Content note: descriptions of eating distressed behaviour
January can be a difficult time in the workplace for people with ED. It’s a time of year when colleagues are often more than usually preoccupied with weight and exercise. Several of my female colleagues are now on diets and talking about going to the gym, and one has been commenting on my body in a way that I find triggering – my weight fluctuates a bit and they always comment when they think I’ve lost some. Anyway, I thought this would be a good time to write a post about what my workplace experiences have taught me about our culture’s dysfunctional attitude to food and bodies.
Sometimes when you have an ED you can feel that you’re expected to view yourself as a member of this strange minority who have a problem with food, but one useful (if depressing) thing the workplace has revealed to me is that (like many things in life) it’s really more of a spectrum than a divide. A huge number of people – possibly the majority of people – are more-or-less fucked up when it comes to eating and their bodies. Offices, especially those that are largely staffed by women, can be a real crucible for our culture’s neuroses about food and bodies and, as such, they are spaces in which you’ll often see women expressing a lot of stress around food and weight.
For example, in one small office in which I worked, I would say that all but one of the women had issues with food. Four of them seemed to be on perpetual diets, one of them yo-yoing on and off Atkins in a way that alarmed me. Another had very erratic eating habits, often claiming that she had “no time” for meals and, when she did eat, would eat something like a box of chocolates for lunch.
In another office, the situation was truly bizarre. We had a weird ritual space in the middle of the office floor which consisted of a table that was usually loaded up with cakes, sweets and chocolates. Although this food was freely on offer to all, no one was supposed to eat it without expressing guilt about doing so. When women approached this table, they tended to vocally protest that they shouldn’t eat the food, that the food was bad, and that they were bad for wanting to eat it. At the same time, they would often demand that other people eat the food to prevent them from eating it all because, perhaps, women are presumed to be totally out of control when it comes to food. And for anyone who thinks that body image issues are to do with a lack of education, this scenario played out in an office staffed by the most highly educated, senior-level professional women that I’ve worked with so far. One of them used to refer to food as “sins.”
But the most upsetting thing for me was that another young woman there was obviously developing bulimia and found the food culture very difficult. She had a history of being bullied and had lost a lot of weight within a short space of time using meal replacements, but was struggling to keep it off while under a lot of pressure from her colleagues not to regain any weight – they kept going on and on about how “well she’d done” and “how good she looked” now. She had started refusing to come to any office activities where there would be food for fear of bingeing. It’s one of my regrets that I didn’t offer her any support, but I could see that she was in denial about it.
But that was not the worst
Worse was the office in which the woman at the desk next to mine had lost a lot of weight doing Weight Watchers and was desperate to maintain this loss. I will never forget the suffering this woman experienced. She was hungry all the time, but because she was saving up her “points” in the hope of being able to have a decent evening meal, she would only eat dry salad and drink water for lunch. She would go every day to M&S and buy a pot of salad, throw the sachet of dressing in the bin and eat the dry salad. The sound of her crunching on that salad haunts me to this day, but not as much as a story she told me. She had rushed home one evening, made dinner for her family and was so starving by the time she got it to the table that as soon as she sat down, she started shovelling the food in her mouth uncontrollably. Then she suddenly realised that her husband and kids were staring at her silence. She looked at her husband and he made an oinking noise like a pig. She told me this as a “funny story”.
Then another woman started working in this office who’d gone and bought a wedding dress in a size too small and was dieting to get into it. She would sit there glugging down pints and pints of water all day. There I was sitting between the two of them, with my own raging case of bulimia, feeling that I wasn’t as badly off as either of them because at least I knew I had a problem.
It’s interesting that despite all the stress and anxiety around food, actually talking about ED is pretty taboo in the workplace. Obviously this is connected to more general mental health stigma, but even when people are clearly suffering, there is this silence about it, perhaps because to admit that one person is actually ill would reflect on everyone else’s issues. I did tell some colleagues once that I’d had an eating disorder and it was like they didn’t hear me.
On the one hand, I think all the stress is symptomatic of the way women are conditioned to police each others’ bodies, but I think it’s about more than that. I was talking to a friend a while back, who also has a history of ED, who was saying that dieting and talking about food and weight can also be a female-bonding ritual in the workplace and that women who don’t join in with it are kind of excluded from the group. This really clicked with me because I do often feel on the margins at work, and of course I refuse to take part in the diet talk to try and avoid being personally triggered. I once horrified a female colleague by describing my body as “petite”. “I would never call myself petite”, she exclaimed in a disapproving tone of voice and I realised that I was supposed to say something self-depreciating, and that she wanted us to commiserate together. Maybe she thought I was being really vain.
I wonder if the general anxiety that a lot of women express around eating and weight in the workplace has something to do with their awareness that in a sexist, fat-hating world, the way a woman looks really does have an impact on the way she’s treated by her colleagues and possibly on her job prospects too. But I also wonder if the anxieties and stresses of the workplace are displaced onto the body and food, perhaps because women are discouraged from bonding with each other in other ways. Bonding over diets and eating may distract women from bonding together along other lines.
In focussing on my own experiences, I know I’ve left a lot of people out of this post. How does workplace food culture play out differently for gay men? For trans men and trans women? For genderqueer people? And people who are read as a gender in the workplace which isn’t the gender they truly feel themselves to be? Does it play out differently for butch and femme lesbians? To what extent is workplace food culture linked to gender-policing and perhaps even a form of oppressive gendering in its own right?