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I thought I knew how to resist diet culture. Then my boss commented on my clothes and eating habits.

Nandini Maharaj   

I thought I knew how to resist diet culture. Then my boss commented on my clothes and eating habits.
  • I've been fat-shamed for years by family members, classmates, and my now former boss.
  • My boss once asked me where she could buy clothes after she had put on some weight.

The first time I remember $4 was at my dad's funeral. A friend of his had brought over pastries with pink frosting. I wasn't hungry. But I kept eating them, one after the other, hoping no one would notice. Everyone was probably too consumed by grief to say anything. Or maybe it was because I was skinny, and seeing me indulge myself in this sugary bliss was the least of their worries.

Then, as puberty struck, the fat deposits started winding their way to my chest. I didn't understand why I needed to hide my breasts until an unenlightened adult told me, "Pull up your shirt, for God's sake."

I was 10 years old. It was midsummer, and I was wearing a powder-blue tank top with ruching at the neckline.

"We need to get her a bra," my uncle said aloud as my aunt and cousins piled into the car.

I looked down at my chest, confused since I was wearing an A-cup bra and wondering why God or my uncle would concern themselves with my boobs.

The answer came to me in 10th grade when my sister's close guy friend called me "fat" repeatedly. I was a size 4, not a 0, so I could understand his contempt for my body.

Other times, high-school boys were a bit more creative with their insults, saying, "Hey, Oprah, Oprah," as I stepped out of the girls' locker room. Normally, a comparison to the visionary talk-show host would be flattering, but I figured they weren't likening me to her because she's a media mogul.

"It means they think you're fat," my friend told me when the boys were out of earshot.

Her explanation, though lacking tact, would prove a shrewd observation some 15 years later when I started a new job. My now former boss approached me and said, "I've been meaning to ask, where do you shop for clothes?" Before I could answer, she went on to tell me she had put on weight after not exercising for months.

"Nothing fits me anymore besides sweatpants, so I thought you could suggest some places to shop," she said.

One time, she spotted me eating spaghetti at my desk and told me she didn't eat "such heavy dishes" at lunch. Over the next few weeks, she continued with remarks about her rapid weight gain in between asking me personal questions about my age, family life, and what I ate for dinner.

Being in my 30s, I thought I would know how to put a stop to the behavior, reminiscent of the taunts I endured in high school and the embarrassment I had felt in my powder-blue tank top. When I worked as a therapist, I coached women on how to respond to someone commenting on their appearance.

But I couldn't say anything. I responded the same way as I did as a child and teenager: smiling, brushing it aside, and accepting someone else's assessment of my physical flaws.

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," $4, a New York City therapist and Fortune 500 executive coach, told Insider. In everyday situations, fat-shaming can look like commenting on a person's weight, bullying or disrespecting them, or discriminating against them based on their body type.

Sometimes people don't come right out and call you fat. Instead, they appeal to sentiments about mindful eating and workplace wellness when you don't fit into their mold of a healthy and thriving workforce. They label foods as "good" or "bad" along with the people who consume them.

In other words, they subscribe to "diet culture," "a societal construct that highlights eating and exercising to achieve an ideal physical shape, which allows for more praise and acceptance," Appleton said, adding: "This is not to be confused with nutrition and intentional movement, which promotes exercise and sustenance as a way to live healthier."

In my boss' case, she had already made up her mind about me based on my appearance. She saw what I was eating for lunch a whopping total of one time in the eight weeks we worked together and made it her mission 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 unless your physical body weight has something to do with your ability to get your job done, it should be a nonfactor," Appleton said.

To be fair, my former boss might have been concerned about the added stress on an aging elevator system or the potential for extra wear and tear on the carpet as I lumbered back and forth between my desk and the copy room. I wasn't hauling equipment or modeling swimwear. But seriously, even while I tried to empathize with her insecurities, I realized it was unfair of her to pile onto mine.

Appleton said there's always a risk when trying to hold a toxic person accountable for their behavior, especially when they're in a position of power. If you draw a line at them discussing your appearance, they could fire you or make your time at work miserable. But whatever you decide to do, no one should "punish you for having healthy conversations about boundaries, and if they do, that may tell you everything you need to know about the person, job, and workplace culture," she added.

What can you say to someone who is fat-shaming you?

Sometimes people aren't aware that conversations about weight are "not appropriate or well received," Appleton said, so learning that they've crossed a line might be new information for them. If their remarks are making you uncomfortable, you can try saying, "While I appreciate the attempt to try to look out for my health and wellness, this conversation is not landing for me in a way that is helpful," she said.

In other situations, you might need to be a bit more direct with the person by requesting a change in their behavior. Depending on your relationship with the person and how comfortable you feel, putting an immediate stop to the behavior might be necessary.

If the thought of confronting someone makes you sick to your stomach, you're not alone. While I didn't feel safe standing up to my boss, I finally managed to tell my uncle that I didn't want to talk about my weight or eating habits. It might not seem like much, but the girl in the powder-blue tank top would tell you otherwise.

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