Bodies, food and fitness in the workplace

We all live in a culture where we’re made to feel guilty about food and exercise.

Certain kinds of food are “bad”, “guilty pleasures” or “junk”. There’s little to no rhetoric about having a varied diet and how any food is “bad” if it’s all you eat. Instead we’re bombarded with juice cleanses and unsustainable “clean” diets that leave no room for variance, slip ups or reality.

And despite exercise being one of the best things you can do for your brain and body, we’ve learned to feel puritanical about that, too. Messages like “no pain, no gain” and constant conflicting fads about what sort of exercise we should religiously fit into the time-poor lives, make us feel like we can never achieve true “fitness”.

We’re told we need to look a certain way to be considered healthy and attractive. Graceful, lithe or athletic but not “skinny”. Muscly but not too muscly, especially if you’re a woman. Curvy, but only some places (and only since 2014). Being fat is the ultimate fear and failure of both desirability and apparent health.

The goalposts are always shifting and we can never keep up, we’re never good enough, and we’ve always got further to go. Because of this our relationships with our bodies and food are usually complex and painful.

Misery loves company

Often all these hard feelings manifest as critical self-talk. Talk that, if we spoke to our friends the way we spoke to ourselves, would mean we wouldn’t have any friends. We’re not very good friends to ourselves and our bodies.

One of the things that can make us feel better about our tricky relationships with food and fitness is to share it with the people we see every day – our workmates.

We lean over our cubicles or bemoan across the kitchen how long it’s been since we went to the gym, or how badly we’ve been eating lately, or how we’re worried about gaining weight or how we shouldn’t have had that thing for lunch.

We start up conversations to feel camaraderie in our slog. The receptionist’s salad looks healthy. Your boss must have hollow legs. Thank goodness your analyst is eating for two. Gosh, your PR person must be hungry!

This talk is common place in offices and while it’s totally understandable, it’s bad for workplace welfare. Here’s why.

Different people, same office

You’re surrounded by people of different sizes and abilities every day, and all of them will have a different and complicated relationship with their body and eating.

When you have an open conversation about being worried you’ll put on weight if you have another piece of that brownie, you probably don’t stop to think how that affects the people in the office who weigh more than you. That the subtext of what you’re saying is I’m afraid my body will look more like yours. And that although most of you would be horrified to think you’re hurting people by making idle small-talk, you are making your workplace less safe for fat people, people with (or recovering from) eating disorders and people with different abilities and health needs than you. And that’s not okay.

Right now you might be thinking that might be the case for some people, but my workmates all join in with me, it’s light conversation and no one minds. And they might. And it might be. And they might not mind. But enthusiastically participating in hurtful self-talk doesn’t mean it’s not hurtful.

No one walks away feeling good after a conversation about the things they’re doing to make their body look different or to stop their body from changing. That brief camaraderie too often turns into fuel for the internal nagging after we’ve eaten a slice of pizza. And even if somehow you and your favourite health-enthusiast workmates have no history of crappy relationships with food and genuinely feel neutral or even uplifted by those conversations, what about the people within earshot who might not?

Everyone has a body, so let’s try and be nicer about them (and to them)

This doesn’t mean you can’t talk about going to the gym or how great your carrot salad is, but it does mean you should think critically about your body-talk, especially in the workplace.

If you truly enjoy sharing anecdotes about all the “bad” food you’ve eaten, and how terrifying it would be to get (or stay) fat, then you need to find conversationalists whose livelihoods don’t depend on sharing an office with you.

If, however, deep down you’re like most of us and you’re tired and bruised and grieving from a lifetime of hatred of the frankly amazing vessel that keeps you alive every day, you might want to start healing from that talk.

So, next time instead of announcing that you need to go to the gym now you’ve eaten all that cake, just say “that was yum”.

Test out “I’m looking forward to going to the gym” rather than “I’ve been so bad at going to the gym lately”.

Try not saying anything bad about yourself to deflect a compliment or fill a silence during food talks or body comparisons.

You could even try saying “man, diet talk is a bit boring!” next time it comes up. Because it is.

Be gentle with yourself

Starting to un-learn the guilt narrative around food and bodies is tricky and no one is perfect at it. But a great place to start is being mindful of the different people you spend most of your time with, and how each of them has their own complicated relationship with their body.

Further reading

What is Body Positivity?
Health at Every Size
A Beginners Guide to Body Positivity

11 thoughts on “Bodies, food and fitness in the workplace

  1. You are over thinking things, most people don’t have a complicated ‘relationship’ with their bodies.

    “If, however, deep down you’re like most of us and you’re tired and bruised and grieving from a lifetime of hatred…”

    That’s a bit melodramatic and definitely doesn’t apply to “most of us”.

    People need to be making more effort to clean up their diets and get plenty of exercise. If they feel guilty about not doing this, that is a good thing.

      • “You could even try saying “man, diet talk is a bit boring!” next time it comes up. Because it is.”

        Personally I don’t find diet talk very interesting, probably because I have some self control around food so its not an issue.

        And yet I don’t feel compelled to demand the rest of the human population police itself and shut down any conversation that I might personally find boring.

        So why do you think you are entitled to do that, Molly?

  2. Yet you feel compelled to police people’s diet, exercise levels, guilt levels and feel entitled to speak for “most people” because you know how they feel. It’s no bad thing to consider how your words might affect other people or to make suggestions on how to be more positive. Your post is so hostile, which is unnecessary surely?

  3. God bless your little soul, Glen. It is so lovely to see that all men (since you are talking for all men and all women, apparently) are unfettered about food, diet and their looks. But maybe you are not the intended audience? Ever thought about that?

  4. I don’t think Glen gets it…

    Great article. I hear talk like this all the time in the workplace and many women especially have a complicated relationship with their bodies (and food).

    Thanks for sharing.

  5. I am tired, bruised, and grieving from a lifetime of criticism, hatred, horrible weight loss diets, and destructive weight loss medications. I’m a senior person now and it’s too late for me to “fix” my feelings about that. I’m a vegan and happy with that and will not “diet” again. In the meantime, I’m trying to deal with the vitriol I’ve been handed in my life and not let it influence the life I have left.

Leave a Reply to Sharon Keegans Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s