I work in an office filled mostly with Millennial women, many of whom thankfully believe in the core mantras of body positivity. Lots of them actually actively work towards making sure all the content they produce is as anti body shaming as possible, because they understand that this shit is important. But no matter how much we all profess our love for pizza and Chipotle, and no matter how upfront many of us are about what a pain in the ass working out can be, fat shaming at work still sneaks into our lives.
In our case, it's usually a matter of people shaming themselves, or making generalizations that are inherently fat shaming without seemingly realizing it. But if that stuff can seep into our office environment despite how many of us are constantly thinking about feminism and body positivism, I cannot even begin to wonder what a more standard work environment might be like.
Confronting fat shaming at work feels especially difficult to me. You're in a professional setting, where your superiors might easily catch word of anything confrontational you say. You also have to see these people five days a week, so chances are you don't want to burn your bridges by possibly starting an argument, only to have to avoid them every time you meet near the water cooler. But maybe the reason it's important to know how to deal with fat shaming at work is precisely because you have to see these people five days a week — and you very likely want to feel like you're spending the majority of your existence in an accepting, inclusive environment. Here are some suggestions for combatting fat shaming at the office or from your coworkers.
1. Don't Be Afraid To Eat In Front Of People
Sometimes I think that food shaming is worse than fat shaming, perhaps because food is deemed the principal culprit of fatness and poor health. It's likely why women always order salads in movies, and so many of us toy between ordering dessert or not when out with friends. We've created a dynamic in which eating a plate of greens leads to both our self respect, and the respect of others, while eating a burger or drinking a milkshake is evidence that we somehow don't have our shit together.
I'm a firm believer in listening to our bodies, though. There might be days when kale smoothies are all we can think about. There might be some when we just can't go on without a burrito bowl. Both cravings should be allowed to play themselves out.
One way to do this is just to eat. Don't be afraid of letting your coworkers see you eating pizza, regardless of your size. Who knows? The more women see other women eating without fear or apology, the less inclined they might be to think doing so is odd, peculiar, unhealthy, or worthy of shame.
2. Shut Down Language About "Cheating"
The morality people assign to food choices pains me to no end. Here's the truth: Whether you eat a brownie or a vegetable platter, your "goodness" or "badness" as a human aren't going to change. Assholes will still be assholes. Nice people will still be nice. And the world will remain very much in tact.
But no one should beat themselves up for choosing the brownie, nor should they beat anyone else up for doing so. When we say that eating something we think of as unhealthy or somehow less moral than a salad is "cheating" (a word that connotes only negativity), we imply that those who choose the brownie are doing life wrong.
If you hear your coworkers talking about "cheating," try to tell them that there's no such thing. Try to tell them that listening to their bodies and what those bodies want is important. And if they make a joke about you being a nutritional "cheater," perhaps just tell them that you don't believe in that mentality; that shaming people for their meal choices — something that affects no one but that person — is no one else's place. Perhaps they'd rather talk about the future of America should it land in the hands of Donald Trump. Seems like a more pressing issue.
3. Remind Your Coworkers That They Have Nothing To Be Ashamed About
If you hear a coworker chastising themselves for being fat, try not to respond in a way that only further stigmatizes fatness. If they generally are plus size, avoid go-to comments like, "You're not fat, you're beautiful," which only imply that the two cannot coexist. I suggest saying something like, "So what?" should you feel comfortable doing so. Perhaps tell them about how activists and rule-breakers have reclaimed the word "fat" and work hard to prove that larger bodies possess just as much worth and beauty as any other bodies. Introduce them to body positive bloggers who they might be able to relate to, aesthetically or otherwise. If they're worried about their health, try to express that it is possible to be healthy at a higher weight.
But if they aren't remotely fat, please help them understand how offensive it is to actual fat people when thin folks use an aspect of their identity for shaming purposes. Explain that a thin person assuming they know what it's like to exist in a fat body in a world that hates fat bodies is highly unfair to a marginalized community. And maybe tell them that even if they were fat, their worth, attractiveness, and abilities would remain in tact; and there would be nothing to feel ashamed or broken for.
4. Accept Compliments
I assume that the reason so many women are reluctant to accept compliments is because so many of us have been conditioned to believe that vanity is inherently negative, as is showing any kind of self-love or self-praise. From my experiences, people who look quite different from the mainstream trope of aspirational beauty are even more reluctant to accept kind words, especially about their appearances.
I actively try not to respond to compliments about my outfits or the way I look with, "No, I actually look like shit. I didn't sleep at all," or, "Oh, it's just a really old outfit," or, "Nah, your outfit is way cuter." There's no need to be self-deprecating all the time. It's not necessarily selfless or humble. It's just another roadblock in the way of discovering your own awesomeness. If your coworkers hear you being kind to yourself, they'll hopefully feel more able to be kind to themselves without feeling weird about it.
5. Be Upfront About Your Body Positive Beliefs
If people know that you identify as body positive or fat positive, they will hopefully be more mindful about what they say in front of you. Chances are fat shaming shit will still slip out because that's the reality of our world, but responding with silence or shutting it down with a simple, "Actually, I think fat rolls are great," should be enough to help the conversation shift.
Oftentimes, people don't actually realize that they're fat shaming until someone points it out. I once participated in a body positive panel with a colleague, which was immediately followed by a lineup of feminist comedians. Even after hearing five women discuss sizeism and body shaming and what it's like to be fat in 2016 for over an hour, the comedians all proceeded to make fat shaming jokes (most of them directed at themselves).
It was tangibly uncomfortable in that room — a lot of emotions clearly manifesting. But after the show, one of the comedians approached me, initially with anger at what she thought was people's irrational distaste for her work and the work of her friends. Thankfully, it led to a really honest conversation. She hadn't ever considered that what she or her fellow comedians were saying could be problematic or offensive to actual fat people. And I'm willing to bet some of your coworkers might be suffering from the same lack of perception.
6. Don't Perpetuate Diet Culture
Diet culture is the thing that creates "body currency," as author and fat activist Jes Baker says. We've built this sort of hierarchy of worth, whereby the bodies that diet most and maintain the lowest weights are deemed somehow superior to the ones that don't diet, and don't have a low weight. Diet culture doesn't account for the economic privileges that take play when we're talking about "eating healthy" or "buying organic." Diet culture doesn't factor in that some folks are fat because of actual illness, like Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome. Nor does it consider that some people genuinely want to be fat, and that's why they are.
We perpetuate diet culture by assigning morality to food, by assigning morality to how frequently we visit the gym, by comparing our bodies to those of celebrities who can afford personal trainers, by saying we wish we looked like that conventionally attractive supermodel. And every time we do, we imply to those around us that it's OK to feel shitty if they are fat, or haven't worked out in a while, or don't look like Chrissy Teigen, or want to eat all the cupcakes. It's unnecessary, and it's a subtle form of fat shaming that doesn't need to affect your work environment.
7. Talk About Fitness Without Mentioning Weight Loss Goals
I feel like when you're surrounded by women, it's almost inevitable that someone will mention their weight loss goals, talk about how many hours they need to spend at the gym because they're just "so fat" after spending too much money at Chipotle over the weekend, or respond to a plus size coworker who says they're going to gym with a kind of, "Oh, are you losing weight?" remark. Everyone's entitled to their aesthetic and personal goals, of course. But I find it really frightening and more than a little sad that we so often strip all of the fun out of working out.
Perhaps the best course of action here is simply to say that exercise is allowed to be an enjoyable experience; that it doesn't have to be about the number on the scale. If ever someone seems to think I'm going to the gym because I want to "change" my body, I try to say something like, "I just love how much that elliptical machine helps my anxiety," or, "Yeah, I sleep a lot better when I work out."
8. Don't Stand For Criticism Rooted In Fatness
Whenever someone has qualms with a fat person, it's very likely that they'll lump that person's weight into any criticism about them. It happens to Governor Chris Christie all the time. But while I detest his stances on pretty much everything, I don't correlate his weight to the fact that his logic is questionable.
Chances are you'll hear people say things like, "That fat bitch," or, "That fat asshole," or, "She's such a fat slob," in a way that just doesn't happen nearly as often with any adjectives rooted in thinness. And I honestly think that this is just the kind of thing that further depicts fatness as being bad, ugly, corrupt, greedy, and all-around terrible. If ever a coworker does this, I don't think there's any harm in asking, "But what does their weight have to do with the kind of person they are?" Chances are, the answer is "nothing."
9. Use The Word "Fat" Positively
Even though I work in a pretty body positive environment, I know that a lot of my coworkers are still afraid of the word "fat." It makes them uncomfortable, because they know it's a word a lot of people will still take offense at. But how can we stop it from being a petty insult if we don't reclaim it? I try to encourage everyone to use the word in positive ways; to use it as they would any other adjective, because that's all it has to be.
In my own work, I use the word constantly. I love fat! I am fat! I have fat! My fat is glorious! My fat rolls were totes out in that bikini! I'm not ashamed to be fat. It's my reality, and it's one I find a lot of empowerment in. The same is true of a lot of activists and plus size people who revel in the term. Of course, it's important to exercise caution in calling people "fat" unless you're sure they aren't harboring some insecurities about it. But I think utilizing the word positively, whenever possible, is not only a way to stop fat shaming at work, but to change the way people think of the word in their day to days.
Fat shaming at work can be tricky to navigate when you're not sure how your coworkers might react. I consider myself pretty lucky insofar as my colleagues know my stance on being fat, and respect it. But if you're in a less accepting environment, I think opening up the conversation is always a great starting point. You don't even have to be confrontational. You can just be honest. There's a high probability that your coworkers don't realize when they're being insulting. So if ever you feel able to, a lot of good might come from taking the opportunity to teach them a thing or two.
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