When Diet Culture Comes to Work | Crooked Media
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December 21, 2022
Work Appropriate
When Diet Culture Comes to Work

In This Episode

This is Work Appropriate’s version of a holiday episode! As work parties ramp up, so do small talk conversations about diets and eating habits. So what can you say at the holiday potluck when your boss comments on people’s weights, or says she’s being “so bad” for eating a brownie? What can you do when your workplace cafeteria has calorie counts plastered everywhere? How can you have a frank conversation about accommodations you need for work travel when you have a larger body? Virginia Sole-Smith joins host Anne Helen Petersen to answer all these listener questions and more.

Got a workplace quandary you need help figuring out? Head to www.workappropriate.com and let us know!

 

TRANSCRIPT

 

 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Hi, everyone. My name is Anne Helen Petersen and this is Work Appropriate. [music break] So what we have today is our version of a holiday episode. We’re not talking about inappropriate or weird holiday gifts, even though I am sure that will be a subject in the future. Because can I tell you about the wild gift someone told me about on Instagram. This is a workplace gift. They received a mug with pictures of their manager’s vacation on it, I’m dead, this is the worst gift I’ve ever heard of. So, yes, we will talk about that wildness in the future. But right now we’re going to talk about a different aspect of the holiday season, and that is people in your office talking about what you’re eating and why you’re eating and being so bad about eating something. We’re talking about office diet, culture and how general merriment can spiral into people in your office talking about their bodies and other people’s bodies. And then in the New Year, talking even more about bodies and other people’s bodies. Sometimes the problem is workplace wellness programs that lure people in with discounts on health insurance. And while most workplaces have done away with things like public weigh ins, the general sentiment still remains. Even though a lot of coworkers just think of this as some sort of small talk. Diet culture in the workplace is pernicious and makes people feel like shit and the fatphobia that structures it has real ramifications on who gets hired in your workplace and who gets promoted. Body size isn’t a protected characteristics, so discrimination against people in larger bodies, at least at this point, is totally legal. To address today’s fatphobia workplace quandaries. I wanted a co-host who could speak to the implicit and explicit ways that fatphobia shows up in the workplace, as well as the implicit and explicit ways it harms all of us. 

 

Virginia Sole-Smith: My name is Virginia Sole-Smith. I’m an author and journalist. I write the Burnt Toast newsletter and host the Burnt Toast podcast. And my next book is called Fat Talk Parenting in the Age of Diet Culture. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: So how did you get on? I mean, I don’t know if it’s like fair to call it like the fatphobia beat, [laughter] but you have a really interesting history because you wrote at publications that were pretty fatphobic and like had to kind of come to terms with like where is my place within this landscape, all that sort of thing. So tell us about it. 

 

Virginia Sole-Smith: Yeah. I mean, I started my career in women’s magazines, so belly of the beast, [laughs] absolutely. Writing, you know, how to get your prom body at 17, how to get your bikini body everywhere, all of that stuff. And constantly wrestling with myself. You know, I came into women’s media as this like, you know, it’s late nineties, early 2000s like feminist who’d read the beauty myth and wanted to blow up the system but from the inside, but also was dieting. And, you know, it was just like a very murky time. This was well before we had language like the term anti-fat bias or fatphobia was nowhere in my vocab— 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Nowhere. 

 

Virginia Sole-Smith: It was nowhere in any of our vocabulary. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: None. 

 

Virginia Sole-Smith: So there was, I think, this sense that. We wanted to love our bodies and we wanted to challenge beauty, culture and like patriarchal beauty standards. But we did not go so far to think of that as justice for fat people, which is like another layer of the conversation. And, you know, as I was thinking about, okay, we’re going to talk about workplace fatphobia like a big reason. I went freelance early in my career and stayed freelance and stayed out of offices was workplace fatphobia like women’s magazines were an intensely uncomfortable place to have a body and be in an office every day. The diet talk was rampant. The, you know, the fat shaming, all of that. At that point, I was certainly thinner than I am now and still felt like I was too fat for this world because the rig— You know, the rigidity of body expectations in that particular industry are so narrow. The turning point for me, though, you know, so I went freelance. I was still writing a lot of those stories to pay the bills, but having a lot more questions, wrestling with myself about what I was doing. And then the turning point was becoming a mom and going through a lot of experiences around feeding my older daughter and realizing that I had to get my house in order if I was going to raise daughters, and particularly in this fatphobic society. And so that led to a lot of internal work on myself and starting to understand the larger landscape and starting to understand that we’re not just talking about like loosey goosey, like how you feel about your body. Like it’s not body image, it’s really systemic oppression. It’s really the fact that people in larger bodies aren’t safe in public spaces, can’t access the same things in terms of clothing sizes aren’t paid the same. I mean, all these other issues we’ll get into, so—

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Right, right. And that connects the dots to the workplace. Right? 

 

Virginia Sole-Smith: Right, exactly. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: The other thing I’ll say just to really tout Virginia’s newsletter, which is ostensibly about the intersection of parenting and fatphobia and all those things, but I think that like I am an avid reader of it as a non parent because as you said, you need to do that work on yourself before you can parent someone in a way that is trying to push back against those systemic things. And so even if you are not parenting, you can still be doing that work every day. And that’s what I appreciate so much about your newsletter, is asking people again and again in ways that sometimes make you feel uncomfortable. 

 

Virginia Sole-Smith: Yeah. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Here’s how that work needs to be done. 

 

Virginia Sole-Smith: Absolutely. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: So what do we know? Just generally, I think we alluded to this a little bit, but how does diet culture and fatphobia affect people at work? 

 

Virginia Sole-Smith: So many different ways. I mean, I pulled some numbers before we started chatting because I wanted to, you know, kind of see big picture and, you know, I have a 2009 survey. So this is old data, but I feel confident this information will still apply. [laughter] 93% of employers in the survey said they’d choose unquote normal weight candidate over an equally qualified fat candidate. So just in terms of who’s getting job interviews, that can only have intensified because, you know, LinkedIn culture having photos and like professional headshots, like our bodies and our appearance, they come in the door first. Now, in a lot of ways you’re not just like a faceless resumé anymore, the whole personal brand thing, etc.. So yeah, so it’s showing up in hiring practices, it’s showing up in paychecks fat women earn 9000 to 19,000 dollars less per year than women. Fat men earn $2 less per hour than their thinner counterparts. So this is real money. This is I mean, this is significant— 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Right. 

 

Virginia Sole-Smith: Extremely significant. And anti-fat bias intersects with other marginalization, of course. So, you know, we when we look at CEOs, we see that like around 50%, like 45 to 61% of male CEOs are in bigger bodies, but only 5 to 22% of females CEOs. And so, yeah, it’s showing up in a lot of ways. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: These are things that people know and yet also are unspeakable, oftentimes because it’s it’s embarrassing. They’re like, oh, we live in a culture where this is just so clear. But it is it is absolutely like a fundamental part of the way that we think about people’s capacity to work their value as people, all of these things. And if it’s having that sort of demonstrable effect on how people are promoted, how people are paid, this is something that we need to continue to address. I also think just on the level of like difficulties being in the office, you know, some of the stats looking at how remote work has affected people of color in the office like they feel more feelings of belonging. This is coming from Slack’s future form data, more feelings of belonging when they are remote or hybrid, which is counter to what people might assume they’re like— 

 

Virginia Sole-Smith: Sure. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Oh, that you wouldn’t know. You would feel more a part of an office culture when you’re not with those people every day. And that points to the way that. Office culture is oftentimes incredibly white, incredibly masculine, incredibly neurotypical, all of these things, but also incredibly fatphobic, too. Like offices themselves are built in ways that you have to be thinking about, what am I eating? Is someone going to comment on what I’m eating? And as— 

 

Virginia Sole-Smith: Yeah, there’s a lot of performing your body in public in offices— 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yup. 

 

Virginia Sole-Smith: —whether it’s lunch, whether it’s, you know, who’s getting it from there desk. Like there’s a lot of different ways that we have to exist very publicly in our bodies. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: So before we get to questions from readers, there is an anecdote from a listener who sent in and she was like, I just love you guys so much and I just want to tell you something. It’s like, you know, more of a comment rather than a question. And so this is from Katie. 

 

Katie: I am still very much working through trauma from when biggest loser at work challenges were a thing, often mandatory or strongly encouraged, and you had to weigh yourself in front of a coworker. And the prize was often a health care incentive, like money off your insurance premium or money toward your HSA. Workplaces continue to use, quote, “wellness” competitions today that just feel like masked weight loss challenges. Let me do my job regardless of my weight. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: So, Virginia, what is your reaction to these kind of challenges which really are so ubiquitous? 

 

Virginia Sole-Smith: Oh, they’re everywhere. Yeah, I looked into that and I saw one survey said 67% of employees are asked to participate in this. I mean, it’s very much the norm that there’s things like wellness plan, you know, track your weight, track your steps, and yeah, like she said, sort of dressed up now it’s less overt maybe, but it’s still there. I mean, the thing is, is it’s like so wildly out of sync with what science tells us about health and weight. We have so much data showing that short term weight loss challenges are never sustainable. We have research on The Biggest Loser contestants themselves [laughter] showing how much it fucked up their bodies to do that like it’s— 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: It’s a health care liability. Like if the insurance company’s were smart— 

 

Virginia Sole-Smith: Yes. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: —they’d be like, actually, we don’t want you to do this short term weight loss. 

 

Virginia Sole-Smith: Please don’t put your body through this. Please don’t put this stress on your body. Risk injuries with over exercise, screw up your metabolism like all I mean, etc., etc., etc.. So yeah, they’re completely counterproductive to health. You know, it’s also ignoring the nuances of individual health, like body weight is at best one small piece of the puzzle of anybody’s health picture. So acting like this is this metric that, A, that we can control when we know that we can’t like diets don’t work. This is not something you have as much control over as diet culture wants you to believe. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Virginia Sole-Smith: And that we should exert as much control over and that that will improve our health is just not supported by the data at all anymore. And so it’s it’s fascinating to me, but also not surprising because, you know, this is where health care is still stuck on this idea. This is what your doctor tells you about your physical were they’re like, you know, just like handing off these sort of like thoughtless prescriptions to lose weight. And so it’s not surprising to me it’s showing up in workplaces like this, but it is like literally the opposite of what they’re trying to do if they’re even really trying to improve health. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Well, and especially if you have someone who’s in charge of H.R. Who’s in charge of implementing these programs, who has been in the workplace for a long time, is a little bit older. You know, you wrote a newsletter awhile ago that was that I sent to everyone, which is basically the grandmas are not okay like that, that older generation. I mean, millennials have a very complicated relationship with how they think about fatphobia for many reasons. But I think older generations, it’s also very much not okay. And so if you have that understanding of like weight loss is always good, this is something we should always encourage and you know what helps people? Pressure from within the office. 

 

Virginia Sole-Smith: Yeah, competition. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: And financial incentives. [laughter]

 

Virginia Sole-Smith: Yeah. Yeah. An awareness that their peers are doing quote “better at it” than them. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Virginia Sole-Smith: I mean. Yeah, yeah. It’s extremely, you know, and it also speaks to and we’ll get into this more with some of the questions, I’m sure. But weight is not a protected class. And so this kind of anti-fatness is not considered harassment in the same way. Certainly if there was a challenge around race or gender or, you know, these other identities, you could say like this is clearly harassment, this is clearly discriminatory, this is clearly discriminatory, but we don’t have the legal framework to support that. Yeah, so—

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Even though it intersects I think in some ways with disability. Right. Like if it— 

 

Virginia Sole-Smith: Yes. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: —if it’s like a step challenge. 

 

Virginia Sole-Smith: Yes. That’s the sort of one way you can go if you’re trying to make like a legal case around anti-fat bias, like you have to use the American Disabilities Act like that’s what you can do. I think it’s also a complicated conversation— 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yup. 

 

Virginia Sole-Smith: —because weight is not a disability for in and of itself. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Right, right. 

 

Virginia Sole-Smith: You know. And so you’re getting again into these like layered things. But it is also true that people in larger bodies often have specific needs or need accommodations. That we’ll talk about. And we should be providing that to people because we should be meeting people where they are in the bodies they have. So it’s very, you know, so it just gets very difficult. And again, you know, to go back to what you were saying about shame, this is one where it’s really hard for people to advocate for themselves because fat people tend to have so much internalized fatphobia it’s really difficult for us to say this is anti-fat bias against me. Like we, we’ve been taught our bodies are our fault and it’s our problem to solve. And so to stand up and say, no, the system’s not being fair to me feels really scary and really hard for a lot of people. [music break]

 

Anne Helen Petersen: So we have so many different types of questions today. Let’s start with one that I think is really relatable. Here’s Jennifer. 

 

Jennifer: After going on my first diet at the age of ten and being on some kind of restrictive eating pattern since then. I am now 45 and I’m trying to declare peace with my body. I have been all different sizes and I’m currently considered small fat. This is fine and I’m not obsessing about food for the first time in years. My job is not helping, though. My department, which is 90% women, is constantly talking about diets, keto, carbs, calories, food choices, and the people who make them are good or bad. My boss is the worst offender. She constantly compliments based on appearance and if she knows that one of her direct reports is on a diet and someone always is. She will make comments in front of everyone about how good they look. I like my team and I enjoy my work, but this is so, so tiring. I shouldn’t have to out myself as a person with a history of disordered eating to get this to stop. But I think that might be my only hope. How can I get my coworkers to just stop talking about food and diet? 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Virginia, what do you think? 

 

Virginia Sole-Smith: I mean, this should be her workplace harassment. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Right. 

 

Virginia Sole-Smith: Like, what this boss is doing is such a boundary violation. It’s so disrespectful. It’s involving herself in her employees bodies in ways that are just wildly inappropriate. It’s a super unsafe workplace. Like their bodies are not safe there. But again, as we were just saying, unless she’s in Michigan, Jennifer, I hope you’re in Michigan because that’s the one state that has protections for employees from weight discrimination in the workplace. They’re the only state that’s passed a law about it. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Wow. 

 

Virginia Sole-Smith: There’s some legislation pending in New York and Massachusetts, but we’re not there yet. So, yeah, assuming you’re not in one of those three places, [laughs] it’s really hard because you don’t have like you can’t just I mean, I still would argue that there is a place for a conversation with H.R., but there’s not the sort of clear trajectory that there would be with other forms of harassment in the workplace. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Is her only solution to really like have to out herself as someone with disordered eating like is that the only way that she’s going to get them to stop? What are that? Is there any other recourse? 

 

Virginia Sole-Smith: I mean, I think it’s worth trying a couple of other things. First, if she hasn’t already. I would be curious if she has any allies among coworkers, whether that’s, you know, often a straight sized person can get more done on this issue than a fat person. So, you know, if there’s a straight sized person who can take this on with the boss. If there’s a way to sort of talk to coworkers about like this doesn’t feel comfortable. And she says this, like, even just having that outlet may help a lot. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Mm hmm. 

 

Virginia Sole-Smith: But it does sound like it’s very it’s not just the boss. It’s very like embedded throughout the culture. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Virginia Sole-Smith: She can if she feels up for it, you know, you can try doing some friendly boundary setting of, you know, guys, it’s so interesting how we just keep trashing our bodies and like, why do we do that? And and what I like to do in those moments is not bullying people because, you know, her boss is a victim of this whole system as well in a lot of ways while perpetrating it, but instead shift the focus to like it just is so shitty that our culture makes us feel like how we eat and what we weigh. And all of this matters so much like, you know, I’m so tired of this and just see, like, maybe floating that balloon may let someone else at the table be like, yes, me too. [laughter] I also would love if we could talk less about calories in the workplace. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Right. Like maybe that opens up a conversation where she can be like, what if we try to challenge ourselves to only say like positive things? 

 

Virginia Sole-Smith: Right. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: You know, I think it sounds kind of corny the way that we’re framing it, but I think sometimes the things that are actually effective start with that very intentional—

 

Virginia Sole-Smith: Totally. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: —conversation changer. It’s asking less of her as a person than to have to be like, listen, here’s my history with disordered eating— 

 

Virginia Sole-Smith: Right. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: —and protect me by not talking about this, and then I’ll just whisper about her behind her back, right? 

 

Virginia Sole-Smith: Totally, yeah. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: It’s not changing the same, the conversation in the same way. 

 

Virginia Sole-Smith: I mean, if she decides, if none of that works and she does need to take this to H.R., then yes. Being able to talk about your own history will help it. I’ll put this more into the disability class where you know that is useful for them to understand, but also it absolutely shouldn’t be required. Like this is harmful to everybody. This is not good for anybody to hear. This is not benefiting anybody in that workplace. So, no, you shouldn’t have to, like, air out your personal trauma in order to make this point. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. And there’s such more interesting things to talk about, right? [laughter]

 

Virginia Sole-Smith: God yes, everything. Literally anything. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Literally anything. [laughter] 

 

Virginia Sole-Smith: All of the things would be more interesting. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: The weather. The weather is more interesting to talk about than can—

 

Virginia Sole-Smith: It really is. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Do you think that this works, too, with people like your mother in law or your neighbor, whoever? Something that I have often feel that it’s like oh, I’m being so bad and eating this piece of cake or you’re so good that you didn’t get dessert or whatever, you know, those sorts of very stark judgment calls. Do you think this works outside of the office? 

 

Virginia Sole-Smith: It’s always very specific to the situation, like what you know and the relationship. Like a thing I could say to my mom is different from what I can say to an acquaintance like another mom on the playground at school where it’s like, you know, so there’s like all these nuances that can be very difficult. But I think making a general policy to, I mean, you can try just changing the conversation to a different topic. Like always have a couple of topics in your back pocket that you can be like, what about this? [laughter] You know? Is anyone watching Derry Girls? Can we [laughs] can we jump somewhere else. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Literally anything. 

 

Virginia Sole-Smith: But also. Oh, wow. I think that looks delicious. I’m sorry you’re beating yourself up for eating it. Like, sometimes. Just, like, pointing out to people. Like you’re being mean to yourself. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Virginia Sole-Smith: And you don’t have to be. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yep, yep, yep. 

 

Virginia Sole-Smith: And again, like, shifting it back to, like, this isn’t your fault. Like, this is diet culture. We’re all getting this message. I’m so tired of these messages. Like, isn’t it such a bummer we can’t just enjoy these cookies. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. Yeah. 

 

Virginia Sole-Smith: And that helps unite the person as opposed to being very divisive. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Exactly. And, like, turns it in, especially with someone that you’re a little bit more intimate with. Like, it turns it into, like, a gesture of kindness. Like, that looks really good. Like, I hope that you’re enjoying it. 

 

Virginia Sole-Smith: Yeah. Or, like, hey, don’t talk that way about my friend. You know— 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah, yeah, yeah. 

 

Virginia Sole-Smith: Those are ones I’ve used. Like, I’m on your side. Like, don’t, you don’t need to beat up yourself for me. That’s not something I’m expecting from you, because sometimes a lot of that apologizing and I’m so bad, that is like I don’t think people even hear themselves when they say it. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yup. 

 

Virginia Sole-Smith: Because we’re so conditioned to talk that way around food. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: 100%. 

 

Virginia Sole-Smith: And just like letting them know, like you don’t expect that from them and you don’t they don’t have to do that for you can be that can be a real kindness. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. It’s almost like their narrativizing it so that you know, that they know they’re being bad when even they, they really want the thing, right, otherwise they wouldn’t be eating it. 

 

Virginia Sole-Smith: Totally, yes. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: But, so you can be like you don’t have to narrativize this, you can, you can just enjoy and eat the thing. 

 

Virginia Sole-Smith: Yeah. Yeah we can just enjoy this we don’t have to apologize for it. Like it’s just let’s just have it. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: That’s a good segue actually into our second question, which is from Charlotte, who just wants to eat her lunch in peace? 

 

Virginia Sole-Smith: Same Charlotte. [laughter] 

 

Charlotte: I work in business at a fairly large financial institution. We are in some ways blessed to have multiple onsite food options for breakfast and lunch, and the vast majority of employees eat the cafeteria lunch. I’m sure all of this sounds amazing, but the pricing structure is where things get a little icky every day. There’s a healthy option that is significantly cheaper than anything else you could get, but it is realistically not enough food to sustain anyone until dinner. Additionally, the three most popular options are all pay by weight and there are signs with the number of calories everywhere. Yes, I could get a sandwich every day, but is it too much to ask for to be able to pay by container instead of weight. I just want to eat lunch without knowing I’m consuming half a pound more food than the person next to me in the checkout line. I’m not really in a great place to advocate for systemic change here, but would love any advice on navigating the situation. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: All right, Virginia, have you heard of situations like this before? 

 

Virginia Sole-Smith: I mean, the Condé Nast cafeteria. [laughter]

 

Anne Helen Petersen: I cannot even imagine, cannot imagine. 

 

Virginia Sole-Smith: Not to keep bringing it back to my women’s magazine trauma. But you try ordering lunch with, like several women’s magazine editor in chiefs in the room, and see how it feels. Yeah. I mean, I think this is so common. I think it’s very big in tech. Like, I’m sure the Google cafeteria has a similar vibe. I think its company is thinking that they’re offering these great perks and just really getting the messaging so wrong. And, you know, there’s this much larger trend about putting calorie counts on restaurant menus. And we’ve seen, you know, there’s been this big push to do that in New York. It’s everywhere with calorie counts on everything. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Right, right. 

 

Virginia Sole-Smith: And we also now, because that happened about ten years ago, we have lots of data showing that they didn’t do anything to improve anyone’s health. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Right. 

 

Virginia Sole-Smith: But I’m sure they triggered a lot of disordered eating for lots of people. So we know this is not a health promoting tactic, but it is one of those window dressing things. Right. It costs them nothing to do it. And they can feel like they’re doing something healthy for everybody. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Virginia Sole-Smith: Without really investigating the underlying harm. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: How do you think she should deal with this since she can’t advocate for it on a structural level, like how do you navigate this? Is it something that she just has to deal with herself? 

 

Virginia Sole-Smith: So I had two thoughts I mean, I understand she’s saying she’s not in a great position to advocate for change. But I am curious, since it’s a large institution, if there is a DEI group, you know, one of those employee resource groups, this would be a great issue to bring to their attention. I think DEI is slowly increasingly understanding that they need to include anti-fat bias on the issues they work on and think about what a weight inclusive workplace would look like. So this would be a great thing to bring to their attention and maybe it’s something they can engage on. So that’s one like maybe less scary way to think about larger advocacy. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Totally. Yeah, that’s a great idea. 

 

Virginia Sole-Smith: My other thought is like, can you start a lunch club with some friends, some work friends who also hate this and make your table the like cool kids, anti-diet table where like you’re going to get through the cafeteria line and you’re going to see all those numbers or whatever, but you’re going to at least know when you sit down to eat lunch, nobody is going to be, you know, comparing container weights [laughs]—

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah, yeah, yeah. 

 

Virginia Sole-Smith: —or calories or, you know, that like, that table will be a safe space to eat. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Right. 

 

Virginia Sole-Smith: It’ll help you tune out some of the noise a little bit if you know that, like the people you’re eating lunch with are on the same page, and then you can also talk about it and vent about it and that’s helpful. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. Like yesterday, Melody, our producer sent me a text with a photo of an incredibly good looking brownie, and she’s like, if I were in that cafeteria, this would cost, like, $15. [laughs] 

 

Virginia Sole-Smith: Yeah. Yeah.  

 

Anne Helen Petersen: And that we are in the support system, we’re like, yeah, that’s because it’s really good, right? 

 

Virginia Sole-Smith: Yeah, exactly. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Instead of like, oh, my gosh, can you believe that you’re having a brownie for for lunch? What would be your advice to someone who maybe is listening to the show, who is higher up in an organization and has some say in the planning of these sorts of like what the cafeteria looks like, what the offerings are, because, you know, people do make these decisions that are not made outside of the company. 

 

Virginia Sole-Smith: Right, right. Well, please take calorie counts off menus for the love of God like we just don’t need them. This is not helpful. But I think even beyond that, there’s a lot of ways to think about how weight inclusive your workplace is, things like chairs. You know, if you have a lot of desk chairs and cafeteria chairs that have a low weight threshold, that have like arms that are going to cut into people’s sides, it’s a small thing, but it’s a huge thing. Like to go into a cafeteria and feel like you can’t sit in a chair, like that’s horrific. So, you know, thinking about the furniture designs, thinking about the art you show, certainly these kinds of posters, you know, that’s like healthy eating nonsense. Like, we can just take it all down, please. There’s a lot of subtle things you can do in the environment to really make it a safer space and a more welcoming space for people. And it’s you know, I think we’re starting to see these conversations in like universal design sorts of places. You know, how do people with different mobilities navigate a space like different body sizes, navigate spaces differently? 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Virginia do you have any other just overarching thoughts for this person? 

 

Virginia Sole-Smith: I also just want to say that even if you can’t like find camaraderie around this or support from coworkers, like just remember that your appetite is your own business and nobody’s appetite is the same. And it is totally normal and appropriate for you to be hungry for a different amount of food than someone else. I am someone who really loves a big lunch, like a multi-course lunch. My husband will like stuff a handful of turkey in his mouth and be fine. [laughter] And he is my coworker because we both work from home and so [laughter] I have some experience with needing to eat lunch with someone who has a different appetite than me at that time of day. And it’s like, this is so individual and it’s fine. And so like, please get the weight to lunch that is going to satisfy you and like, not leave you hangry in an hour. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yes. Also I just I have to come back to the fact that it shouldn’t be the cost, shouldn’t be related to weight. That’s just like such a backwards way of thinking of this. I don’t know. 

 

Virginia Sole-Smith: Yes. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Discounts for quote unquote, “healthy options.” 

 

Virginia Sole-Smith: Yeah, it’s healthy. It just means it doesn’t fill me up. [laughter] Like, if it just means low calorie, than that’s not healthy. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: It just means that you’re going to eat again from the snacks. 

 

Virginia Sole-Smith: Right, and now it’s just inconvenient because I have to plan to eat a second lunch because my first stupid, healthy lunch didn’t fill me up so. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yes. Exactly. 

 

Virginia Sole-Smith: Yeah. What makes a healthy lunch is so individual. 

 

[AD BREAK]

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Our last question is from someone who is worried about how her body size might be affecting her career growth. Let’s hear from Caroline. 

 

Caroline: I have a great boss who wants me to grow in my industry and is one that would happily support me if I were to look out to take the next step up in my field. To this end, he consistently offers me the chance to travel for conferences. The next one being in Vegas, I’m on the East Coast. This is wonderful. This is great. Except while I’m fat, the thought of travel to get there and back makes me feel nauseous. I want to take advantage of these opportunities and I want to expand my network and learn new things. But this feels like such a big barrier for me. I’m not sure how to share all this with my boss and have been quote unquote “joking” about how I don’t want to go because it would be too hot, which honestly is a factor that is tied to my weight. I’m uncomfortable in warm weather, but he made a comment today about how he can, quote, “only ask so many times,” how can I approach this conversation? 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: So, Virginia, do you know anyone who has had this worry or has had this sort of conversation successfully? 

 

Virginia Sole-Smith: I mean, I know every fat person dreads travel and airplane travel in particular flying while fat is trauma. That’s just what it is. I mean, as we’ve been talking about, all of our physical spaces are built for thin bodies. But airplanes are not just built for thin bodies. They’re built for like nobody’s bodies. [laughs]

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. Yeah. 

 

Virginia Sole-Smith: And so, I mean, even just getting to the airport, like, I haven’t found data on this, but it’s very talked about in the fat community that like you’re more likely to get an aggressive pat down at the screening, at the security screenings. They’re not going to be respectful of your body. There’s like more groping and, you know, that’s incredibly violating. And then you’re often forced to buy a second seat. They may or may not have a seat belt extender. They may or may not be assholes about giving you the seat belt extender and then the people sitting around you on the plane, it’s miserable. I want to send people to Stacy Bias, who is this amazing fat activist artist in Scotland, has flyingwhilefat.com. And there’s an amazing video that they animated that sort of walks through and has people’s stories about all of this. And it’s incredible it’s 6 minutes, but it’s incredibly informative and moving. And if you were a thin person who’s never thought about this, please watch it and understand the harm that you have probably caused by giving a look to the fat person sitting in the aisle with you. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Virginia Sole-Smith: You know, that’s really difficult way that anti-fat bias gets spread just like rampantly. So yeah this is a huge issue. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: So yeah, what advice would you give to someone who like this is actually inhibiting her work progress? I mean, I it’s not the same, but like I think there are lots of people who can’t travel for work for a lot of reasons, right? Like where mobility is a challenge either because of caretaking responsibilities, because of fear of flying, right? Like— 

 

Virginia Sole-Smith: Yeah. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: —just a lot of equally valid, all valid reasons. So how do you have this conversation? 

 

Virginia Sole-Smith: Well, there are some things that folks have figured out that help. And I think she could say to her boss, like, I do really want this. This is important to my career, but I’m going to need some support to make it doable for me to fly like TSA precheck will get you out of the body pat down. Maybe her company can pay for that. You know, flying her at least premium economy, if not business class. Or agreeing to pay for the second seat in economy and if they’re going to fly her economy. I mean, obviously, this is going to depend a lot on her company’s budget. And, you know, but if he’s really committed to her doing this, he should understand that he can’t just put her in a, you know, middle seat in 36D or whatever and like have that not be a traumatizing experience. So it’s probably really hard to talk about this because it feels like you’re asking for favors or special perks, but what you’re asking for is accommodations to make it possible for you to do your job. And you are entitled to have that again, because we’re in this murky area where this is not a protected class. It can be difficult to fight for this. But I think explaining to him this is what I would need. I need early boarding so I can get on and get my seatbelt extender and not be doing that when it’s crowded and people are mad at me for moving around. You know, Southwest Airlines is the one airline that has a pretty decent passenger of size policy where they will give you two seats and only charge you for one. So if it’s possible to fly Southwest, you can make that your preferred airline. Hotel rooms, like getting a king sized bed. Like, depending what we’re talking about, some people don’t fit into a full or a queen size, not very comfortably. You know, there’s concerns, again, about chairs and weight limits and stuff. So hopefully this boss  seems to really care about her and be invested in her. But he, I’m guessing, is not in a fat body and has never had to travel as a fat person and hasn’t considered what he’s really asking. And so, you know, asking for these accommodations may make sense. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: You know, I think that sometimes when we hear a conversation like this, we’re like, well, that’s not the fault of the company. That’s the individual’s responsibility to try to figure this out. And we’ve become so accustomed to thinking like, oh, well, then the people who can’t travel readily and without complaint, those people just aren’t going to advance in a company. And that’s just the way things are, right? So someone who has caregiving responsibilities, that’s just the way things are that they’re not going to advance within that institution. Someone who has a medical condition that makes it difficult to travel on an airplane or they’re not comfortable being in spaces where they they don’t know exactly where the bathroom is going to be and if it’s going to be private, like they just are not going to advance. And that’s the way things are. And so when someone suggests something like, oh, for this person, maybe we should think about these accommodations instead of being like, this is a really radical and cool way to think about how we can create equity in the workplace. The immediate response is like, no way. 

 

Virginia Sole-Smith: Yeah. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Like that’s inequitable to give it to that person instead of thinking it actually creates equity. Do you know what I’m saying here? 

 

Virginia Sole-Smith: Right. Yeah. I mean, this comes up all the time in the flying while fat conversation is, people will be like, well, of course you should pay for two sears. You’re just that’s just what you need to do. Like, how dare you be offended about that? And it’s like, okay, but have you ever been on a plane with, like a guy who’s, like, 6’3″ and like his knees are splayed out to the side and we are not like, could you just be shorter? [laughs] Like, could you just not like, could you buy two seats because you’re tall? Like, we don’t we don’t put this in like, you know, he’s going to recline his seat back and like because he has to you to be comfortable in the space. I’m not shaming tall men— 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah, yeah. [laughter] 

 

Virginia Sole-Smith: I’m fine with tall man. But we don’t hold tall men. We don’t give them dirty looks on the plane. You know, we don’t like to act like they’re repulsive for having dared to think they could be on an airplane. We’re like, oh yeah, of course that guy needs the aisle seat. He’s got those long legs. He’s got to get some space. Like, why aren’t we giving fat people the same respect and dignity? 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah, and I think so. If anyone, like, reacted to Virginia’s answer as like that seems like asking a lot, I think to just sit with that reaction and think about. Here’s the workplace that I am expecting. If I reject that out of hand. 

 

Virginia Sole-Smith: Yeah. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Right? Like I want a workplace where the only people who are welcome, the only people who fit in, the only people who really advance are people in smaller bodies no matter what. Right. And that’s my worldview. So specific advice for Caroline if she feels comfortable having this conversation with her boss about, you know, here are some accommodations that would make this a lot easier for me. The other thing, you know, she she mentioned Vegas in particular. I wonder if there’s like other opportunities for work, advancement in Richmond, that sort of thing that don’t feel as daunting as Vegas. 

 

Virginia Sole-Smith: Mm hmm. Yeah. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: There’s something about Vegas, just like the apparatus of Vegas and and the incredible intense heat of Vegas that I think would probably make this feel a lot more intimidating then if there was like maybe something that is only one flight closer to home, a shorter flight, just a space that maybe feels less challenging to start with, that could be like a way to broach this conversation. The other thing that I will point out is a lot of times on the show we talk about how diversity in management is so incredibly important because it allows managers to have that sort of empathy with with the people that they manage. There’s no way that everyone can always have a manager who is exactly like them. But if you have a manager who has  different experiences. They also oftentimes are more empathetic to other different experiences. [laughs] 

 

Virginia Sole-Smith: Right yes. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: And so I think that that diversity and management also includes people in different sizes of bodies. 

 

Virginia Sole-Smith: Yeah. I mean, it really speaks to the whole systemic issue here that like we said, you know, if that people aren’t getting the same advancement opportunities, they’re getting the interviews they’re dealing with, the pay discrepancy is like, Caroline, you advancing is really important for all of us.[laughter] Because we need you know, we need you to become a manager, our boss or director or whatever. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Right. 

 

Virginia Sole-Smith: And be able to work on this. But yeah, I really feel you on the heat thing. And maybe there’s a conference in a colder climate that you can go [laughs] to instead of this Vegas thing. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yes. 

 

Virginia Sole-Smith: I mean, god, like, just who wants to go to Vegas? I’m sorry, Vegas. [laughter]

 

Anne Helen Petersen: I have only going to Vegas to report. And it is an incredible experience to go there, not to have fun, just like to be in that space of someone not having fun. And I think it’s similar to people who, like, choose to live in Vegas. They’re like, there’s just it’s a different experience. 

 

Virginia Sole-Smith: Right, right. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: But yes, I think that like, there’s just so much like this is how you’re supposed to be and act and behave when you’re in Vegas. And if you were going to Cleveland, it might feel a little bit different. 

 

Virginia Sole-Smith: May not be. Oh, one other thought is you can also do if you do end up having to go to Vegas, I am sure if you google like fat in Vegas you will find something useful Reddit threads like I know there’s a lot of great resources out there for like being fat at Disneyworld or being, you know, like these big tourist destinations. Other fat folks have been there and they have like figured out what works and what doesn’t work and what to ask for. And so just arming yourself with that information can feel, can take a lot of the stress off. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Do you know of any authors or podcasters or bloggers or anything that talk a lot about being fat in the workplace? Is there any resource that you would point people to? 

 

Virginia Sole-Smith: I would definitely point people to Ragan Chastain. She is an incredible resource on all things fat activism, that has a particular focus on fat activism and health care, and that overlaps with a lot of workplace stuff. And she’s also written quite a bit about like flying while fat and you know, other logistical sorts of things. Aubrey Gordon’s work, of course, is tremendously useful. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: I really appreciate Aubrey’s work too, because she talks all the time about fatphobia, but also too about her experience in workplaces all the time.  She is one of my favorite people just on workplace culture, specifically nonprofit or passion job cultures. 

 

Virginia Sole-Smith: Yes, yes. [laughs]

 

Anne Helen Petersen: So it’s just a really great kind of intersection, even when it’s not explicit, like she’s just a great resource for that. 

 

Virginia Sole-Smith: You know, Roxane Gay too, has written and talked quite a bit about her experiences of like traveling, doing, speaking gigs, all of that as a fat person. And yeah, I think there’s a lot you can get out of her work on this stuff and if you want to look, this is more of a general thing, probably a little less for Caroline. But if you want to understand a little more about the whole legal side of this that we’ve been talking about, and like when weight discrimination cases have a chance and when they don’t Sondra Solovay’s work, which if you Google her, you’ll find like lots of articles and books Tipping the Scales, I think is her book. It’s an older one, but it’ll give you a really good, like, base of understanding of these issues. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Amazing. Virginia, I cannot thank you enough for coming on the show today. I hope we have you come back again to talk about everything. Where can people find your work? What’s the best place? 

 

Virginia Sole-Smith: Burnt Toast is at VirginiaSoleSmith.Substack.com and I am on Instagram, Twitter and TikTok sort of as @v_solesmith. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Thank you again. This has been great. 

 

Virginia Sole-Smith: Thank you, this was awesome. [music break]

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Thanks so much to Virginia Sole-Smith for joining me today. And thanks to you for listening to Work Appropriate. If you’ve got a workplace quandary, you want help figuring out, get in touch. You can find submission guidelines at WorkAppropriate.com, or send a voice memo with your question to Work Appropriate at Crooked.com. Some of the episodes we’re working on are about woes specific to academia, setting boundaries, and we’re doing another round of big office feelings. We’d love to hear from you. Work Appropriate is a Crooked Media production. I’m Anne Helen Peterson, your host. Our executive producers are Kendra James and Sandy Girard. Melody Rowell is our producer and editor. Alison Falzetta is our development producer. Music is composed by Chanell Crichlow. Additional production support from Ari Schwartz and a special thanks to Katie Long and Sarah Geismer. You can follow me on Twitter @AnneHelen or on Instagram @AnneHelenPetersen. You can sign up for my newsletter at AnneHelen.substack.com. We’re taking next week off to rest and eat a lot of pie. We’ll be back in January with an episode we’re calling: New Year. New Job. New Me. Happy holidays.