On an average day at work (in any of the jobs I’ve worked at), it wouldn’t be uncommon for someone:
- to comment on how (un)healthy another’s lunch is – “You’re being good with a salad!”; “Hot chips are my weakness”
- to discuss their current diet plans – 5:2, keto, calorie counting?
- to reflect on how gluttonous their evening/weekend was – “I had so much popcorn at the cinema – definitely had to go to the gym on Sunday!”
- to give out looks-based compliments to their colleagues – “Oooh, you look like you’ve lost weight!”
Often, these aren’t just factual conversations based on ingredients, but value judgements on food – and their eaters.
Just as often, I’m participating in these conversations.
It took a recent chat with someone whose work in the mental health sector I admire, for me to realise how pervasive and pernicious these every-day workplace conversations are.
I am one of the four per cent of Australians who experiences an eating disorder. While, I am moving on with the next step in my recovery now, the impacts of 15 years of disordered eating are hard to overlook.
At work, people, with often little else in common, are thrown together and expected to interact for up eight hours a day. It’s not surprising that we often turn to universal experiences, like food, to bond with one another. At this time of year especially, conversations about ‘treat’ foods are rife – easter eggs and hot cross buns are never too far away.
Having an eating disorder is hard to describe. For me it feels like having two voices in my head – one that runs a constant loop of “FOOOOOOOD! EAT ME! YOU NEED FOOOOOOOOD!” and another voice that is telling it to shut the hell up.
I think that like most people, work is something that can make me tired and stressed. When I’m tired or stressed, that first voice gets a bit louder and the second voice doesn’t always have the strength to win the argument. It is hard enough having that as an inner dialogue all. the. time. but it is compounded when those around you are often engaging in conversations that run hot with food- and body-shame.
As much as I have worked on it with my psychologist, I feel so much guilt about the obese body I have developed as a result of my eating disorder. The recovery work I have done has taught me all the things I love about my body whatever the size. But I find it’s never easy to be a fat person with an eating disorder around other people. It impacts me in all kinds of social situations, but there’s only one that I really have to embrace on a daily basis – being at work.
I guess my message is that, when we talk – especially at work – about our eating habits and goals, remember that those around you might have their own challenging relationship with food. This isn’t to say we can’t ever talk about food and exercise – lord knows, I still need restaurant recommendations and I want to hear all about that new goal you smashed at the gym – but try and frame it in a positive way. I’ll be giving it my best shot too! (I plan on writing something in the next wee while about my reflections on losing weight rapidly and how that really messes with how you talk about yourself).
I want to end on a happy note that shows just what I’m talking about. On Thursday, a lovely colleague of mine (who happens to be a qualified personal trainer) shared an email with my team reminding us that holidays are a time to share love – and food – with the people close to us. Treats are OK. Exercise is about loving your body, not exorcising shame.