A few months ago, at my day job, some colleagues and I participated in a return-to-office experiment, one designed to iron out the plan for all employees to go back to our office on a permanent basis. It was a great experiment, mostly because it was thrilling to get out of my basement and interact with some really nice, smart humans.
The experiment was also useful because it allowed me to remember all of the minutiae involved in office life. Carefully applying deodorant in such a way that it won’t get on your shirt? I sure as shit hadn’t bothered with that for the previous 20 months. Holding your farts/burps in until you could be sure no one was around to catch you? Completely forgotten about that one. Perfecting your system for getting coffee, doing your photocopying and taking a bathroom trip all in one go? Still working on that one.
But then there was that whole other side of office life to contemplate—the one where you have to exist at work as a fat person.
I started at this day job in the middle of the pandemic. Other than a patio date with my boss and a co-worker last summer, I had never interacted with any of my colleagues in the office before, or even just met them face to face. So in to the office I went, unsure of what would unfold but feeling ready for it.
When my colleagues and I met each other in person, our brains struggled to make sense of each other. We were all so radiant, so vibrant, so alive. We had limbs! And shoes! We all had necks that turned, showing faces with many dimensions. Everyone was so much more gorgeous in person than I had ever appreciated on a screen. And the energy they gave off—the way they held their bodies, the subtleties of the way they’d stand in my doorway or share a meeting room with me—made their personalities come alive.
Of course, the fact that we were suddenly embodied for each other brought a certain amount of self-consciousness. I had to assume that, when people met me in person, they were taking in the size of my body, taking in glances of my chins and belly and thighs to make it make sense. Everyone was extremely polite—no one exclaimed, “You’re fatter than I thought you’d be!” or “Oh, judging from the fat on your face, your butt is smaller than I expected!” But the politesse itself made me a little nervous. I almost wished there was room for us to be frank with each other. I almost wished I could just “come out” as fat, but in a lovely, light, non-self-deprecating way. (My days of running myself down to make others comfortable are DONE, and died the day I saw Nanette.)
Instead, I made sure to wear clothes that made me feel comfortable and professional. In no way did I want to try to hide anything. One day, I wore tight jeans with a blouse tucked in; another day, a knit sweater dress that showed off every curve. I wanted them to know: I am fat. This is what I look like. I won’t be getting any thinner.
Of course, then there was the whole food thing. Who would turn out to be the office food commenter, I wondered, the one who goes around commenting on other peoples food with things like:
“Would you look at that healthy-looking salad! Soooo healthy!”
“Chocolate this early in the day? Aren’t you being naughty!”
“You’re so lucky you can eat that. If it was me, it would just go straight to my hips!”
Then there’s all the other office fuckery, like
- people feeling guilty that they want to eat lunch at 10:30 (when, in fact, eating when your body tells you you’re hungry is actually perfectly acceptable)
- co-workers projecting their insecurities on to others by commenting on others’ appearances
- people who won’t shut the hell up about their diet or fitness obsession
With so many of us returning to the office now, body anxieties may be at an all-time high. It’s so important to remember the following if you’re going back:
1. Your worth as an employee, colleague and leader has nothing to do with your appearance.
2. They’re not thinking about you and your body half as much as you think they are—they’re too busy worrying about their own.
3. You have a right to be respected in your workplace, and that means working free from comments about your size, weight or food.
If your office has an equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) officer, you can find out if that person has fluency in size discrimination and weight stigma, and if so, you may be able to rely on that person to have your back. I recently spoke with the EDI officer at my workplace and found I was able to provide her with some education on this that she hadn’t been aware of but was really receptive to.
And if you want to be that extra-special colleague who doesn’t trigger your colleagues who have eating disorders, then I have the following suggestions:
1. Avoid making any kind of commentary on peoples’ bodies. You don’t know what others have gone through over the past two years, or if they have gained or lost weight due to illness, loss, grief, medication changes, depression or a host of other factors. When you see them, stick with comments that have nothing to do with their size, shape or weight. This can include things like
I love your smile!
It’s just so good to see you in person.
Wow, I love your earrings.
Your energy is infectious.
It feels great to hear your laugh in the office.
I’m so glad we get to connect in person now.
2. Refrain from talking about your diet, calories or your food restrictions.
3. Do not assume that your colleagues want to lose weight, including your fat colleagues. If you do discover a colleague who is into dieting as much as you are, keep your conversations between the two of you.
4. Avoid all food commentary that is linked to diet culture. Comments like, “want some of this snack? It’s low calorie!” or “Ugh, I can’t order that for lunch today, I was soooo bad last night!” seem innocuous but reveals your values about food that others may not share. Food commentary that is non-triggering can be as simple as “damn, this is delicious” or “what smells so fucking good right now?”
5. Workplace fitness challenges can be highly triggering for people with disordered eating or a history of exercise addiction so DO NOT suggest these as a corporate bonding exercise.
It’s also important to know that we can train our brains to create a level of safety about existing as we are at work. When we do that, we build the boundaries to stand up for ourselves when fatphobic things do happen at work, or just when super fucking boring shit happens like Susan from finance wants to tell you about her latest diet.
The reason why I know this is because I’ve done it. When I went to my office building the very first time, I discovered that the nearest washroom has a full-length mirror positioned right at the sinks. When I saw that, I reflexively internally stiffened. Ten years ago, when I was much, much smaller than I am now, looking in a full-length mirror at work would have been an exercise in pure judgement: allocating a checkmark for parts of me that were acceptable, and demerits for those that weren’t.
But this time, I saw a fat, middle-aged woman looking back at me, one with nice hair, a lovely smile and extremely good fashion sense. I saw someone who’s come so far in teaching herself how to be okay with who she is, and has never stopped being grateful to herself for it. Looking good, I thought, and got back to work.