sometimes these comments are directed at me, I say thank you, and inside I seethe.
I’ve had multiple eating disorders in my life. I’ve had times where it was so bad that 95% of my head-space was consumed with how I was going to throw up without anyone noticing, all day, every day. I’ve been to therapy to beat that percentage down to something I can manage, like 10-15% of my head space. It takes everything I’ve got to feel okay in my skin the way that it is. And you know what I don’t need? My workplace to be somewhere where people comment on my body or anybody’s body. I don’t need my workplace to be somewhere where I have to listen to daily weight loss stories as if that was the most important thing any of them are doing with their lives. They are being jerks. My dilemma is how to make them stop without outing my recovery to them or my superiors. I’d say that maybe I just need a new job, but I don’t think that this is an uncommon conversation at work, even though it should be.
First, I’m sorry that you are facing this situation. Of course, the best way to not be a jerk when talking about weight at work is to NOT TALK ABOUT WEIGHT AT WORK WHEN PEOPLE ARE AROUND THAT YOU ARE NOT EXPLICITLY SURE ARE COOL WITH THAT KIND OF TALK. So that should be the entirety of this post. But until we get there, here are some tips for what you can do to deal with other people being (likely unintentional) jerks.
Eating disorders are no joke, and I get the sense that people really don’t think it through when they talk about their weight in front of people they are friendly with. I know in the past I’ve been guilty of going on at length about what I’m eating (or, more accurately, not eating) based on some latest food fad (I tried the Whole30. It was wholly a waste of time). I’m sure I can trace it back to something from my youth, or just simply being a woman existing with a body in the world, as most of us probably can. And while those times talking about my weight (which I’m trying so hard to put in the past) were usually with friends, I’m sure I’ve had that conversation at least one or twice over the years.
I’m lucky in that my work team is small and we’re all, if not friends, then definitely friendly enough that we feel we can be honest with each other. So when this topic — or any one that I don’t feel comfortable discussing — comes up, I feel safe enough to say “I’m trying hard to not focus on [blank] right now. Mind if we talk about something else?”
In my broader company, however, that’s not the case. In fact, each year we have to complete two tasks ostensibly related to our health to keep our co-pays low. One task involves completing a health questionnaire that includes questions about weight, blood pressure, and food and exercise choices. So that’s weird. Then the other involves participating in some activity, whether its logging workouts (or steps) or, in a weird twist, joining Weight Watchers. Which holds meetings somewhere in my office building.
There’s this weird idea out there — even in our offices — that my weight is your business. I think that’s bullshit. Of course, I’ve seen people argue that because companies are providing the insurance, they get to set the parameters. And in my case, they’d argue that I don’t have to complete the tasks; I just end up paying more if I don’t. Fuck that. See, this is why we need to get our workplaces out of our health insurance completely and move to single payer universal health care damn it.
Sorry, got distracted. Let’s get back to your situation, which is how to address the small talk that veers into uncomfortable.
If possible, try to identify a colleague that you feel close to and get him or her to go along with whatever action you decide to take. It’s often easier to go into difficult conversations knowing that someone will definitely be on your side and back you up. But I know not everyone has that work colleague who they can count on for that, so let’s look at some options.
Yes, casual work conversations will continue to take place, and sometimes you won’t care about the topic. My thought is that you can, whenever weight loss topic is going on around you (and you can’t leave the situation), just politely ask folks to move their chat because you’re busy working on something. You don’t have to call out why you want them to move; you’re at work, you have work to do, they are interfering with it.
If they aren’t complete jerks, they should apologize and take their conversation somewhere else. At some point one of them might pick up on the fact that you only ask them to move along when they are talking about weight and diet, but chances are they won’t. This may also have the unintended side effect of folks never gathering to chat near your workspace because, depending on how often weight is the topic of the day, you may end up asking folks to move along a lot.
If you find the conversations happening at a time and place you can’t escape — a company retreat, in the lunchroom while heating up your leftovers — do your best to ignore it and not encourage it. I know that isn’t great, but it’s not like they’re talking about porn (assuming you don’t work for a sex toy company) or making racial slurs. While I definitely choose not to partake, and I think that there can be harmful ways to do it, it’s still okay for your colleagues to talk about weight and its perceived connection to health. The key is that its just not okay to force others to talk about it with them.
When they direct comments at you — “oh, did you lose weight, you look great!” — you don’t have to say thank you, because you don’t see this as something worth complimenting. Instead, try to change the topic. “I don’t discuss my weight” isn’t likely to go over well, but you can divert the compliment into something else, like “I got a great night of sleep last night. Say, did you finish the TPS report?” If they keep pushing, you can say something like “oh, I’m not interested in my weight.” Then give them a stern smile and head back to your desk (or the restroom, which will usually keep people from following you).
When it does happen, I also want to encourage you to do whatever it is that will help you get the interaction out of your head. Maybe keep a small notebook in your bag, and when someone says something related to weight, write out your feelings so you don’t have to keep mulling them around for the rest of the day. I’ve tried that with some other things (mostly work-related) and found it really helped.
I did want to say that I’m concerned about company sponsored weight loss or other diet-related events. I think that, without revealing your recovery status, you can approach HR (or whomever) about creating a distribution list for people who might be interested in that sort of thing. For example you could say:
“Hey, I had an idea I wanted to run past you. What do you think about creating like two or three opt-in distribution lists for things that aren’t work-related but that people might want to know about. Like, you could have a health and fitness one,* one for people who might have things to sell or are looking for things to buy like baby clothes, and maybe one for events that are coming up that people might want to get a group together for, like a baseball game. Then we can keep our in-boxes from being filled with irrelevant items, and only the people who are interested in the topic will get the emails. It can also cut down on the clutter of all those posters and notices up in the break room.”
If that doesn’t work, then another suggestion I have that doesn’t involve you explaining yourself to your colleagues is to set up a filter on your email. Tag the phrases “weight loss” and others that have been common and create a rule that sends those emails straight to junk.
Finally, while again I respect your desire not to reveal your own background, you do have the option of talking to either your boss or someone in HR in general about your concerns about the workplace becoming an unsafe place for people who are recovering from eating disorders. As I said in the beginning, there are a lot of people who just don’t realize that talking about what they might see as a universal struggle could be harmful to someone else.
It sucks that we live in such a fatphobic society, where people internalize this idea that thinner=better, but we do, and some people are still not there yet. I recognizing it is not your job to fix that, but even just casually pointing that reality out to folks during a conversation might get some people thinking. Of course, it might also get them going off on a tangent about how sensitive people are these days, but you know your workplace better than I do.
*Yes, I’m super aware that weight =/= fitness or health, but baby steps here.