- I was shamed for years by family members, classmates, and my now ex-boss.
- My boss once asked me where she could buy clothes after gaining some weight.
- Experts suggest having open conversations about boundaries so people know when they’ve crossed them.
The first time I remember gorging myself on food was at my father’s funeral. A friend of his had brought pastries with pink frosting. I wasn’t hungry. But I kept eating them, one at a time, hoping no one would notice. Everyone was probably too consumed with grief to say anything. Or maybe it was because I was skinny and seeing me indulge in that sugary bliss was the least of her worries.
Then, as puberty hit, the fat deposits started making their way to my chest. I didn’t understand why I had to hide my breasts until an unenlightened adult said to me, “Pull your shirt up, for heaven’s sake.”
I was 10 years old. It was midsummer and I was wearing a powder blue tank top with a ruffled neckline.
“We need to get her a bra,” my uncle said loudly as my aunt and cousins crowded into the car.
I looked down at my chest, confused since I was wearing an A cup bra, and wondered why God or my uncle would care about my breasts.
The answer came to me in 10th grade when my sister’s close friend repeatedly called me “fat.” I was a size 4, not a 0, so I could understand his disdain for my body.
At other times, high school boys were a little more creative with their insults and said, “Hey, Oprah, Oprah” when I stepped out of the girls’ locker room. Normally a comparison to the visionary talk show host would be flattering, but I figured they wouldn’t compare me to her because she’s a media mogul.
“That means they think you’re fat,” my friend said when the boys were out of earshot.
Her explanation, while lacking in tact, would prove to be a wise observation some 15 years later when I started a new job. My now ex-boss came up to me and said, “I wanted to ask, where do you shop for clothes?” Before I could reply, she went on to tell me that she had gained weight after not exercising for months.
“The only thing that fits me is a pair of sweatpants, so I thought you could suggest some places to shop,” she said.
Once she saw me eating spaghetti at my desk and told me that she didn’t eat “such heavy dishes” at lunchtime. Over the next few weeks, she continued to comment on her rapid weight gain, intermittently asking me personal questions about my age, family life, and what I had for dinner.
Being in my thirties, I figured I knew how to stop this behavior, which reminded me of the taunts I endured in high school and the embarrassment I felt in my powder blue tank top . When I was a therapist, I coached women on how to respond when someone commented on their appearance.
But I couldn’t say anything. I responded exactly as I had as a child and teenager: smiling, pushing it aside, and accepting someone else’s assessment of my physical imperfections.
What is fat shaming?
What I’ve described above are examples of “fat-shaming” when “we single out others based on their body weight, type, or size,” Daryl Appleton, a New York City therapist and Fortune 500 executive coach, told Insider . In everyday situations, fat shaming can look like commenting on someone’s weight, bullying or disrespecting them, or discriminating against them based on their body type.
Sometimes people don’t come straight up and call you fat. Instead, they appeal to feelings of mindful eating and well-being in the workplace when you don’t fit their mold of a healthy and prosperous workforce. They label food as “good” or “bad” along with the people who consume it.
In other words, they subscribe to “nutrition culture,” “a societal construct that emphasizes eating and exercise to achieve ideal physical shape, which allows for more praise and acceptance,” Appleton said, adding, “There’s no mistaking that.” with Nutrition and Conscious Exercise, which promotes exercise and nutrition as a pathway to healthier living.”
In the case of my boss, she had already chosen me because of my looks. She saw what I ate for lunch an incredible once in the eight weeks we worked together and made it a point to project her insecurities onto me.
Is it ever acceptable to talk about body types at work?
“Work is supposed to be a place of productivity, so it shouldn’t be a factor unless your physical body weight has something to do with your ability to do your job,” Appleton said.
To be fair, my ex-boss may have been concerned about the added stress of an aging elevator system or the possible additional wear and tear of the carpet as I bounced back and forth between my desk and the copy room. I didn’t haul gear or model swimwear. But seriously, even as I tried to empathize with her insecurities, I realized it was unfair of her to pounce on mine.
Appleton said there’s always a risk in trying to hold a toxic person accountable for their behavior, especially when they’re in a position of power. If you mess up with your looks, they could fire you or ruin your time at work. But whatever you choose, no one should “penalize you for having had healthy conversations about boundaries, and if you have, that can tell you all you need to know about the person, the job and workplace culture,” added she added.
What can you say to someone who will fat shame you?
Sometimes people aren’t aware that conversations about weight “aren’t received appropriately or well,” Appleton said, so learning they’ve crossed a line could be new information for them. If you’re uncomfortable with her comments, you can try saying, “While I appreciate trying to take care of my health and well-being, this conversation isn’t helpful for me,” she said.
In other situations, you may need to be a little more direct with the person by requesting a change in behavior. Depending on your relationship with the person and how comfortable you are with the behavior, it may be necessary to stop the behavior immediately.
If the thought of confronting someone makes you sick, you are not alone. Although I didn’t feel safe confronting my boss, I finally managed to tell my uncle that I didn’t want to talk about my weight or my eating habits. It doesn’t seem like much, but the girl in the powder blue tank top would tell you the opposite.