being overweight in an office that’s obsessed with weight

A reader writes:

Recently, one of my co-workers quit after only a few months of employment.  Privately, she told me that a great deal of the reason that she left was that she felt ostracized because of her weight.  (She’s fat.  So am I.)  She felt like our boss treated her differently than everyone else because of her appearance, including double standards such as allowing slender co-workers to wear sleeveless tops, but reprimanding the overweight woman for doing so.  (Personally, I don’t think anyone should be wearing a sleeveless top in a professional environment, but I can see why the double standard was hurtful to her.)

Other things have happened that I haven’t been privy to, such as this co-worker being present when our boss, an exercise and diet fanatic, commented on someone she had met recently that “I’d kill myself if I got that fat!”  Personally, I don’t think the boss means anything by it, and I really don’t think it’s pointed, so I’ve never taken it personally.  None of this was a particularly big deal to me, until my co-worker left.  I was saddened by that, because I felt she was an asset to our company, and I liked her on a personal level.  Since she left, I’ve noticed a ramping up in the office in general of long, loud diet conversations, and a general culture of striving to be thin.  It’s gotten overt enough that one of my co-workers feels compelled to patronizingly congratulate me if she sees me drinking a beverage with no calories.

It’s starting to feel a little uncomfortable to me here, and I’m wondering if I’m being overly sensitive.  Should I just suck it up and not worry about it if our bullpen-style office is filled half the day with loud conversations about dieting and how many cucumber slices you can eat to keep you full between meals?  Do I need to just grow a thicker skin?  Regard it as negative inspiration to lose weight?  I’m not really sure what an objective view of this situation would look like.  I like my job, and my being fat doesn’t impact my ability to be brilliant at it.  I know my boss adores me.  Is that enough?

Well, I do think that in a national culture that’s obsessed with this topic, you can’t expect to never hear it come up at work. But it sounds like your office has gone well beyond the occasional diet-related remark and moved into a level of focus on this that’s inappropriate. You’re there to work; you didn’t sign up for a constant barrage of messages about weight — just like you didn’t sign up for a barrage of messages about religion or politics or dating advice.

A small amount of all of that is often unavoidable, because we work with other humans, and they are often annoying. But this has gone beyond that into something it’s reasonable to speak up about.

So, a few things:

* You have a good relationship with your boss. Can you privately point out to her that the office as a whole has become increasingly preoccupied with discussions about weight, and it’s not the most welcoming environment for someone with a different perspective? (I’m sure you’re not the only one who feels this way, by the way.) Say that you’d like to be able to focus on your work when you’re at work, and the discussions of weight have become so frequent that it’s starting to make you uncomfortable.

If she’s a reasonable and empathetic person, she’ll immediately get what you’re saying and will tone down the comments and find a way to redirect your coworkers away from such an obsessive focus on the topic (and back to, you know, their work). Or, if she’s not an empathetic person, she … won’t. And then you’d have to decide how much this bothers you.

* If you have a good relationship with others at work, you could privately say something similar to them. If you can get a couple of people to be more sensitive to this, and more aware of how often the topic is coming up, they can likely play a role in stamping out, or at least redirecting, these conversations.

* And last, that coworker who congratulated you on drinking a calorie-free beverage? The proper response to that is, “Wow.” And then walk away. Because that person has lost sight of any sense of what’s appropriate to say to others, and there’s no reason you have to play along.

What do others think?

{ 59 comments… read them below }

    1. Ask a Manager*

      The problem I see with doing that is that it undermines the argument that this isn’t a dialogue you want to have in the workplace. It’s hard to tell them to stop when you’re engaging with them on the topic.

    2. Richard*

      Oh dear god, not Kate Harding…

      I am all for letting people live their lives in whatever means they want, as long as they’re not stepping on the toes of others, but the ‘Fat Acceptance’ movement I’ve seen has all kinds of levels of crazy, in the way that it reminds me of religious extremism; a lot of the ideas are right (that people should not be persecuted like in the case of the OP because of their weight), except that a lot of the more vocal members seem to be incredibly bitter.

      And I say this as someone who has weight issues. I don’t kid myself into thinking that it’s particularly healthy, and think that promotion of an unhealthy lifestyle is dangerous, whether it’s being thin to the point of anorexia, being obese, smoking (I also say this as a smoker), drugs (so long as this doesn’t badly affect the lives of those around them, I personally let people make their own choices here), or anything else that can negatively affect people’s health; don’t go out of your way to make others feel bad if it’s their choice, but at the same time, going out of your way to promote unhealthy lifestyles is just bizarre.

      Similarly, promoting a healthy lifestyle is good, but not when it comes to the level of offending the people around you. The OP is not in the wrong here; she has every right to live her life how she wishes, and the people in her office need to mind their own damned business.

      Anyhow, rant over. Back to our regularly scheduled programming!

  1. Dawn*

    If the boss is comfortable saying out loud that she’d kill herself if she got “that fat,” I highly doubt this woman has any empathy. Just my opinion.

    I agree that OP should talk to other coworkers to find out what they are thinking. It’s easy for the boss to ignore one person, but not so easy when there are several people expressing the same concern.

    1. Ask a Manager*

      Well, empathy is on a scale, right? It’s not yes/no. So while a very empathetic person wouldn’t need to be told this and would intuitively get it on their own, there are other people who are clueless until someone points it out — at which point they’re able to be more sensitive. A lot of people fall into that category, actually!

  2. Anonn*

    “It’s gotten overt enough that one of my co-workers feels compelled to patronizingly congratulate me if she sees me drinking a beverage with no calories.”

    Seriously? I would so tell them to butt out and that its none of their business.

  3. a. brown*

    If they are making direct comments about your choices, I’d tell them that it’s none of their business and rude to make assumptions. Directly. They aren’t going to get subtlety.

    Just as religious and sexual discussions aren’t appropriate for work (and you’d be just fine reminding people) this isn’t either. As hard as it is, speak up and let them know that constant dieting talk is distracting and unwelcome. It’s not good for anyone, regardless of their body size.

    @Grrrrr Exactly.

  4. Joey*

    Deja vu. Is this the food police post?
    My 2 cents. Is the stress really due worse treatment or just the fact that a fellow fat person left leaving the op to feel abandoned? So the few examples she mentions sound inappropriate, but it seems like the op is also feeling stress by merely overhearing people discuss their own obsessions about weight. As long the rude remarks aren’t pervasive or targeted at the op who cares what the co workers obsess over. I’m not convinced this is anything more than a few inappropriate remarks made to sound worse by the ops hypersensitivity.

    1. Slaten*

      More likely she had ignored or unconsciously didn’t hear what they were saying prior to her previous co-worker pointing it out.

      I hate to say it but there’s no hope for this group. It’s an ingrained culture that the boss reinforces. OP will either need to try and ignore it again or find a different job.

    2. a. brown*

      I could see the OP being sensitive to this activity (as human being have emotions) but “hypersensitive”? But again, that is usually what women are called when they have a problem.

      I am a thin woman, but I still don’t like constant conversation about weight and dieting. Or for that matter, people to comment on my body even in a positive way. BECAUSE IT’S MY BODY. And it’s especially unnecessary and unwanted to talk about that stuff at work. Just like sexual harassment, it doesn’t have to be directed at you to count. And if it’s stressing you out, then you’re entitled to be bothered. And do something about it!

      1. Joey*

        You’re comparing sexual harrassment to discussions about dieting? Really? They’re apples and oranges. Or, are you suggesing fat (and no I’m not talking about the medically obese) should be a legally protected category and that discussions about dieting can lead to fat discrimination?

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          I didn’t read that as her saying it’s the same thing as sexual harassment. Rather, she wrote, “Just like sexual harassment, it doesn’t have to be directed at you to count.” In other words, the part that’s similar to sexual harassment is the fact that it doesn’t need to be directed at you to still impact you.

        2. a. brown*

          I’m comparing subjects which make people uncomfortable and shouldn’t be discussed at length at work. It really sounds like her co-workers are fixated on the subject, and it doesn’t take much of an adult to see the behavior as damaging (to both parties). This isn’t about lawsuits, it’s about being a human being and being conscious of other people’s experiences.

          I think a situation where two people are discussing their sex lives to the point it makes others uncomfortable is comparable to two people discussing diet and weight and especially if they are drawing the OP into it.

          1. Joey*

            Maybe my interpretation is clouded because your analogies have buzzwords that automatically bring it up a notch for me.

      2. Jen M.*

        Right. To me, this falls under “hostile work environment.” Even if it is not directed at the OP, and even if she is noticing it more simply because of what her ex coworker told her, it is causing her stress.

        We have a “food police” type at work. They are not a popular person.

  5. Claire*

    “As long the rude remarks aren’t pervasive or targeted at the op who cares what the co workers obsess over.” Well, they are pervasive. It’s become THE topic during the workday.

    Not that it will solve anything, but you could totally get rude with them: “Is THAT what you’re eating? Do you know how many calories are in a pot pie?”

    And you blink, and say, “When’s the last time you had sex? Was it satisfying? Do you think your husband still loves you, even though you’re obsessed with tearing other people down and can’t keep your mouth shut?”

  6. Wilton Businessman*

    Time to start a conversation about Anorexia and then quickly look at the chick who congratulated you for drinking water.

  7. ImpassionedPlatypi*

    If I were in this situation, I would probably ignore anything that isn’t being directly aimed at me. Wear headphones and listen to music so you can’t here the general conversations and when people say something about it directly to you, point out to them bluntly that what they said was rude/you don’t care what they think of your choices and you don’t want to hear about it anymore.

  8. ImpassionedPlatypi*

    Ooo, Wilton Businessman that is a good suggestion. Listen to the conversations going on around you and pick out as many examples of possible eating disorders as you can, then when everyone who talks about that stuff is around in some sort of social setting you casually start the conversation, “So my child/relative/fictional person who is still in school is doing a report on eating disorders. Did you know….” then just start listing all these things that you’ve picked out of their conversations. I think that would get the point across rather well.

  9. Sue*

    I’ve been in a similar situation. A couple of years ago, I worked with a women who asked me every other day for a month if I was on a diet due to the fact that I would often work through lunch due to workload. I brought it up to our manager and she pegged it to ‘cultural differences’. Nonetheless, it stopped after I completely ignored her comments for a week or so (instead of explaining I was working through or taking a later lunch). Some people just don’t have a clue.

  10. lexy*

    I have just started a temp position in a diet focused office. My project is very independent so I don’t interact with many people. But I completely empathize with the note writer because everyone there is absolutely confused by the fact that I, a moderately fat person, ride my bike there. I hate the idea that everything I do is placed into a bucket “fat people do this” or “fat people don’t do this” its very stressful.

    I’m sorry I don’t have any advice, but I do feel your pain… Grrr to judgey-wudgies.

  11. Portland Writer Gal*

    People are just weird about food.

    I have often had co-workers make comments about what I am eating, usually men. I remember once going to an afternoon meeting where free candy was put out. I had a bowl and was scooping a bunch of candy in (because it was late in the day and I was hungry) and my co-worker said loudly in front of everyone, “whoa, putting a lot in there aren’t you?!” Um, embarrassing!

    The odd thing is, at the time I weighed about 125lbs and was a size 4, so clearly this wasn’t about dieting. Why was this even an issue? Where do people get off?

    1. Liz T*

      This is such a thorny issue. Once a male waiter said to me, “Whoa, you ate that fast!” And he immediately regretted it. The thing is, I *had* eaten it really quickly. And he clearly didn’t mean it as a negative, it was just a friendly observation. And I knew that, but I was still annoyed, because that’s how we’re conditioned–you don’t talk to a woman about how much she’s eating. But this takes some conditioning, especially for men. So, while a comment like that could obviously rankle, it doesn’t necessarily mean he thought there was anything *wrong* with eating the candy.

      Of course, I wasn’t there, so you know better than I do, but it’s something to keep in mind.

  12. Dawn*

    If someone congratulated me in that manner on drinking a no-calorie beverage, I’d probably have to reply with,”Congratuations on being a nosy twit.”

  13. Phyr*

    While I totally agree with AaM, I have a feeling that the OP might end up leaving like the other woman.
    If she is on good terms with the coworker that left then she might want ask if the former coworker had tried to talk to the boss as well. It might give her an idea of what to expect and possibly better formulate a conversation.
    It is very possible that the OP has gotten stuck on the other coworkers reason for leaving and that it is bringing things to her attention that she normal wouldn’t care about. she could always wait a little longer for things to ‘settle down’ before talking with her boss.
    Personally I would wait but the OP might feel different about it. The woman about the drink? She could try to gently thank her but let her know that she is not looking for opinions on her everyday life.

  14. Sibyl*

    Oh, that is so inappropriate I could spit. But so many workplaces are filled with conversation that barges into the personal (dating, baby making, clothing, religion, etc.).

    Other than my angry reaction, I echo the concern about anorexia or other eating disorders. Counting cucumbers is not healthy–it’s obsessive. This blogger addressed the issue far better than I:

    Practically speaking, if I were CEO, I’d want to know if good employees were being driven away by inappropriate office culture. But it’s hard to gauge whether the manager, and those above her, are receptive to this information. Would they be horrified if they realized how offensive the office had become? Would they wring their hands and do nothing? Or would they label you a troublemaker for bringing it to their attention?

  15. mouse*

    I hate people. I really, really do.

    I pretty much agree with what AAM said but 1) I’d put the supervisor conversation conversation in terms of all the diet obsession interfering with productivity (because it just HAS to be at this point) and 2) I wouldn’t limit myself to “wow” for the dirtbag calorie counter. But I’m ex-Navy and have a mouth on me so take that last bit with a grain of panic.

    1. Anonymous*

      I think in that scenario her health was clearly in danger and it was harder for people to accept that she wasn’t being more assertive to change things. In this it seems to be several self-conscious, and perhaps insecure, people unable to socialize with heavier co-workers.

    2. esra*

      I think the health issue mentioned in that one can account for part of the difference. I don’t know if it is the amount of Dr. Phil/Intervention/etc shows on the air or what, but some people really seem to feel the need criticize and judge, and use fake concern to do it.

  16. Charles*

    I’ll say “wow” and its not just because of the inappropriate comments from co-workers; But, how on earth is anyone getting their work done in that office?

    On another note, at least it isn’t as bad as one office I worked in where everyone seemed be on a “tuna fish diet.” So many folks in that office would only eat tuna fish for lunch (no mayo or anything, just tuna straight from the can). Not really my business except that they would all drain their cans of tuna in the community sink and NOT rinse the sink aftwerwards. Now that smell was a real WOW!

  17. kuriouskitty*

    Ditto on the comments along the same lines of “pick your battles wisely.”

    If you have a comment related health/diet/nutrition/weight/body image directed at you:

    how do you think they may react to you saying to statements such as: “body image is very important to you.” Or… “It must be hard to live in a world where body image defines who you are.” Or… “It must be hard to concentrate at work while very focused body image/nutrition.”

    *Key to this is to ensure your voice is mellow, slow, and goes down at the end of the sentence. And then don’t say anything at all. Just look them in the eye with a gentle expression* Cannot express how *important* it is that the voice tone goes down at the end of the sentence. You are not asking a question.

    If your coworkers want to have a conversation about weight– ditto to those who said it’s not worth your time! Would you consider playing the “broken record technique” to stop it? It could help you clearly communciate, prevent it from becoming a discussion/arguement, it can prevent it from becoming an angry/emotional de-constructive situation?

    You may discover that their snarky comments really have nothing to do with YOUR weight–but everything to do with THEIR weight (and/or insecurities/lack of skills). I can see flustered faces as no one has probably gently but firmly identified & labeled their focus and indirectly asked them to consider if it’s an appropriate focus in the workplace.

    Sometimes a non-judgemental note of what they are really trying to communicate de-escalates the comments. These are all simply ideas and for you to play out in your head to use should it ever be appropriate to use.

    Just think: when they’re so focused on body image that it interferes with their performance, it only accentuates the quality of yours (of which I am assuming!).

    Good luck and stay well!

  18. Mary Sue*

    My two cents: People are going to talk about what they’re interested in. In my case? I will bore your ears off about soccer if you give me half a chance and notice my Portland Timbers scarf. I’d hope you’d be gracious about me being enthusiastic about my interest and kindly inform me if I’m getting too loud.

    But that coworker who’s ‘congratulating’ you on drinking calorie free beverages? I wouldn’t go with ‘Wow’. I’d go with, ‘That’s none of your business’.

    1. kuriouskitty*

      I wonder if “that’s none of your business” statements communicate defensiveness? It absolutely isn’t any of their business… however lets not perpetuate a culture of inability to clearly communicate with each other in a caring supportive way.

      I’m an advocate for assertiveness and proactiveness!

      There is a difference between talking about interests and workplace harassment and bullying. Not everything is harassment or bullying… but it does exist unfortunately.

      I responded to this post because outside of the office my personal interests & skills are personal training, physical fitness, & competative fitness/body building… but that doesn’t give me permission to be insensitive or inappropriate to differences/diversities in the workplace.

      I stop now! :) <3

      1. anonymous*

        Um…”It’s none of your business” is about BOUNDARIES. These people clearly don’t have any.

  19. hindenburg2002*

    To the co-worker who congratulated you on drinking a no-cal beverage, I’d probably counter with “Congrats on being able to stick both feet in your mouth simultaneously. You know you won’t stay thin that way, right?”

  20. Sibyl*

    A few years ago, I’d lost about 40 pounds very quickly (crohn’s disease). I actually was struggling to maintain my weight, let alone gain — a position I never expected to be in. I told my manager and colleagues, and they were all very supportive. Other people at work also noticed and commented. I didn’t want to broadcast or discuss my health. Their reactions illustrate the wrong way and the right way to handle a very obvious change in appearance.

    A VP and her staff came to our office for a meeting. Two of them patted me on the back and congratulated me on how bony it felt and how great I looked. My coworkers seethed at the inappropriateness.

    In a private project meeting with another woman who ran our women’s studies program, she privately asked me if I was feeling okay because she’d noticed a sudden drop in weight. She said she didn’t want to pry, but she wanted me to know she was available and that she was concerned about my health. I know she was thinking anorexia, but she approached it in a non-judgmental way. I was not offended, and it didn’t interfere with our working relationship.

    My 2 cents.

    1. esra*

      I have Crohn’s as well and suffered weight loss before it got under control. I think it really makes you appreciate how faulty weight can be as an indicator of health. Like you, I had people congratulating me on weight loss, when I was really struggling to keep any food down at all.

      One of the people who knew of the source of the weight loss actually commented that they wished they had Crohn’s too so they could lose weight so easily. So clueless.

      (As an aside, I hope the disease is more under control for you now!)

      1. Anon in the UK*

        One of my staff has asthma. Due to a flare, she had to take a much higher dose of steroid treatment and put on about 25 lbs in a short space of time.
        Another of her colleagues told her, in all seriousness, ‘I’d rather die than have that happen to me’. Asthmatic explained that that was, quite literally, an option with severe asthma and she had elected to improve her chances of survival.

        I found out about this because apparently the rather-be-dead coworker complained that the asthmatic person was being meeeeeean.

      2. Amy*

        I also have Crohn’s Disease and lost weight before it got under control. I’m a petite person in the first place, and with the weight loss I was starting to look gaunt and thin. Although I didn’t advertise my illness at work, I also didn’t hide it, so most people knew what was going on and supported me. However, one day a co-worker said: “You know, you really need to stop losing weight. You look awful.” Gee, thanks.

  21. What the?*

    I had the opposite problem working in an office of larger sized women, where there was a snack day every friggin friday and if you ate healthy, you were left feeling isolated and not “part of the group”. Seems the majority always rules. The OP should just consider it annoying and just part of that whole work culture BS.

  22. Cassie*

    I would just ignore it if possible. People will always make comments about anything and everything – if I’m eating french fries, someone will comment how unhealthy it is. If I’m eating yogurt for lunch, they’ll talk about how little I eat.

    I’ve found the phrase “I know, right?!” to be the perfect response. I actually hate that phrase (what does it mean?), but seriously, it is the perfect response. “Soda is bad for you” – “I know, right?!” “Ice cream will make you fat” – “I know, right?!”

    I mean, what can they say to that? You’re agreeing with them!

    1. fposte*

      Ooh, I like that. I’m going to add that to the armory of “Things to say instead of rolling my eyes.” And it avoids the trap of legitimizing the discussion of food, eating disorders, etc. that some approaches end up falling into.

    2. Rachelle*

      Best response so far, in my opinion. It’s the rough equivalent of a certain tone of “uh huh” that I can’t convey in writing. It’s agreement without engagement. It’s sort of “yup” but with ZERO tone of irritation, hostility, or other negative emotion. The sad truth is that if you are overweight, you are already facing negative stereotypes. Coming across as angry and overweight is not going to help you, in my opinion.

      With all this said, you coworkers sound like a bunch of shallow twits. If you have options, it may be preferable for you to think about moving on.

  23. Nate*

    I just *love* it how people have to volunteer up their two cents about everything at the office – or pry.

    If you drink an energy drink, they lecture you on how bad it is for you. If you change a job, they ask why and wonder if you got a pay bump. Frankly, I don’t want anybody’s opinion unless I ask for it, and I don’t volunteer information unless I feel it’s necessary.

    Maybe that’s what the OP should say -“I don’t remember asking for your opinion…”. Some people don’t have that brain-to-mouth filter.

  24. Monroe*

    My conversation with a coworker who has just congratulated me on drinking a diet beverage: Me: (Looking her square in the face) What are you congratulating me for? Coworker: For selecting a diet soda to drink! Me: You drink them all the time, I don’t feel compelled to congratulate you. Coworker: Well I’m not on a diet. Me: Are you suggesting that I need to be on a diet? Coworker who suddenly realizes the inappropriateness of her comments: No. Lets just forget it. Me: I’m not exactly the forgetting type but as long as you no longer feel compelled to innappropriately comment about any more of my choices we can let this go.

  25. Rachel*

    I suggest not discussing food or exercise AT ALL. For the weight obsessed, even casual remarks like “I ate a ton over Thanksgiving” can be seen as an opening for drawn out talks about weight.

    Also, I don’t care how fat or thin someone is: it is not okay to make a pointed comment about what they’re eating or drinking! Other than, “hmm, that smells good!” Shut that down immediately. Low and controlled voice. “You’re being totally inappropriate.”

  26. Sibyl*

    I’ve had the weight swing the other way too, with high doses of steroids. People are clueless on either end. No, you don’t want this disease. No, you probably would choose to take steroids rather than die, but if you’d rather die, please do! (it’s the steroids talking!)

  27. OriginalFatGirl*

    This was SUCH an awesome reply, and the comments are outstanding. After reading everything that you all have had to say, I feel tremendously better, and I think I can go back to just not letting it bother me.

    For the record I did address the congratulator. The next time she did it, which was just a couple of days ago, I very cheerfully said, “What is it with you and commenting on everyone’s food?”

    She got the message, and I delivered it in a non-confrontational enough way that there have been no negative repercussions.

    I so appreciate all the feedback here, from all the varied perspectives.

    Thank you AAM, and thank you readers!

  28. Anonymous*

    OP: what a perfect way to stand up to an inappropriate person while simultaneously diffusing, rather than escalating, the situation.. I can imagine all this has the potential to be quite stressful, but your perspective and attitude seem awesome.

  29. k*

    Well my personal experience but from the opposite spectrum this person has every right to be upset. Whether fat or thin discussing someones eating habits or praising or criticizing their choices is highly annoying and usually creates unnecessary animosity. I am thin and have ALWAYS been thin and as result sometimes idiot ppl tend to encourage me to gain weight or suggest that I have an eating disorder, which I don’t. Basically I’m the girl most females hate that can bypass exercise, eat whatever I want often and in large quantities and not gain weight. Anyway a couple years ago while working as an admin asst my 6 bosses felt the need to start ganging up on me telling me I was too thin criticizing me for eating unhealthy lunches etc etc. I typically just bit my tongue. However I felt they took it too far when they had a guest lecturer from an eating disorder treatment center start trying to conversate with me about my feelings toward eating and what not. Although I had allies I could complain to and OP doesn’t that doesn’t mean animosity won’t start to build up toward coworkers. So while being overweight may not keep one from being brilliant on the job negative feelings toward coworkers definitely can.

  30. Christine*

    I know this is an older thread, but I just ran across it and I love this:
    And last, that coworker who congratulated you on drinking a calorie-free beverage? The proper response to that is, “Wow.” And then walk away. Because that person has lost sight of any sense of what’s appropriate to say to others, and there’s no reason you have to play along.

    So true!

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