Diet Culture Is Everywhere -- Even In The Workplace

by Carole Knits
Originally Published: 
Let's Get Real: Women working in government
Hill Street Studios/Getty

I went to a meeting recently for women in government. It was attended mostly by women who work in government, which I do, but I attended in my role as an elected woman in government, not as an employee. The meeting was held in a beautiful old Town Hall overlooking a classic New England style Town Common. There was a large group of women in attendance and the meeting consisted of an opening discussion on creating good habits, followed by two speakers meant to inspire us with their stories. The speakers, one a judge and one a retired school administrator, were excellent. They talked about breaking the glass ceiling, they talked about the pressures of being a working mother and juggling career opportunities and family commitments. They were relatable and engaging and inspiring.

The opening discussion, on the other hand, failed completely. And here’s why:

Despite the concept being a valid one — who doesn’t want to promote better habits? — the presentation of the concept was completely devoid of work and career habits. While that would be fine at a gathering of women for socializing, this was a gathering for women working in government. I expected empowering and motivating discussion. I expected ideas about how to get shit done at work, how to manage my time efficiently, how to be strong and empowered in a man’s world.

Rather than any of that, though, every example they provided on creating habits was related to weight management or weight loss. They talked about sleeping in your gym clothes so that you will go to the gym as soon as you wake up. They talked about requesting a takeout container at a restaurant and putting half of your meal in the container as soon as it arrives at the table. They talked about exercise buddies and weight loss apps to track food and using dry shampoo to avoid having to do your hair and on and on. While I’m certain their intentions were good, it felt like an epic fail to me.

I couldn’t help but thinking, if this were a room full of men talking about good habits they would not be talking about weight loss. They would not be concerned about how they look in a particular dress or how to make time to do their hair after they finish at the gym and are on their way to work. Instead, they would be talking about ways to tackle challenging assignments. They would be talking about using good habits to secure promotions. They would be brainstorming about actions to take and ways to get ahead. And they would order a cheeseburger at lunch and not a salad.

I’ve been considering my feelings about this a lot lately. I’ve started a blog post about this more than once and then deleted it because this is a sensitive subject. But today I’m going for it. It ties in with some work I’m doing on body acceptance and vulnerability and also the challenges I face being the only woman on a three-member elected board. And it makes me think that women need to rise up and lean in and change the way we’re communicating with each other. I mean, there I was in a room full of strong women leaders, and the women in charge were talking about dieting. In a moment when the audience was entirely female. In a moment when there would be no mansplaining, no competition to be heard or get your ideas across, no criticism for showing emotion or using the wrong tone of voice, they chose to talk about body image.

Sigh. We can do so much better than this. We deserve so much more than this.

Friends, we need a call to arms. We need to stop squandering our opportunities when we’re together. We need to not shame each other because of weight or size. We need to break the cycle of internalized sexism and stop believing that successful women must be skinny, that strong women are bossy and ruthless, and feminists are man-hating bitches. We need to stop judging each other for how we look and what we eat. Instead, we need to support each other, we need to be vulnerable with each other, and we need to become role models and mentors for the next generation of women. I think we do that by demonstrating leadership, by advancing in our careers, and by being our authentic selves.

I’m taking back my power. I hope you’ll join me.

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