I recently started my first job and so far everything's been going fine. I have never had an eating disorder, but I have always struggled with my relationship with food. I have only just started to be able to eat without feeling bad about myself. The people in my office are lovely but at lunch times they are always talking about calories and how bad certain foods are, etc. I know they don't mean any harm, but they will talk about other people's lunches and read out the nutrition info on the packets. I feel like everyone is watching me eat and I often try to finish my work early so I can eat without feeling self conscious.
How do I cope with this? I don't want to be unsociable and eat by myself but I also don't want to feel ashamed of my eating. I can feel old thoughts starting again and I don't want to go back there. What advice would you give me?
The first thing I want to say to you is this: you need to prioritise yourself and your own wellbeing here. Your mental health is more important than whether they think you're unsociable. Your mental health is more important than their opinion on what you eat. Your mental health is priority number one, okay?
Unfortunately, living in a world so saturated with diet culture means that most people don't think twice before making comments on other people's food choices or counting their calories out loud. We've been conditioned to see food and body shame as universally acceptable small talk, and we don't realise the damage we're doing every time we reinforce how 'bad' we are for eating a cupcake or 'naughty' someone else's sandwich is.
The truth is that splitting food into those two moral categories of 'good' and 'bad' makes us believe that we are good or bad as people depending on what we eat. Judging other people's meal choices and making them hyper-aware of every morsel that passes their lips fucks up all of our relationships with food. And obsessing over calories 24/7 puts people in danger of developing disordered eating habits and pushes them further and further away from being able to eat intuitively. So as far as harmless small talk goes, we're better off sticking to the weather or how gosh darn crowded the train was this morning.
The way I see it, you have three options on how to deal with the diet talk. First, if you're comfortable enough to share your experience, do that. Maybe by talking to the most vocal calorie counters privately, letting them know that you're trying to move away from obsessing over the numbers and heal your relationship with food, and that you'd really appreciate them being a bit more mindful about how they talk about it when you're around. This does not make you difficult or awkward, it's makes you someone who's brave enough to advocate for themselves and ultimately, the wellbeing of the entire office, since everyone will benefit from less diet culture whether they realise it or not.
Second, get your sass on. Loudly proclaim how boring diet talk is. Challenge yourself to eat unashamedly and if someone comments on it, tell them you have far more important life goals than shrinking your body or counting calories. If someone asks whether you feel 'bad' eating what you're eating, ask them why they equate food with moral value and tell them that food guilt is the most wasteful use of energy in the world. Be unapologetic, lead by example, they'll either be inspired to learn more, or get the hint that you don't want to hear it. Be the body positive icon of your office.
Third, leave. Set your boundaries and respect them. You are allowed to leave conversations and situations that put your mental wellbeing in jeopardy. End of story.
I also want to remind you that you are entitled to exist in a workplace that's conducive to productivity, that doesn't make you feel shamed, and where your mental health needs are taken into account. In fact, I know people who've successfully taken the issue of diet culture and workplace fat phobia to their employers and suggested that it needs to be added into policies that state zero tolerance for prejudice in the workplace. Their office is now a diet culture free zone. I think their experience is a fairly rare one, with a very understanding employer, but it's worth scoping out how responsive yours would be to suggestions on bettering employee wellbeing and safety.
You never ever have to feel ashamed of eating in public. No matter what they say. No matter what size you are. No matter what food you have. Nobody should be made to feel ashamed of listening to their most basic human instincts and feeding themselves. And it's time your workplace got with the programme.
Love & bopo,
P.S. If you like this column and want more advice like this, I wrote a whole book of it! You can find Body Positive Power here.