on offices and eating at them without losing your mind
triggerwarning: dieting, body shaming, weight loss talk, eating disorders
Eating at an office is never, like, ideal. You know? There’s the smells, for starters, emanating from your coworkers lunchpails; popcorn, fish, robust spices that they find delicious are certainly less so when the entire floor’s HVAC blasts them down the halls, not to mention the endless mound of unwashed, unclaimed Tupperware clogging the sink and the passive aggressive notes left on every frozen dinner. But the worst for me, by far, is the diet talk and body shaming that happens every day at the lunch table.
Hearing people shame their bodies because of food they just consumed, listening to the caloric counts, getting the unsolicited dietetic critique about meals, and watching people be praised for mealtime behavior one might consider disordered, can be extremely (and understandably) triggering for lots of us on the journey to accepting our bodies and recovering from disordered eating. Add a layer of corporate politics (which prevent you from telling people to get fucked, as may be your wont) and it turns the office lunch room into a place some people dread.
It’s important to first understand: Everyone is entitled to choose their food in a way that makes them feel the safest.
That means people are entitled to diet. They are entitled to believe that malnourishment leads to better health. They are entitled to conflate certain body types with health for their own aspirational purposes. They are entitled to value putting certain activities, purchases, vacations, milestones in their life on hold until a certain number is reached on their scale. They aren’t, however, entitled to comment about or muse upon your body, appearance, health, or food choices and they certainly aren’t entitled to bring you into a conversation against your will. Setting up that very clear boundary is essential for making it through the meal, psyche unscathed. As soon as that line is crossed, it’s helpful and important to Shut It Down.
The first way I do this is by remembering this simple phrase:
“That’s not how I think about ____”
It’s not how I think about food. It’s not how I think about my weight. It’s not how I think about that person. It’s not how I think about my body or other people’s bodies. It’s not how I think about exercise. Insert a shrug at the beginning and a polite smile at the end, and, often, you will find the situation diffused or the subject changed. You might find it helpful to think of other non-confrontational responses to common questions or statements you hear.
Next, since you’ve set up your boundaries, it’s important to identify your triggers at the work place. Knowing what your limits really are will help you figure out how to work with them.
What’s a deal breaker for you in the office? Are there certain people you find it hard to eat around or that always make comments? Do you see patterns with certain behavior during specific times of the year or days of the week? Are there situations at home or stressors at work that serve as triggering for you? I know that, for me, the few days before my period I am extra prone to having negative thoughts about my body and it makes me really susceptible to others’ body policing and diet talk. I also know that January is a time to keep my guard up because many people in my office go on New Years Resolution diets. Taking that knowledge, I find it helpful to arrange some back up plans to work around my triggers.
If there’s one thing that is universally true about food it’s that: at some point, you have to eat it. There’s no way around it. Eating regularly is often an important and extremely therapeutic part of self-acceptance and many people find it is critical in recovery from disordered eating. Moreover, avoiding nourishment in the middle of your work day can derail your focus and productivity and, you know, make you feel really shitty. Physically and emotionally. If the lunch room is too much on any given day or you know you can’t avoid your triggers, having a back up plan will help you make sure you are getting the food you need while making sure you stay mentally safe.
Avoiding the common areas isn’t always necessary. Often I find myself adjusting my meal schedule to accommodate for a later lunch, so I know that certain people I find triggering will already have cleared the lunch room. Sometimes having a buddy that’s got your back is all the help you need. Do you have any friends in the office who are like-minded or aware of your recovery? Having someone to sit and talk with, especially when they know and respect your triggers, can help keep you distracted from other lunch time conversations.
If that isn’t an option, think about ways you can avoid that space, including the walk from the fridge to your desk that can make some feel unpleasantly visible. Can you eat at your desk? Packing a lunch that doesn’t require refrigeration (what’s up, PB&J) on days you have already identified as being hard is a great plan. It’s also helpful to keep non-perishable snacks at your desk or in your bag for days when triggers catch you off guard. My desk always has a couple Luna bars and an emergency Diet Coke. A balanced meal they’re not, but they get me through the end of the day.
If you’re lucky enough to be able to leave your office, search in advance what restaurants are near-by and within your budget. If your budget is like mine (read: nonexistent), take a look at near by safe parks or green spaces where you can sit with your sandwich in peace. Another thing that I find helpful is to keep an emergency $10 in my desk specifically for days when I have the luxury of getting away but not the budget to buy a meal. Scheduling off-site meetings right before or after lunch is another strategy I’ve used in the past to make sure I’m taking care of the obligations I have to my job AND to myself.
Remember, while it is up to you to take care of yourself at work, no one ever has the right to be aggressive or insulting. If people are doing things TO YOU that keep you from feeling safe at work, it’s important to report these types of incidents to your supervisor, HR department, or union representative. You may find that you have legal protection from work-place hostility.
I had to put this behind a cut because it’s way long for Tumblr, but I really hope you’ll read it because I think it’s a very important post.
I started discussing this a little bit here, but I wanted to expand on the idea of how shopping on a very tight budget works, because obviously some people have no idea. I will add the caveat that this is how shopping was done in my family, by which I mean shopping with food stamps for a family with no dietary restrictions, with access to a car, and in a rural area of the U.S. Obviously each family’s needs are different and that is why food prescriptivism - which, remember, is a form of body policing - is fucked up.