It’s time to stop buying into the negative body talk we hear at work

Trigger Warning: This essay discusses eating disorders.

I started hearing the talk in the spring. My coworkers arrived at their desks in gym gear, loudly discussing how many calories they’d just burned in their cardio classes. All day they traded juice recipes, agonized over goal weights, bitched about eating salad, complained about how much they wanted pizza, and stressed how hungry and tired they were. At 5 p.m., they discussed their evening workouts and the calorie content of wine versus straight vodka. It was exhausting and boring and relentless.

I’m all about exercise and healthy eating as tools of empowerment, but most of my coworkers didn’t speak about their workouts and diets as something that made them feel strong and confident. Instead, it was all about trying to make their bodies look a certain way: They wanted the toned-but-not-muscular arms, the tiny waist above the round, defined butt, the six pack. They wanted what they called “the summer body.” And the main instigator of these conversations was a manager who was the office equivalent of a trendsetter.

Pretty soon, discussing your intense diet and exercise program became the way to ingratiate yourself into the office in-crowd and into our workplace culture.

If you weren’t willing—or able—to participate in this cult of the summer body, you were considered an outsider. This was particularly worrisome considering that this was a workplace, and that the person instigating much of the talk was directly in charge of the people she was encouraging to diet.

As someone who has recovered from anorexia, I was frustrated by how quickly restrictive dieting became normalized in my office. Obsessive calorie counting and exercise, coupled with the constant stress of feeling like you have to live up to your boss’s expectations, is an unholy combination of triggers. They could be priming you for an eating disorder—or, at the very least, a miserable summer.

Idealizing this particular body type also emphasized troubling divisions within the company, which was split into office staff and warehouse staff. Our “white-collar” team was entirely white or Asian American, while the people doing manual labor were all Black, Latinx, or Asian. No one on our office team was plus-size. None of us had a disability. Holding up a stereotypical white body type as the ideal seemed to implicitly affirm that our more “prestigious” team was only open to people who looked a certain way—i.e. not people of color. It may not have been intentional, but it was disturbing.

While we’ve become more aware of the impact of social media on our body image, we forget that words spoken out loud can also hurt and confuse. Especially when we hear them every day at work. 

Influencers like Cassey Ho, Essena O’Neill, and Sara Puhto have cautioned their followers about the dangers of trying to live up to the false representations of women’s bodies that they find on Instagram. We know that people online present a cherry-picked and often distorted vision of what they look like, what they eat, how they exercise, and how satisfied they are with their lives. But the IRL version of body shaming, and of dictating what counts as an “acceptable” body, can be harder to identify and resist.

From working in other offices, I know that damaging body talk is not always as extreme as what I’ve experienced. It can look like someone complaining that they ate too much at lunch, someone publicly criticizing part of their body, or someone loudly declaring that they’re cutting out certain foods.

And because this kind of talk plays into the criticism and pressure that every woman faces—because we’ve all looked in the mirror and disliked something we’ve seen—it becomes something that we unite around. Talking about how much we hate our bodies, and identifying “bad” foods and habits, becomes a form of girl talk—a bonding experience.

It can be hard to resist getting dragged into the diet cult, especially if it feels like it could affect your career. But we deserve to feel safe and valued in our workplaces, regardless of how we look or what we eat. If your boss is willing to hold this against you, and control the office dynamic in this way, chances are they have other undesirable traits that are going to come out. If you still want to stay on their good side, you’ll probably have to listen to their diet talk—but for your own sake, don’t engage.

Let colleagues tell you about their smoothie recipe, then say something like, “Thanks, I’ll try it,” before changing the subject. At lunch, when everyone else is grimacing and whining over their salads, don’t join in. If they compliment what you’re eating—which people on restrictive diets love to do—just say, “Yeah, it’s good.” If they criticize what you’re eating, keep your voice neutral and say that you like it. And come to work every day with something interesting and non-diet related to talk about. Aside from being disturbing, diet talk is veeeerrry boring. Present yourself as the fun alternative, and they’ll probably be relieved to chat with you.

Ultimately, you can’t control whether or not your coworkers choose to ditch you for not taking part in their weight loss culture. But as much as that can suck, you’re better off without their toxicity. Friends don’t encourage friends to hate on themselves. And if it gets to be too much at work sometimes, put in your headphones, turn up the music, and think of pizza.

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