A reader writes:
I’m the office manager at a small company. This morning, while letting important clients into the conference room for a meeting, one of them commented loudly and jovially on how much weight I’ve lost. He gave me a good solid look up and down and proclaimed how great I look. Then called over his colleague, also a client, to say “Look how much weight she’s lost! Doesn’t she look great?” To which client #2 agreed and asked me how I’d done it. I smiled, said “thank you” and something kind of non-committal like “oh, a little of this, a little of that,” then quickly asked if I could get anyone anything to drink. Our office is an open format with no real walls, so all of my coworkers and my boss heard the exchange.
It is true that I have lost a significant amount of weight in the last year, about 50 pounds. It is 100% related to a difficult healing process I’ve been engaged in around a history of sexual abuse. The weight loss is a good thing, I’m happy with it, and more importantly I am feeling much better all around than I was about a year ago. However, I have zero desire to have my weight commented on publicly and loudly in the office. It is embarrassing and triggering and it feels unsafe. I am frustrated with myself that even when I have responses to such situations prepared, I am never able to deliver them in the moment. Instead, I always say some kind of thank-you, the person thinks they paid me a compliment, and I walk away feeling distressed and powerless about the whole situation. Especially when the person is an important client.
I’ve read a post you wrote about being sensitive to the fact that not everyone in the office wants to have their weight loss commented on. I’m wondering if you have any suggestions for how to professionally and effectively shut down those sorts of comments when they are directed at you by people in positions of power without alienating or offending the commenter.
Ugh, I’m sorry.
I wish I did have suggestions about how to make it clear these types of comments are unwelcome, but when they’re coming from clients, I think that unfortunately your best bet is to simply say thank-you and quickly change the subject.
If these comments were coming from your coworkers and it happened more than once or twice, you could certainly say, “I appreciate your good wishes, but I’m actually uncomfortable talking about my weight,” and then repeat as necessary.
But with clients — well, it’s different. With clients, you generally want to accommodate them to a reasonable extent and avoid making them uncomfortable … with some obvious exceptions, of course, like if they were sexually harassing you. But with something like comments on weight loss, where in general society considers it an appropriate topic for conversation and so they’re not outside the norm of what’s typically considered okay, I think you probably have to let it go.
That said, if they continue to press the issue after you’ve tried to change the subject — for instance, asking you how you did it — it’s perfectly fine to nicely say, “Oh, weight loss is so boring, tell me how you’re doing.” (You wouldn’t want to tell them that their weight loss was boring if that’s what they were talking about, of course — but when it’s yours, it’s fine to shift the topic back to them.)
It does suck that society considers it acceptable to comment on other people’s bodies in this way without their permission. But since that is the norm, and since these are clients, I’d go with simply being polite and changing the subject as quickly as possible.